“You know how they say that we can only access 20% of our brain?” says the man who offers stressed-out writer Eddie Morra a fateful pill in the 2011 film Limitless. “Well, what this does, it lets you access all of it.” Morra is instantly transformed into a superhuman by the fictitious drug NZT-48. Granted access to all cognitive areas, he learns to play the piano in three days, finishes writing his book in four, and swiftly makes himself a millionaire.

Most of the most solid fish oil results seem to meliorate the effects of age; in my 20s, I’m not sure they are worth the cost. But I would probably resume fish oil in my 30s or 40s when aging really becomes a concern. So the experiment at most will result in discontinuing for a decade. At $X a year, that’s a net present value of sum $ map (\n -> 70 / (1 + 0.05)^n) [1..10] = $540.5.

With the right lifestyle and the right stack of supplements and nootropics, you can enjoy enhanced mental clarity, easier flow, and better vision. The best nootropics for your needs will depend on how much you want to spend, how often you want to take them, and what you want to take them for. Nutritional supplements should be taken daily, for the cumulative effect, but Smart drugs such as noopept and modafinil are usually taken on an as-needed basis, for those times when you are aiming for hyperfocus, better clarity, and better recall, or the ability to process a huge amount of incoming visual information quickly and accurately and to pick up on details that you might otherwise miss.
ADHD medication sales are growing rapidly, with annual revenues of $12.9 billion in 2015. These drugs can be obtained legally by those who have a prescription, which also includes those who have deliberately faked the symptoms in order to acquire the desired medication. (According to an experiment published in 2010, it is difficult for medical practitioners to separate those who feign the symptoms from those who actually have them.) That said, faking might not be necessary if a doctor deems your desired productivity level or your stress around a big project as reason enough to prescribe medication.
These are quite abstract concepts, though. There is a large gap, a grey area in between these concepts and our knowledge of how the brain functions physiologically – and it’s in this grey area that cognitive enhancer development has to operate. Amy Arnsten, Professor of Neurobiology at Yale Medical School, is investigating how the cells in the brain work together to produce our higher cognition and executive function, which she describes as “being able to think about things that aren’t currently stimulating your senses, the fundamentals of abstraction. This involves mental representations of our goals for the future, even if it’s the future in just a few seconds.”
Bought 5,000 IU soft-gels of Vitamin D-333 (Examine.com; FDA adverse events) because I was feeling very apathetic in January 2011 and not getting much done, even slacking on regular habits like Mnemosyne spaced repetition review or dual n-back or my Wikipedia watchlist. Introspecting, I was reminded of depression & dysthymia & seasonal affective disorder.
The experiment then is straightforward: cut up a fresh piece of gum, randomly select from it and an equivalent dry piece of gum, and do 5 rounds of dual n-back to test attention/energy & WM. (If it turns out to be placebo, I’ll immediately use the remaining active dose: no sense in wasting gum, and this will test whether nigh-daily use renders nicotine gum useless, similar to how caffeine may be useless if taken daily. If there’s 3 pieces of active gum left, then I wrap it very tightly in Saran wrap which is sticky and air-tight.) The dose will be 1mg or 1/4 a gum. I cut up a dozen pieces into 4 pieces for 48 doses and set them out to dry. Per the previous power analyses, 48 groups of DNB rounds likely will be enough for detecting small-medium effects (partly since we will be only looking at one metric - average % right per 5 rounds - with no need for multiple correction). Analysis will be one-tailed, since we’re looking for whether there is a clear performance improvement and hence a reason to keep using nicotine gum (rather than whether nicotine gum might be harmful).
With just 16 predictions, I can’t simply bin the predictions and say yep, that looks good. Instead, we can treat each prediction as equivalent to a bet and see what my winnings (or losses) were; the standard such proper scoring rule is the logarithmic rule which pretty simple: you earn the logarithm of the probability if you were right, and the logarithm of the negation if you were wrong; he who racks up the fewest negative points wins. We feed in a list and get back a number:
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I have elsewhere remarked on the apparent lack of benefit to taking multivitamins and the possible harm; so one might well wonder about a specific vitamin like vitamin D. However, a multivitamin is not vitamin D, so it’s no surprise that they might do different things. If a multivitamin had no vitamin D in it, or if it had vitamin D in different doses, or if it had substances which interacted with vitamin D (such as calcium), or if it had substances which had negative effects which outweigh the positive (such as vitamin A?), we could well expect differing results. In this case, all of those are true to varying extents. Some multivitamins I’ve had contained no vitamin D. The last multivitamin I was taking both contains vitamins used in the negative trials and also some calcium; the listed vitamin D dosage was a trivial ~400IU, while I take >10x as much now (5000IU).

