Another classic approach to the assessment of working memory is the span task, in which a series of items is presented to the subject for repetition, transcription, or recognition. The longest series that can be reproduced accurately is called the forward span and is a measure of working memory capacity. The ability to reproduce the series in reverse order is tested in backward span tasks and is a more stringent test of working memory capacity and perhaps other working memory functions as well. The digit span task from the Wechsler (1981) IQ test was used in four studies of stimulant effects on working memory. One study showed that d-AMP increased digit span (de Wit et al., 2002), and three found no effects of d-AMP or MPH (Oken, Kishiyama, & Salinsky, 1995; Schmedtje, Oman, Letz, & Baker, 1988; Silber, Croft, Papafotiou, & Stough, 2006). A spatial span task, in which subjects must retain and reproduce the order in which boxes in a scattered spatial arrangement change color, was used by Elliott et al. (1997) to assess the effects of MPH on working memory. For subjects in the group receiving placebo first, MPH increased spatial span. However, for the subjects who received MPH first, there was a nonsignificant opposite trend. The group difference in drug effect is not easily explained. The authors noted that the subjects in the first group performed at an overall lower level, and so, this may be another manifestation of the trend for a larger enhancement effect for less able subjects.
On the other hand, sometimes you’ll feel a great cognitive boost as soon as you take a pill. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. I find, for example, that modafinil makes you more of what you already are. That means if you are already kind of a dick and you take modafinil, you might act like a really big dick and regret it. It certainly happened to me! I like to think that I’ve done enough hacking of my brain that I’ve gotten over that programming… and that when I use nootropics they help me help people.
“Smart Drugs” are chemical substances that enhance cognition and memory or facilitate learning. However, within this general umbrella of “things you can eat that make you smarter,” there are many variations as far as methods of action within the body, perceptible (and measurable) effects, potential for use and abuse, and the spillover impact on the body’s non-cognitive processes.

Some smart drugs can be found in health food stores; others are imported or are drugs that are intended for other disorders such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. There are many Internet web sites, books, magazines and newspaper articles detailing the supposed effects of smart drugs. There are also plenty of advertisements and mail-order businesses that try to sell "smart drugs" to the public. However, rarely do these businesses or the popular press report results that show the failure of smart drugs to improve memory or learning. Rather, they try to show that their products have miraculous effects on the brain and can improve mental functioning. Wouldn't it be easy to learn something by "popping a pill" or drinking a soda laced with a smart drug? This would be much easier than taking the time to study. Feeling dull? Take your brain in for a mental tune up by popping a pill!
The information learned in the tasks reviewed so far was explicit, declarative, and consistent within each experiment. In contrast, probabilistic and procedural learning tasks require the subject to gradually extract a regularity in the associations among stimuli from multiple presentations in which the correct associations are only presented some of the time, with incorrect associations also presented. Findings are mixed in these tasks. Breitenstein and colleagues (2004, 2006) showed subjects drawings of common objects accompanied by nonsense word sounds in training sessions that extended over multiple days. They found faster learning of the to-be-learned, higher probability pairings between sessions (consistent with enhanced retention over longer delays). Breitenstein et al. (2004) found that this enhancement remained a year later. Schlösser et al. (2009) tested subjects’ probabilistic learning ability in the context of a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, comparing performance and brain activation with MPH and placebo. MPH did not affect learning performance as measured by accuracy. Although subjects were overall faster in responding on MPH, this difference was independent of the difficulty of the learning task, and the authors accordingly attributed it to response processes rather than learning.
Modafinil is not addictive, but there may be chances of drug abuse and memory impairment. This can manifest in people who consume it to stay up for way too long; as a result, this would probably make them ill. Long-term use of Modafinil may reduce plasticity and may harm the memory of some individuals. Hence, it is sold only on prescription by a qualified physician.
The word “nootropic” was coined in 1972 by a Romanian scientist, Corneliu Giurgea, who combined the Greek words for “mind” and “bending.” Caffeine and nicotine can be considered mild nootropics, while prescription Ritalin, Adderall and Provigil (modafinil, a drug for treating narcolepsy) lie at the far end of the spectrum when prescribed off-label as cognitive enhancers. Even microdosing of LSD is increasingly viewed as a means to greater productivity.

