Imagine a pill you can take to speed up your thought processes, boost your memory, and make you more productive. If it sounds like the ultimate life hack, you’re not alone. There are pills that promise that out there, but whether they work is complicated. Here are the most popular cognitive enhancers available, and what science actually says about them.
Using the 21mg patches, I cut them into quarters. What I would do is I would cut out 1 quarter, and then seal the two edges with scotch tape, and put the Pac-Man back into its sleeve. Then the next time I would cut another quarter, seal the new edge, and so on. I thought that 5.25mg might be too much since I initially found 4mg gum to be too much, but it’s delivered over a long time and it wound up feeling much more like 1mg gum used regularly. I don’t know if the tape worked, but I did not notice any loss of potency. I didn’t like them as much as the gum because I would sometimes forget to take off a patch at the end of the day and it would interfere with sleep, and because the onset is much slower and I find I need stimulants more for getting started than for ongoing stimulation so it is better to have gum which can be taken precisely when needed and start acting quickly. (One case where the patches were definitely better than the gum was long car trips where slow onset is fine, since you’re most alert at the start.) When I finally ran out of patches in June 2016 (using them sparingly), I ordered gum instead.
Analgesics Anesthetics General Local Anorectics Anti-ADHD agents Antiaddictives Anticonvulsants Antidementia agents Antidepressants Antimigraine agents Antiparkinson agents Antipsychotics Anxiolytics Depressants Entactogens Entheogens Euphoriants Hallucinogens Psychedelics Dissociatives Deliriants Hypnotics/Sedatives Mood Stabilizers Neuroprotectives Nootropics Neurotoxins Orexigenics Serenics Stimulants Wakefulness-promoting agents
When I spoke with Jesse Lawler, who hosts the podcast Smart Drugs Smarts, about breakthroughs in brain health and neuroscience, he was unsurprised to hear of my disappointing experience. Many nootropics are supposed to take time to build up in the body before users begin to feel their impact. But even then, says Barry Gordon, a neurology professor at the Johns Hopkins Medical Center, positive results wouldn’t necessarily constitute evidence of a pharmacological benefit.

Between midnight and 1:36 AM, I do four rounds of n-back: 50/39/30/55%. I then take 1/4th of the pill and have some tea. At roughly 1:30 AM, AngryParsley linked a SF anthology/novel, Fine Structure, which sucked me in for the next 3-4 hours until I finally finished the whole thing. At 5:20 AM, circumstances forced me to go to bed, still having only taken 1/4th of the pill and that determines this particular experiment of sleep; I quickly do some n-back: 29/20/20/54/42. I fall asleep in 13 minutes and sleep for 2:48, for a ZQ of 28 (a full night being ~100). I did not notice anything from that possible modafinil+caffeine interaction. Subjectively upon awakening: I don’t feel great, but I don’t feel like 2-3 hours of sleep either. N-back at 10 AM after breakfast: 25/54/44/38/33. These are not very impressive, but seem normal despite taking the last armodafinil ~9 hours ago; perhaps the 3 hours were enough. Later that day, at 11:30 PM (just before bed): 26/56/47.


Schroeder, Mann-Koepke, Gualtieri, Eckerman, and Breese (1987) assessed the performance of subjects on placebo and MPH in a game that allowed subjects to switch between two different sectors seeking targets to shoot. They did not observe an effect of the drug on overall level of performance, but they did find fewer switches between sectors among subjects who took MPH, and perhaps because of this, these subjects did not develop a preference for the more fruitful sector.