Another moral concern is that these drugs — especially when used by Ivy League students or anyone in an already privileged position — may widen the gap between those who are advantaged and those who are not. But others have inverted the argument, saying these drugs can help those who are disadvantaged to reduce the gap. In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. Michael Anderson explains that he uses ADHD (a diagnosis he calls “made up”) as an excuse to prescribe Adderall to the children who really need it — children from impoverished backgrounds suffering from poor academic performance.

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.

“Love this book! Still reading and can’t wait to see what else I learn…and I am not brain injured! Cavin has already helped me to take steps to address my food sensitivity…seems to be helping and I am only on day 5! He has also helped me to help a family member who has suffered a stroke. Thank you Cavin, for sharing all your knowledge and hard work with us! This book is for anyone that wants to understand and implement good nutrition with all the latest research to back it up. Highly recommend!”

as scientific papers become much more accessible online due to Open Access, digitization by publishers, and cheap hosting for pirates, the available knowledge about nootropics increases drastically. This reduces the perceived risk by users, and enables them to educate themselves and make much more sophisticated estimates of risk and side-effects and benefits. (Take my modafinil page: in 1997, how could an average person get their hands on any of the papers available up to that point? Or get detailed info like the FDA’s prescribing guide? Even assuming they had a computer & Internet?)
As for newer nootropic drugs, there are unknown risks. “Piracetam has been studied for decades,” says cognitive neuroscientist Andrew Hill, the founder of a neurofeedback company in Los Angeles called Peak Brain Institute. But “some of [the newer] compounds are things that some random editor found in a scientific article, copied the formula down and sent it to China and had a bulk powder developed three months later that they’re selling. Please don’t take it, people!”
Last spring, 100 people showed up at a Peak Performance event where psychedelic psychologist James Fadiman said the key to unleashing the cognition-enhancing effects of LSD — which he listed as less anxiety, better focus, improved sleep, greater creativity — was all in the dosage. He recommended a tenth of a “party dose” — enough to give you “the glow” and enhance your cognitive powers without “the trip.”
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A number of different laboratory studies have assessed the acute effect of prescription stimulants on the cognition of normal adults. In the next four sections, we review this literature, with the goal of answering the following questions: First, do MPH (e.g., Ritalin) and d-AMP (by itself or as the main ingredient in Adderall) improve cognitive performance relative to placebo in normal healthy adults? Second, which cognitive systems are affected by these drugs? Third, how do the effects of the drugs depend on the individual using them?
“One of my favorites is 1, 3, 7-trimethylxanthine,” says Dr. Mark Moyad, director of preventive and alternative medicine at the University of Michigan. He says this chemical boosts many aspects of cognition by improving alertness. It’s also associated with some memory benefits. “Of course,” Moyad says, “1, 3, 7-trimethylxanthine goes by another name—caffeine.”
“I cannot overstate how grateful I am to Cavin for having published this book (and launched his podcast) before I needed it. I am 3.5 months out from a concussion and struggling to recover that final 25% or so of my brain and function. I fully believe that diet and lifestyle can help heal many of our ills, and this book gives me a path forward right now. Gavin’s story is inspiring, and his book is well-researched and clearly written. I am a food geek and so innately understand a lot of his advice — I’m not intimidated by the thought of drastically changing my diet because I know well how to shop and cook for myself — but I so appreciate how his gentle approach and stories about his own struggles with a new diet might help people who would find it all daunting. I am in week 2 of following his advice (and also Dr. Titus Chiu’s BrainSave plan). It’s not an instantaneous miracle cure, but I do feel better in several ways that just might be related to this diet.”
These days, nootropics are beginning to take their rightful place as a particularly powerful tool in the Neurohacker’s toolbox. After all, biochemistry is deeply foundational to neural function. Whether you are trying to fix the damage that is done to your nervous system by a stressful and toxic environment or support and enhance your neural functioning, getting the chemistry right is table-stakes. And we are starting to get good at getting it right. What’s changed?
I’ve been actively benefitting from nootropics since 1997, when I was struggling with cognitive performance and ordered almost $1000 worth of smart drugs from Europe (the only place where you could get them at the time). I remember opening the unmarked brown package and wondering whether the pharmaceuticals and natural substances would really enhance my brain.