These are the most popular nootropics available at the moment. Most of them are the tried-and-tested and the benefits you derive from them are notable (e.g. Guarana). Others are still being researched and there haven’t been many human studies on these components (e.g. Piracetam). As always, it’s about what works for you and everyone has a unique way of responding to different nootropics.
As discussed in my iodine essay (FDA adverse events), iodine is a powerful health intervention as it eliminates cretinism and improves average IQ by a shocking magnitude. If this effect were possible for non-fetuses in general, it would be the best nootropic ever discovered, and so I looked at it very closely. Unfortunately, after going through ~20 experiments looking for ones which intervened with iodine post-birth and took measures of cognitive function, my meta-analysis concludes that: the effect is small and driven mostly by one outlier study. Once you are born, it’s too late. But the results could be wrong, and iodine might be cheap enough to take anyway, or take for non-IQ reasons. (This possibility was further weakened for me by an August 2013 blood test of TSH which put me at 3.71 uIU/ml, comfortably within the reference range of 0.27-4.20.)
One item always of interest to me is sleep; a stimulant is no good if it damages my sleep (unless that’s what it is supposed to do, like modafinil) - anecdotes and research suggest that it does. Over the past few days, my Zeo sleep scores continued to look normal. But that was while not taking nicotine much later than 5 PM. In lieu of a different ml measurer to test my theory that my syringe is misleading me, I decide to more directly test nicotine’s effect on sleep by taking 2ml at 10:30 PM, and go to bed at 12:20; I get a decent ZQ of 94 and I fall asleep in 16 minutes, a bit below my weekly average of 19 minutes. The next day, I take 1ml directly before going to sleep at 12:20; the ZQ is 95 and time to sleep is 14 minutes.
Though their product includes several vitamins including Bacopa, it seems to be missing the remaining four of the essential ingredients: DHA Omega 3, Huperzine A, Phosphatidylserine and N-Acetyl L-Tyrosine. It missed too many of our key criteria and so we could not endorse this product of theirs. Simply, if you don’t mind an insufficient amount of essential ingredients for improved brain and memory function and an inclusion of unwanted ingredients – then this could be a good fit for you.
A 100mg dose of caffeine (half of a No-Doz or one cup of strong coffee) with 200mg of L-theanine is what the nootropics subreddit recommends in their beginner’s FAQ, and many nootropic sellers, like Peak Nootropics, suggest the same. In my own experiments, I used a pre-packaged combination from Nootrobox called Go Cubes. They’re essentially chewable coffee cubes (not as gross as it sounds) filled with that same beginner dose of caffeine, L-theanine, as well as a few B vitamins thrown into the mix. After eating an entire box of them (12 separate servings—not all at once), I can say eating them made me feel more alert and energetic, but less jittery than my usual three cups of coffee every day. I noticed enough of a difference in the past two weeks that I’ll be looking into getting some L-theanine supplements to take with my daily coffee.
Long-term use is different, and research-backed efficacy is another question altogether. The nootropic market is not regulated, so a company can make claims without getting in trouble for making those claims because they’re not technically selling a drug. This is why it’s important to look for well-known brands and standardized nootropic herbs where it’s easier to calculate the suggested dose and be fairly confident about what you’re taking.
Barbaresi WJ, Katusic SK, Colligan RC, Weaver AL, Jacobsen SJ. Modifiers of long-term school outcomes for children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: Does treatment with stimulant medication make a difference? Results from a population-based study. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. 2007;28:274–287. doi: 10.1097/DBP.0b013e3180cabc28. [PubMed] [CrossRef]
“Such an informative and inspiring read! Insight into how optimal nutrients improved Cavin’s own brain recovery make this knowledge-filled read compelling and relatable. The recommendations are easy to understand as well as scientifically-founded – it’s not another fad diet manual. The additional tools and resources provided throughout make it possible for anyone to integrate these enhancements into their nutritional repertoire. Looking forward to more from Cavin and Feed a Brain!!!!!!”