I bought 500g of piracetam (Examine.com; FDA adverse events) from Smart Powders (piracetam is one of the cheapest nootropics and SP was one of the cheapest suppliers; the others were much more expensive as of October 2010), and I’ve tried it out for several days (started on 7 September 2009, and used it steadily up to mid-December). I’ve varied my dose from 3 grams to 12 grams (at least, I think the little scoop measures in grams), taking them in my tea or bitter fruit juice. Cranberry worked the best, although orange juice masks the taste pretty well; I also accidentally learned that piracetam stings horribly when I got some on a cat scratch. 3 grams (alone) didn’t seem to do much of anything while 12 grams gave me a nasty headache. I also ate 2 or 3 eggs a day.
Of all the smart drugs in the world, Modafinil is most often touted as the best. It’s a powerful cognitive enhancer, great for boosting alertness, and has very few, mild side effects that most healthy users will never experience. And no, you can’t have any. Sorry. Modafinil is a prescription medication used to treat disorders like narcolepsy, shift work sleep disorder, and for those who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea.
If smart drugs are the synthetic cognitive enhancers, sleep, nutrition and exercise are the "natural" ones. But the appeal of drugs like Ritalin and modafinil lies in their purported ability to enhance brain function beyond the norm. Indeed, at school or in the workplace, a pill that enhanced the ability to acquire and retain information would be particularly useful when it came to revising and learning lecture material. But despite their increasing popularity, do prescription stimulants actually enhance cognition in healthy users?
Many people find it difficult to think clearly when they are stressed out. Ongoing stress leads to progressive mental fatigue and an eventual breakdown. Luckily, there are several ways that nootropics can help relieve stress. One is through the natural promotion of feelings of relaxation and the other is by replenishing the brain chemicals drained by stress.
The resurgent popularity of nootropics—an umbrella term for supplements that purport to boost creativity, memory, and cognitive ability—has more than a little to do with the recent Silicon Valley-induced obsession with disrupting literally everything, up to and including our own brains. But most of the appeal of smart drugs lies in the simplicity of their age-old premise: Take the right pill and you can become a better, smarter, as-yet-unrealized version of yourself—a person that you know exists, if only the less capable you could get out of your own way.

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.
The magnesium was neither randomized nor blinded and included mostly as a covariate to avoid confounding (the Noopept coefficient & t-value increase somewhat without the Magtein variable), so an OR of 1.9 is likely too high; in any case, this experiment was too small to reliably detect any effect (~26% power, see bootstrap power simulation in the magnesium section) so we can’t say too much.
Whole pill at 3 AM. I spend the entire morning and afternoon typing up a transcript of Earth in My Window. I tried taking a nap around 10 AM, but during the hour I was down, I had <5m of light sleep, the Zeo said. After I finished the transcript (~16,600 words with formatting), I was completely pooped and watched a bunch of Mobile Suit Gundam episodes, then I did Mnemosyne. The rest of the night was nothing to write home about either - some reading, movie watching, etc. Next time I will go back to split-doses and avoid typing up 110kB of text. On the positive side, this is the first trial I had available the average daily grade Mnemosyne 2.0 plugin. The daily averages all are 3-point-something (peaking at 3.89 and flooring at 3.59), so just graphing the past 2 weeks, the modafinil day, and recovery days: ▅█▅▆▄▆▄▃▅▄▁▄▄ ▁ ▂▄▄█. Not an impressive performance but there was a previous non-modafinil day just as bad, and I’m not too sure how important a metric this is; I must see whether future trials show similar underperformance. Nights: 11:29; 9:22; 8:25; 8:41.
Fitzgerald 2012 and the general absence of successful experiments suggests not, as does the general historic failure of scores of IQ-related interventions in healthy young adults. Of the 10 studies listed in the original section dealing with iodine in children or adults, only 2 show any benefit; in lieu of a meta-analysis, a rule of thumb would be 20%, but both those studies used a package of dozens of nutrients - and not just iodine - so if the responsible substance were randomly picked, that suggests we ought to give it a chance of 20% \times \frac{1}{\text{dozens}} of being iodine! I may be unduly optimistic if I give this as much as 10%.
This mental stimulation is what increases focus and attention span in the user. The FDA permitted treatments for Modafinil include extreme sleepiness and shift work disorder. It can also get prescribed for narcolepsy, and obstructive sleep apnea. Modafinil is not FDA approved for the treatment of ADHD. Yet, many medical professionals feel it is a suitable Adderall alternative.
The power calculation indicates a 20% chance of getting useful information. My quasi-experiment has <70% chance of being right, and I preserve a general skepticism about any experiment, even one as well done as the medical student one seems to be, and give that one a <80% chance of being right; so let’s call it 70% the effect exists, or 30% it doesn’t exist (which is the case in which I save money by dropping fish oil for 10 years).
But when aficionados talk about nootropics, they usually refer to substances that have supposedly few side effects and low toxicity. Most often they mean piracetam, which Giurgea first synthesized in 1964 and which is approved for therapeutic use in dozens of countries for use in adults and the elderly. Not so in the United States, however, where officially it can be sold only for research purposes.
The price is not as good as multivitamins or melatonin. The studies showing effects generally use pretty high dosages, 1-4g daily. I took 4 capsules a day for roughly 4g of omega acids. The jar of 400 is 100 days’ worth, and costs ~$17, or around 17¢ a day. The general health benefits push me over the edge of favoring its indefinite use, but looking to economize. Usually, small amounts of packaged substances are more expensive than bulk unprocessed, so I looked at fish oil fluid products; and unsurprisingly, liquid is more cost-effective than pills (but like with the powders, straight fish oil isn’t very appetizing) in lieu of membership somewhere or some other price-break. I bought 4 bottles (16 fluid ounces each) for $53.31 total (thanks to coupons & sales), and each bottle lasts around a month and a half for perhaps half a year, or ~$100 for a year’s supply. (As it turned out, the 4 bottles lasted from 4 December 2010 to 17 June 2011, or 195 days.) My next batch lasted 19 August 2011-20 February 2012, and cost $58.27. Since I needed to buy empty 00 capsules (for my lithium experiment) and a book (Stanovich 2010, for SIAI work) from Amazon, I bought 4 more bottles of 16fl oz Nature’s Answer (lemon-lime) at $48.44, which I began using 27 February 2012. So call it ~$70 a year.
A “smart pill” is a drug that increases the cognitive ability of anyone taking it, whether the user is cognitively impaired or normal. The Romanian neuroscientist Corneliu Giurgea is often credited with first proposing, in the 1960s, that smart pills should be developed to increase the intelligence of the general population (see Giurgea, 1984). He is quoted as saying, “Man is not going to wait passively for millions of years before evolution offers him a better brain” (Gazzaniga, 2005, p. 71). In their best-selling book, Smart Drugs and Nutrients, Dean and Morgenthaler (1990) reviewed a large number of substances that have been used by healthy individuals with the goal of increasing cognitive ability. These include synthetic and natural products that affect neurotransmitter levels, neurogenesis, and blood flow to the brain. Although many of these substances have their adherents, none have become widely used. Caffeine and nicotine may be exceptions to this generalization, as one motivation among many for their use is cognitive enhancement (Julien, 2001).
The therapeutic effect of AMP and MPH in ADHD is consistent with the finding of abnormalities in the catecholamine system in individuals with ADHD (e.g., Volkow et al., 2007). Both AMP and MPH exert their effects on cognition primarily by increasing levels of catecholamines in prefrontal cortex and the cortical and subcortical regions projecting to it, and this mechanism is responsible for improving cognition and behavior in ADHD (Pliszka, 2005; Wilens, 2006).

