Looking at the prices, the overwhelming expense is for modafinil. It’s a powerful stimulant - possibly the single most effective ingredient in the list - but dang expensive. Worse, there’s anecdotal evidence that one can develop tolerance to modafinil, so we might be wasting a great deal of money on it. (And for me, modafinil isn’t even very useful in the daytime: I can’t even notice it.) If we drop it, the cost drops by a full $800 from $1761 to $961 (almost halving) and to $0.96 per day. A remarkable difference, and if one were genetically insensitive to modafinil, one would definitely want to remove it.
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I can’t try either of the products myself – I am pregnant and my doctor doesn’t recommend it – but my husband agrees to. He describes the effect of the Nootrobox product as like having a cup of coffee but not feeling as jittery. “I had a very productive day, but I don’t know if that was why,” he says. His Nootroo experience ends after one capsule. He gets a headache, which he is convinced is related, and refuses to take more. “It is just not a beginner friendly cocktail,” offers Noehr.
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.

Caffeine (Examine.com; FDA adverse events) is of course the most famous stimulant around. But consuming 200mg or more a day, I have discovered the downside: it is addictive and has a nasty withdrawal - headaches, decreased motivation, apathy, and general unhappiness. (It’s a little amusing to read academic descriptions of caffeine addiction9; if caffeine were a new drug, I wonder what Schedule it would be in and if people might be even more leery of it than modafinil.) Further, in some ways, aside from the ubiquitous placebo effect, caffeine combines a mix of weak performance benefits (Lorist & Snel 2008, Nehlig 2010) with some possible decrements, anecdotally and scientifically:


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?)
I tried taking whole pills at 1 and 3 AM. I felt kind of bushed at 9 AM after all the reading, and the 50 minute nap didn’t help much - I was sleep only around 10 minutes and spent most of it thinking or meditation. Just as well the 3D driver is still broken; I doubt the scores would be reasonable. Began to perk up again past 10 AM, then felt more bushed at 1 PM, and so on throughout the day; kind of gave up and began watching & finishing anime (Amagami and Voices of a Distant Star) for the rest of the day with occasional reading breaks (eg. to start James C. Scotts Seeing Like A State, which is as described so far). As expected from the low quality of the day, the recovery sleep was bigger than before: a full 10 hours rather than 9:40; the next day, I slept a normal 8:50, and the following day ~8:20 (woken up early); 10:20 (slept in); 8:44; 8:18 (▁▇▁▁). It will be interesting to see whether my excess sleep remains in the hour range for ’good modafinil nights and two hours for bad modafinil nights.
None of that has kept entrepreneurs and their customers from experimenting and buying into the business of magic pills, however. In 2015 alone, the nootropics business raked in over $1 billion dollars, and web sites like the nootropics subreddit, the Bluelight forums, and Bulletproof Exec are popular and packed with people looking for easy ways to boost their mental performance. Still, this bizarre, Philip K. Dick-esque world of smart drugs is a tough pill to swallow. To dive into the topic and explain, I spoke to Kamal Patel, Director of evidence-based medical database Examine.com, and even tried a few commercially-available nootropics myself.

The amphetamine mix branded Adderall is terribly expensive to obtain even compared to modafinil, due to its tight regulation (a lower schedule than modafinil), popularity in college as a study drug, and reportedly moves by its manufacture to exploit its privileged position as a licensed amphetamine maker to extract more consumer surplus. I paid roughly $4 a pill but could have paid up to $10. Good stimulant hygiene involves recovery periods to avoid one’s body adapting to eliminate the stimulating effects, so even if Adderall was the answer to all my woes, I would not be using it more than 2 or 3 times a week. Assuming 50 uses a year (for specific projects, let’s say, and not ordinary aimless usage), that’s a cool $200 a year. My general belief was that Adderall would be too much of a stimulant for me, as I am amphetamine-naive and Adderall has a bad reputation for letting one waste time on unimportant things. We could say my prediction was 50% that Adderall would be useful and worth investigating further. The experiment was pretty simple: blind randomized pills, 10 placebo & 10 active. I took notes on how productive I was and the next day guessed whether it was placebo or Adderall before breaking the seal and finding out. I didn’t do any formal statistics for it, much less a power calculation, so let’s try to be conservative by penalizing the information quality heavily and assume it had 25%. So \frac{200 - 0}{\ln 1.05} \times 0.50 \times 0.25 = 512! The experiment probably used up no more than an hour or two total.
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!”
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.
The soft gels are very small; one needs to be a bit careful - Vitamin D is fat-soluble and overdose starts in the range of 70,000 IU35, so it would take at least 14 pills, and it’s unclear where problems start with chronic use. Vitamin D, like many supplements, follows a U-shaped response curve (see also Melamed et al 2008 and Durup et al 2012) - too much can be quite as bad as too little. Too little, though, is likely very bad. The previously cited studies with high acute doses worked out to <1,000 IU a day, so they may reassure us about the risks of a large acute dose but not tell us much about smaller chronic doses; the mortality increases due to too-high blood levels begin at ~140nmol/l and reading anecdotes online suggest that 5k IU daily doses tend to put people well below that (around 70-100nmol/l). I probably should get a blood test to be sure, but I have something of a needle phobia.

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
Many people find that they experience increased “brain fog” as they age, some of which could be attributed to early degeneration of synapses and neural pathways. Some drugs have been found to be useful for providing cognitive improvements in these individuals. It’s possible that these supplements could provide value by improving brain plasticity and supporting the regeneration of cells.10
l-Theanine – A 2014 systematic review and meta-analysis found that concurrent caffeine and l-theanine use had synergistic psychoactive effects that promoted alertness, attention, and task switching;[29] these effects were most pronounced during the first hour post-dose.[29] However, the European Food Safety Authority reported that, when L-theanine is used by itself (i.e. without caffeine), there is insufficient information to determine if these effects exist.[34]
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