Some critics argue that Modafinil is an expression of that, a symptom of a new 24/7 work routine. But what if the opposite is true? Let’s say you could perform a task in significantly less time than usual. You could then use the rest of your time differently, spending it with family, volunteering, or taking part in a leisure activity. And imagine that a drug helped you focus on clearing your desk and inbox before leaving work. Wouldn’t that help you relax once you get home?

It may also be necessary to ask not just whether a drug enhances cognition, but in whom. Researchers at the University of Sussex have found that nicotine improved performance on memory tests in young adults who carried one variant of a particular gene but not in those with a different version. In addition, there are already hints that the smarter you are, the less smart drugs will do for you. One study found that modafinil improved performance in a group of students whose mean IQ was 106, but not in a group with an average of 115.
I do recommend a few things, like modafinil or melatonin, to many adults, albeit with misgivings about any attempt to generalize like that. (It’s also often a good idea to get powders, see the appendix.) Some of those people are helped; some have told me that they tried and the suggestion did little or nothing. I view nootropics as akin to a biological lottery; one good discovery pays for all. I forge on in the hopes of further striking gold in my particular biology. Your mileage will vary. All you have to do, all you can do is to just try it. Most of my experiences were in my 20s as a right-handed 5’11 white male weighing 190-220lbs, fitness varying over time from not-so-fit to fairly fit. In rough order of personal effectiveness weighted by costs+side-effects, I rank them as follows:
Your mileage will vary. There are so many parameters and interactions in the brain that any of them could be the bottleneck or responsible pathway, and one could fall prey to the common U-shaped dose-response curve (eg. Yerkes-Dodson law; see also Chemistry of the adaptive mind & de Jongh et al 2007) which may imply that the smartest are those who benefit least23 but ultimately they all cash out in a very few subjective assessments like energetic or motivated, with even apparently precise descriptions like working memory or verbal fluency not telling you much about what the nootropic actually did. It’s tempting to list the nootropics that worked for you and tell everyone to go use them, but that is merely generalizing from one example (and the more nootropics - or meditation styles, or self-help books, or getting things done systems - you try, the stronger the temptation is to evangelize). The best you can do is read all the testimonials and studies and use that to prioritize your list of nootropics to try. You don’t know in advance which ones will pay off and which will be wasted. You can’t know in advance. And wasted some must be; to coin a Umeshism: if all your experiments work, you’re just fooling yourself. (And the corollary - if someone else’s experiments always work, they’re not telling you everything.)
Noopept was developed in Russia in the 90s, and is alleged to improve learning. This drug modifies acetylcholine and AMPA receptors, increasing the levels of these neurotransmitters in the brain. This is believed to account for reports of its efficacy as a 'study drug'. Noopept in the UK is illegal, as the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act made it an offence to sell this drug in the UK - selling it could even lead to 7 years in prison. To enhance its nootropic effects, some users have been known to snort Noopept.
However, they fell short in several categories. The key issue with their product is that it does not contain DHA Omega 3 and the other essential vitamins and nutrients needed to support the absorption of Huperzine A and Phosphatidylserine. Without having DHA Omega 3 it will not have an essential piece to maximum effectiveness. This means that you would need to take a separate pill of DHA Omega 3 and several other essential vitamins to ensure you are able to reach optimal memory support. They also are still far less effective than our #1 pick’s complete array of the 3 essential brain supporting ingredients and over 30 supporting nutrients, making their product less effective.
Ashwagandha has been shown to improve cognition and motivation, by means of reducing anxiety [46]. It has been shown to significantly reduce stress and anxiety. As measured by cortisol levels, anxiety symptoms were reduced by around 30% compared to a placebo-controlled (double-blind) group [47]. And it may have neuroprotective effects and improve sleep, but these claims are still being researched.
Two increasingly popular options are amphetamines and methylphenidate, which are prescription drugs sold under the brand names Adderall and Ritalin. In the United States, both are approved as treatments for people with ADHD, a behavioural disorder which makes it hard to sit still or concentrate. Now they’re also widely abused by people in highly competitive environments, looking for a way to remain focused on specific tasks.