It is often associated with Ritalin and Adderall because they are all CNS stimulants and are prescribed for the treatment of similar brain-related conditions. In the past, ADHD patients reported prolonged attention while studying upon Dexedrine consumption, which is why this smart pill is further studied for its concentration and motivation-boosting properties.


I started with the 10g of Vitality Enhanced Blend, a sort of tan dust. Used 2 little-spoonfuls (dust tastes a fair bit like green/oolong tea dust) into the tea mug and then some boiling water. A minute of steeping and… bleh. Tastes sort of musty and sour. (I see why people recommended sweetening it with honey.) The effects? While I might’ve been more motivated - I hadn’t had caffeine that day and was a tad under the weather, a feeling which seemed to go away perhaps half an hour after starting - I can’t say I experienced any nausea or very noticeable effects. (At least the flavor is no longer quite so offensive.)

“In 183 pages, Cavin Balaster’s new book, How to Feed A Brain provides an outline and plan for how to maximize one’s brain performance. The “Citation Notes” provide all the scientific and academic documentation for further understanding. The “Additional Resources and Tips” listing takes you to Cavin’s website for more detail than could be covered in 183 pages. Cavin came to this knowledge through the need to recover from a severe traumatic brain injury and he did not keep his lessons learned to himself. This book is enlightening for anyone with a brain. We all want to function optimally, even to take exams, stay dynamic, and make positive contributions to our communities. Bravo Cavin for sharing your lessons learned!”


