There is an ancient precedent to humans using natural compounds to elevate cognitive performance. Incan warriors in the 15th century would ingest coca leaves (the basis for cocaine) before battle. Ethiopian hunters in the 10th century developed coffee bean paste to improve hunting stamina. Modern athletes ubiquitously consume protein powders and hormones to enhance their training, recovery, and performance. The most widely consumed psychoactive compound today is caffeine. Millions of people use coffee and tea to be more alert and focused.
The first night I was eating some coconut oil, I did my n-backing past 11 PM; normally that damages my scores, but instead I got 66/66/75/88/77% (▁▁▂▇▃) on D4B and did not feel mentally exhausted by the end. The next day, I performed well on the Cambridge mental rotations test. An anecdote, of course, and it may be due to the vitamin D I simultaneously started. Or another day, I was slumped under apathy after a promising start to the day; a dose of fish & coconut oil, and 1 last vitamin D, and I was back to feeling chipper and optimist. Unfortunately I haven’t been testing out coconut oil & vitamin D separately, so who knows which is to thank. But still interesting.

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More photos from this reportage are featured in Quartz’s new book The Objects that Power the Global Economy. You may not have seen these objects before, but they’ve already changed the way you live. Each chapter examines an object that is driving radical change in the global economy. This is from the chapter on the drug modafinil, which explores modifying the mind for a more productive life. 

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On 15 March 2014, I disabled light sensor: the complete absence of subjective effects since the first sessions made me wonder if the LED device was even turning on - a little bit of ambient light seems to disable it thanks to the light sensor. So I stuffed the sensor full of putty, verified it was now always-on with the cellphone camera, and began again; this time it seemed to warm up much faster, making me wonder if all the previous sessions’ sense of warmth was simply heat from my hand holding the LEDs
I had tried 8 randomized days like the Adderall experiment to see whether I was one of the people whom modafinil energizes during the day. (The other way to use it is to skip sleep, which is my preferred use.) I rarely use it during the day since my initial uses did not impress me subjectively. The experiment was not my best - while it was double-blind randomized, the measurements were subjective, and not a good measure of mental functioning like dual n-back (DNB) scores which I could statistically compare from day to day or against my many previous days of dual n-back scores. Between my high expectation of finding the null result, the poor experiment quality, and the minimal effect it had (eliminating an already rare use), the value of this information was very small.
There is no official data on their usage, but nootropics as well as other smart drugs appear popular in the Silicon Valley. “I would say that most tech companies will have at least one person on something,” says Noehr. It is a hotbed of interest because it is a mentally competitive environment, says Jesse Lawler, a LA based software developer and nootropics enthusiast who produces the podcast Smart Drug Smarts. “They really see this as translating into dollars.” But Silicon Valley types also do care about safely enhancing their most prized asset – their brains – which can give nootropics an added appeal, he says.
Many laboratory tasks have been developed to study working memory, each of which taxes to varying degrees aspects such as the overall capacity of working memory, its persistence over time, and its resistance to interference either from task-irrelevant stimuli or among the items to be retained in working memory (i.e., cross-talk). Tasks also vary in the types of information to be retained in working memory, for example, verbal or spatial information. The question of which of these task differences correspond to differences between distinct working memory systems and which correspond to different ways of using a single underlying system is a matter of debate (e.g., D’Esposito, Postle, & Rypma, 2000; Owen, 2000). For the present purpose, we ignore this question and simply ask, Do MPH and d-AMP affect performance in the wide array of tasks that have been taken to operationalize working memory? If the literature does not yield a unanimous answer to this question, then what factors might be critical in determining whether stimulant effects are manifest?
This looks interesting: the Noopept effect is positive for all the dose levels, but it looks like a U-curve - low at 10mg, high at 15mg, lower at 20mg, and even lower at 30mg 48mg and 60mg aren’t estimated because they are hit by the missingness problem: the magnesium citrate variable is unavailable for the days the higher doses were taken on, and so their days are omitted and those levels of the factor are not estimated. One way to fix this is to drop magnesium from the model entirely, at the cost of fitting the data much more poorly and losing a lot of R2:
Frustrated by the lack of results, pharmaceutical companies have been shutting down their psychiatric drug research programmes. Traditional methods, such as synthesising new molecules and seeing what effect they have on symptoms, seem to have run their course. A shift of strategy is looming, towards research that focuses on genes and brain circuitry rather than chemicals. The shift will prolong the wait for new blockbuster drugs further, as the new systems are developed, and offers no guarantees of results.
And the drugs are not terribly difficult to get, depending on where you’re located. Modafinil has an annual global share of $700 million, with high estimated off-label use. Although these drugs can be purchased over the internet, their legal status varies between countries. For example, it is legal to possess and use Modafinil in the United Kingdom without a prescription, but not in United States.
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.
Not all drug users are searching for a chemical escape hatch. A newer and increasingly normalized drug culture is all about heightening one’s current relationship to reality—whether at work or school—by boosting the brain’s ability to think under stress, stay alert and productive for long hours, and keep track of large amounts of information. In the name of becoming sharper traders, medical interns, or coders, people are taking pills typically prescribed for conditions including ADHD, narcolepsy, and Alzheimer’s. Others down “stacks” of special “nootropic” supplements.
I’m wary of others, though. The trouble with using a blanket term like “nootropics” is that you lump all kinds of substances in together. Technically, you could argue that caffeine and cocaine are both nootropics, but they’re hardly equal. With so many ways to enhance your brain function, many of which have significant risks, it’s most valuable to look at nootropics on a case-by-case basis. Here’s a list of 9 nootropics, along with my thoughts on each.
Some work has been done on estimating the value of IQ, both as net benefits to the possessor (including all zero-sum or negative-sum aspects) and as net positive externalities to the rest of society. The estimates are substantial: in the thousands of dollars per IQ point. But since increasing IQ post-childhood is almost impossible barring disease or similar deficits, and even increasing childhood IQs is very challenging, much of these estimates are merely correlations or regressions, and the experimental childhood estimates must be weakened considerably for any adult - since so much time and so many opportunities have been lost. A wild guess: $1000 net present value per IQ point. The range for severely deficient children was 10-15 points, so any normal (somewhat deficient) adult gain must be much smaller and consistent with Fitzgerald 2012’s ceiling on possible effect sizes (small).
When you hear about nootropics, often called “smart drugs,” you probably picture something like the scene above from Limitless, where Bradley Cooper’s character becomes brilliant after downing a strange pill. The drugs and supplements currently available don’t pack that strong of a punch, but the concept is basically the same. Many nootropics have promising benefits, like boosting memory, focus, or motivation, and there’s research to support specific uses. But the most effective nootropics, like Modafinil, aren’t intended for use without a prescription to treat a specific condition. In fact, recreational use of nootropics is hotly-debated among doctors and medical researchers. Many have concerns about the possible adverse effects of long-term use, as well as the ethics of using cognitive enhancers to gain an advantage in school, sports, or even everyday work.
Scientists found that the drug can disrupt the way memories are stored. This ability could be invaluable in treating trauma victims to prevent associated stress disorders. The research has also triggered suggestions that licensing these memory-blocking drugs may lead to healthy people using them to erase memories of awkward conversations, embarrassing blunders and any feelings for that devious ex-girlfriend.
“I bought this book because I didn’t want a weightloss diet, but I wanted the most optimal gut/brain food I could find to help with an autoimmune. I subscribe to Cavin’s podcast and another newsletter for gut health which also recommended this book. Also, he’s a personal friend of mine who’s recovery I have witnessed firsthand. Thank you so much for all of the research and your continued dedication to not only help yourself, but for also helping others!”
But like any other supplement, there are some safety concerns negative studies like Fish oil fails to hold off heart arrhythmia or other reports cast doubt on a protective effect against dementia or Fish Oil Use in Pregnancy Didn’t Make Babies Smart (WSJ) (an early promise but one that faded a bit later) or …Supplementation with DHA compared with placebo did not slow the rate of cognitive and functional decline in patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer disease..
An entirely different set of questions concerns cognitive enhancement in younger students, including elementary school and even preschool children. Some children can function adequately in school without stimulants but perform better with them; medicating such children could be considered a form of cognitive enhancement. How often does this occur? What are the roles and motives of parents, teachers, and pediatricians in these cases? These questions have been discussed elsewhere and deserve continued attention (Diller, 1996; Singh & Keller, 2010).