Table 3 lists the results of 24 tasks from 22 articles on the effects of d-AMP or MPH on learning, assessed by a variety of declarative and nondeclarative memory tasks. Results for the 24 tasks are evenly split between enhanced learning and null results, but they yield a clearer pattern when the nature of the learning task and the retention interval are taken into account. In general, with single exposures of verbal material, no benefits are seen immediately following learning, but later recall and recognition are enhanced. Of the six articles reporting on memory performance (Camp-Bruno & Herting, 1994; Fleming, Bigelow, Weinberger, & Goldberg, 1995; Rapoport, Busbaum, & Weingartner, 1980; Soetens, D’Hooge, & Hueting, 1993; Unrug, Coenen, & van Luijtelaar, 1997; Zeeuws & Soetens 2007), encompassing eight separate experiments, only one of the experiments yielded significant memory enhancement at short delays (Rapoport et al., 1980). In contrast, retention was reliably enhanced by d-AMP when subjects were tested after longer delays, with recall improved after 1 hr through 1 week (Soetens, Casaer, D’Hooge, & Hueting, 1995; Soetens et al., 1993; Zeeuws & Soetens, 2007). Recognition improved after 1 week in one study (Soetens et al., 1995), while another found recognition improved after 2 hr (Mintzer & Griffiths, 2007). The one long-term memory study to examine the effects of MPH found a borderline-significant reduction in errors when subjects answered questions about a story (accompanied by slides) presented 1 week before (Brignell, Rosenthal, & Curran, 2007).
“I enjoyed this book. It was full of practical information. It was easy to understand. I implemented some of the ideas in the book and they have made a positive impact for me. Not only is this book a wealth of knowledge it helps you think outside the box and piece together other ideas to research and helps you understand more about TBI and the way food might help you mitigate symptoms.”
For obvious reasons, it’s difficult for researchers to know just how common the “smart drug” or “neuro-enhancing” lifestyle is. However, a few recent studies suggest cognition hacking is appealing to a growing number of people. A survey conducted in 2016 found that 15% of University of Oxford students were popping pills to stay competitive, a rate that mirrored findings from other national surveys of UK university students. In the US, a 2014 study found that 18% of sophomores, juniors, and seniors at Ivy League colleges had knowingly used a stimulant at least once during their academic career, and among those who had ever used uppers, 24% said they had popped a little helper on eight or more occasions. Anecdotal evidence suggests that pharmacological enhancement is also on the rise within the workplace, where modafinil, which treats sleep disorders, has become particularly popular.
“In the hospital and ICU struggles, this book and Cavin’s experience are golden, and if we’d have had this book’s special attention to feeding tube nutrition, my son would be alive today sitting right here along with me saying it was the cod liver oil, the fish oil, and other nutrients able to be fed to him instead of the junk in the pharmacy tubes, that got him past the liver-test results, past the internal bleeding, past the brain difficulties controlling so many response-obstacles back then. Back then, the ‘experts’ in rural hospitals were unwilling to listen, ignored my son’s unexpected turnaround when we used codliver oil transdermally on his sore skin, threatened instead to throw me out, but Cavin has his own proof and his accumulated experience in others’ journeys. Cavin’s boxed areas of notes throughout the book on applying the brain nutrient concepts in feeding tubes are powerful stuff, details to grab onto and run with… hammer them!
“There seems to be a growing percentage of intellectual workers in Silicon Valley and Wall Street using nootropics. They are akin to intellectual professional athletes where the stakes and competition is high,” says Geoffrey Woo, the CEO and co-founder of nutrition company HVMN, which produces a line of nootropic supplements. Denton agrees. “I think nootropics just make things more and more competitive. The ease of access to Chinese, Russian intellectual capital in the United States, for example, is increasing. And there is a willingness to get any possible edge that’s available.”
Common environmental toxins – pesticides, for example – cause your brain to release glutamate (a neurotransmitter). Your brain needs glutamate to function, but when you create too much of it it becomes toxic and starts killing neurons. Oxaloacetate protects rodents from glutamate-induced brain damage.[17] Of course, we need more research to determine whether or not oxaloacetate has the same effect on humans.