Another factor to consider is whether the nootropic is natural or synthetic. Natural nootropics generally have effects which are a bit more subtle, while synthetic nootropics can have more pronounced effects. It’s also important to note that there are natural and synthetic nootropics. Some natural nootropics include Ginkgo biloba and ginseng. One benefit to using natural nootropics is they boost brain function and support brain health. They do this by increasing blood flow and oxygen delivery to the arteries and veins in the brain. Moreover, some nootropics contain Rhodiola rosea, panxax ginseng, and more. 
The chemicals he takes, dubbed nootropics from the Greek “noos” for “mind”, are intended to safely improve cognitive functioning. They must not be harmful, have significant side-effects or be addictive. That means well-known “smart drugs” such as the prescription-only stimulants Adderall and Ritalin, popular with swotting university students, are out. What’s left under the nootropic umbrella is a dizzying array of over-the-counter supplements, prescription drugs and unclassified research chemicals, some of which are being trialled in older people with fading cognition.
How much of the nonmedical use of prescription stimulants documented by these studies was for cognitive enhancement? Prescription stimulants could be used for purposes other than cognitive enhancement, including for feelings of euphoria or energy, to stay awake, or to curb appetite. Were they being used by students as smart pills or as “fun pills,” “awake pills,” or “diet pills”? Of course, some of these categories are not entirely distinct. For example, by increasing the wakefulness of a sleep-deprived person or by lifting the mood or boosting the motivation of an apathetic person, stimulants are likely to have the secondary effect of improving cognitive performance. Whether and when such effects should be classified as cognitive enhancement is a question to which different answers are possible, and none of the studies reviewed here presupposed an answer. Instead, they show how the respondents themselves classified their reasons for nonmedical stimulant use.

Medication can be ineffective if the drug payload is not delivered at its intended place and time. Since an oral medication travels through a broad pH spectrum, the pill encapsulation could dissolve at the wrong time. However, a smart pill with environmental sensors, a feedback algorithm and a drug release mechanism can give rise to smart drug delivery systems. This can ensure optimal drug delivery and prevent accidental overdose.


A large review published in 2011 found that the drug aids with the type of memory that allows us to explicitly remember past events (called long-term conscious memory), as opposed to the type that helps us remember how to do things like riding a bicycle without thinking about it (known as procedural or implicit memory.) The evidence is mixed on its effect on other types of executive function, such as planning or ability on fluency tests, which measure a person’s ability to generate sets of data—for example, words that begin with the same letter. 

Natural nootropic supplements derive from various nutritional studies. Research shows the health benefits of isolated vitamins, nutrients, and herbs. By increasing your intake of certain herbal substances, you can enhance brain function. Below is a list of the top categories of natural and herbal nootropics. These supplements are mainstays in many of today’s best smart pills.


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.

All of the coefficients are positive, as one would hope, and one specific factor (MR7) squeaks in at d=0.34 (p=0.05). The graph is much less impressive than the graph for just MP, suggesting that the correlation may be spread out over a lot of factors, the current dataset isn’t doing a good job of capturing the effect compared to the MP self-rating, or it really was a placebo effect:

One of the most widely known classes of smart drugs on the market, Racetams, have a long history of use and a lot of evidence of their effectiveness. They hasten the chemical exchange between brain cells, directly benefiting our mental clarity and learning process. They are generally not controlled substances and can be purchased without a prescription in a lot of locations globally.
Powders are good for experimenting with (easy to vary doses and mix), but not so good for regular taking. I use OO gel capsules with a Capsule Machine: it’s hard to beat $20, it works, it’s not that messy after practice, and it’s not too bad to do 100 pills. However, I once did 3kg of piracetam + my other powders, and doing that nearly burned me out on ever using capsules again. If you’re going to do that much, something more automated is a serious question! (What actually wound up infuriating me the most was when capsules would stick in either the bottom or top try - requiring you to very gingerly pull and twist them out, lest the two halves slip and spill powder - or when the two halves wouldn’t lock and you had to join them by hand. In contrast: loading the gel caps could be done automatically without looking, after some experience.)

Eugeroics (armodafinil and modafinil) – are classified as "wakefulness promoting" agents; modafinil increased alertness, particularly in sleep deprived individuals, and was noted to facilitate reasoning and problem solving in non-ADHD youth.[23] In a systematic review of small, preliminary studies where the effects of modafinil were examined, when simple psychometric assessments were considered, modafinil intake appeared to enhance executive function.[27] Modafinil does not produce improvements in mood or motivation in sleep deprived or non-sleep deprived individuals.[28]

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