Sulbutiamine, mentioned earlier as a cholinergic smart drug, can also be classed a dopaminergic, although its mechanism is counterintuitive: by reducing the release of dopamine in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the density of dopamine receptors actually increase after continued Sulbutiamine exposure, through a compensatory mechanism. (This provides an interesting example of how dividing smart drugs into sensible “classes” is a matter of taste as well as science, especially since many of them create their discernable neural effects through still undefined mechanisms.)


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.


Another well-known smart drug classed as a cholinergic is Sulbutiamine, a synthetic derivative of thiamine which crosses the blood-brain barrier and has been shown to improve memory while reducing psycho-behavioral inhibition. While Sulbutiamine has been shown to exhibit cholinergic regulation within the hippocampus, the reasons for the drug’s discernable effects on the brain remain unclear. This smart drug, available over the counter as a nutritional supplement, has a long history of use, and appears to have no serious side effects at therapeutic levels.


Fortunately, there are some performance-enhancing habits that have held up under rigorous scientific scrutiny. They are free, and easy to pronounce. Unfortunately, they are also the habits you were perhaps hoping to forego by using nootropics instead. “Of all the things that are supposed to be ‘good for the brain,’” says Stanford neurology professor Sharon Sha, “there is more evidence for exercise than anything else.” Next time you’re facing a long day, you could take a pill and see what happens.
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.
And in his followup work, An opportunity cost model of subjective effort and task performance (discussion). Kurzban seems to have successfully refuted the blood-glucose theory, with few dissenters from commenting researchers. The more recent opinion seems to be that the sugar interventions serve more as a reward-signal indicating more effort is a good idea, not refueling the engine of the brain (which would seem to fit well with research on procrastination).↩

These days, young, ambitious professionals prefer prescription stimulants—including methylphenidate (usually sold as Ritalin) and Adderall—that are designed to treat people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and are more common and more acceptable than cocaine or nicotine (although there is a black market for these pills). ADHD makes people more likely to lose their focus on tasks and to feel restless and impulsive. Diagnoses of the disorder have been rising dramatically over the past few decades—and not just in kids: In 2012, about 16 million Adderall prescriptions were written for adults between the ages of 20 and 39, according to a report in the New York Times. Both methylphenidate and Adderall can improve sustained attention and concentration, says Barbara Sahakian, professor of clinical neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge and author of the 2013 book Bad Moves: How Decision Making Goes Wrong, and the Ethics of Smart Drugs. But the drugs do have side effects, including insomnia, lack of appetite, mood swings, and—in extreme cases—hallucinations, especially when taken in amounts the exceed standard doses. Take a look at these 10 foods that help you focus.


At small effects like d=0.07, a nontrivial chance of negative effects, and an unknown level of placebo effects (this was non-blinded, which could account for any residual effects), this strongly implies that LLLT is not doing anything for me worth bothering with. I was pretty skeptical of LLLT in the first place, and if 167 days can’t turn up anything noticeable, I don’t think I’ll be continuing with LLLT usage and will be giving away my LED set. (Should any experimental studies of LLLT for cognitive enhancement in healthy people surface with large quantitative effects - as opposed to a handful of qualitative case studies about brain-damaged people - and I decide to give LLLT another try, I can always just buy another set of LEDs: it’s only ~$15, after all.)
Lebowitz says that if you're purchasing supplements to improve your brain power, you're probably wasting your money. "There is nothing you can buy at your local health food store that will improve your thinking skills," Lebowitz says. So that turmeric latte you've been drinking everyday has no additional brain benefits compared to a regular cup of java.
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).
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).
70 pairs is 140 blocks; we can drop to 36 pairs or 72 blocks if we accept a power of 0.5/50% chance of reaching significance. (Or we could economize by hoping that the effect size is not 3.5 but maybe twice the pessimistic guess; a d=0.5 at 50% power requires only 12 pairs of 24 blocks.) 70 pairs of blocks of 2 weeks, with 2 pills a day requires (70 \times 2) \times (2 \times 7) \times 2 = 3920 pills. I don’t even have that many empty pills! I have <500; 500 would supply 250 days, which would yield 18 2-week blocks which could give 9 pairs. 9 pairs would give me a power of:
The hormone testosterone (Examine.com; FDA adverse events) needs no introduction. This is one of the scariest substances I have considered using: it affects so many bodily systems in so many ways that it seems almost impossible to come up with a net summary, either positive or negative. With testosterone, the problem is not the usual nootropics problem that that there is a lack of human research, the problem is that the summary constitutes a textbook - or two. That said, the 2011 review The role of testosterone in social interaction (excerpts) gives me the impression that testosterone does indeed play into risk-taking, motivation, and social status-seeking; some useful links and a representative anecdote:
Instead, I urge the military to examine the use of smart drugs and the potential benefits they bring to the military. If they are safe, and pride cognitive enhancement to servicemembers, then we should discuss their use in the military. Imagine the potential benefits on the battlefield. They could potentially lead to an increase in the speed and tempo of our individual and collective OODA loop. They could improve our ability to become aware and make observations. Improve the speed of orientation and decision-making. Lastly, smart drugs could improve our ability to act and adapt to rapidly changing situations.

Dallas Michael Cyr, a 41-year-old life coach and business mentor in San Diego, California, also says he experienced a mental improvement when he regularly took another product called Qualia Mind, which its makers say enhances focus, energy, mental clarity, memory and even creativity and mood. "One of the biggest things I noticed was it was much more difficult to be distracted," says Cyr, who took the supplements for about six months but felt their effects last longer. While he's naturally great at starting projects and tasks, the product allowed him to be a "great finisher" too, he says.
Sounds too good to be true? Welcome to the world of ‘Nootropics’ popularly known as ‘Smart Drugs’ that can help boost your brain’s power. Do you recall the scene from the movie Limitless, where Bradley Cooper’s character uses a smart drug that makes him brilliant? Yes! The effect of Nootropics on your brain is such that the results come as a no-brainer.
Another important epidemiological question about the use of prescription stimulants for cognitive enhancement concerns the risk of dependence. MPH and d-AMP both have high potential for abuse and addiction related to their effects on brain systems involved in motivation. On the basis of their reanalysis of NSDUH data sets from 2000 to 2002, Kroutil and colleagues (2006) estimated that almost one in 20 nonmedical users of prescription ADHD medications meets criteria for dependence or abuse. This sobering estimate is based on a survey of all nonmedical users. The immediate and long-term risks to individuals seeking cognitive enhancement remain unknown.
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.
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