Jesper Noehr, 30, reels off the ingredients in the chemical cocktail he’s been taking every day before work for the past six months. It’s a mixture of exotic dietary supplements and research chemicals that he says gives him an edge in his job without ill effects: better memory, more clarity and focus and enhanced problem-solving abilities. “I can keep a lot of things on my mind at once,” says Noehr, who is chief technology officer for a San Francisco startup.
The benefits that they offer are gradually becoming more clearly understood, and those who use them now have the potential to get ahead of the curve when it comes to learning, information recall, mental clarity, and focus. Everyone is different, however, so take some time to learn what works for you and what doesn’t and build a stack that helps you perform at your best.
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(As I was doing this, I reflected how modafinil is such a pure example of the money-time tradeoff. It’s not that you pay someone else to do something for you, which necessarily they will do in a way different from you; nor is it that you have exchanged money to free yourself of a burden of some future time-investment; nor have you paid money for a speculative return of time later in life like with many medical expenses or supplements. Rather, you have paid for 8 hours today of your own time.)
In August 2011, after winning the spaced repetition contest and finishing up the Adderall double-blind testing, I decided the time was right to try nicotine again. I had since learned that e-cigarettes use nicotine dissolved in water, and that nicotine-water was a vastly cheaper source of nicotine than either gum or patches. So I ordered 250ml of water at 12mg/ml (total cost: $18.20). A cigarette apparently delivers around 1mg of nicotine, so half a ml would be a solid dose of nicotine, making that ~500 doses. Plenty to experiment with. The question is, besides the stimulant effect, nicotine also causes habit formation; what habits should I reinforce with nicotine? Exercise, and spaced repetition seem like 2 good targets.

It is a known fact that cognitive decline is often linked to aging. It may not be as visible as skin aging, but the brain does in fact age. Often, cognitive decline is not noticeable because it could be as mild as forgetting names of people. However, research has shown that even in healthy adults, cognitive decline can start as early as in the late twenties or early thirties.
After trying out 2 6lb packs between 12 September & 25 November 2012, and 20 March & 20 August 2013, I have given up on flaxseed meal. They did not seem to go bad in the refrigerator or freezer, and tasted OK, but I had difficulty working them into my usual recipes: it doesn’t combine well with hot or cold oatmeal, and when I tried using flaxseed meal in soups I learned flaxseed is a thickener which can give soup the consistency of snot. It’s easier to use fish oil on a daily basis.

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.
But where will it all stop? Ambitious parents may start giving mind-enhancing pills to their children. People go to all sorts of lengths to gain an educational advantage, and eventually success might be dependent on access to these mind-improving drugs. No major studies have been conducted on the long-term effects. Some neuroscientists fear that, over time, these memory-enhancing pills may cause people to store too much detail, cluttering the brain. Read more about smart drugs here.
I took the first pill at 12:48 pm. 1:18, still nothing really - head is a little foggy if anything. later noticed a steady sort of mental energy lasting for hours (got a good deal of reading and programming done) until my midnight walk, when I still felt alert, and had trouble sleeping. (Zeo reported a ZQ of 100, but a full 18 minutes awake, 2 or 3 times the usual amount.)
Caffeine keeps you awake, which keeps you coding. It may also be a nootropic, increasing brain-power. Both desirable results. However, it also inhibits vitamin D receptors, and as such decreases the body’s uptake of this-much-needed-vitamin. OK, that’s not so bad, you’re not getting the maximum dose of vitamin D. So what? Well, by itself caffeine may not cause you any problems, but combined with cutting off a major source of the vitamin - the production via sunlight - you’re leaving yourself open to deficiency in double-quick time.

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.
Drugs and catastrophe are seemingly never far apart, whether in laboratories, real life or Limitless. Downsides are all but unavoidable: if a drug enhances one particular cognitive function, the price may be paid by other functions. To enhance one dimension of cognition, you’ll need to appropriate resources that would otherwise be available for others.
Specifically, the film is completely unintelligible if you had not read the book. The best I can say for it is that it delivers the action and events one expects in the right order and with basic competence, but its artistic merits are few. It seems generally devoid of the imagination and visual flights of fancy that animated movies 1 and 3 especially (although Mike Darwin disagrees), copping out on standard imagery like a Star Wars-style force field over Hogwarts Castle, or luminescent white fog when Harry was dead and in his head; I was deeply disappointed to not see any sights that struck me as novel and new. (For example, the aforementioned dead scene could have been done in so many interesting ways, like why not show Harry & Dumbledore in a bustling King’s Cross shot in bright sharp detail, but with not a single person in sight and all the luggage and equipment animatedly moving purposefully on their own?) The ending in particular boggles me. I actually turned to the person next to me and asked them whether that really was the climax and Voldemort was dead, his death was so little dwelt upon or laden with significance (despite a musical score that beat you over the head about everything else). In the book, I remember it feeling like a climactic scene, with everyone watching and little speeches explaining why Voldemort was about to be defeated, and a suitable victory celebration; I read in the paper the next day a quote from the director or screenwriter who said one scene was cut because Voldemort would not talk but simply try to efficiently kill Harry. (This is presumably the explanation for the incredible anti-climax. Hopefully.) I was dumbfounded by the depths of dishonesty or delusion or disregard: Voldemort not only does that in Deathly Hallows multiple times, he does it every time he deals with Harry, exactly as the classic villains (he is numbered among) always do! How was it possible for this man to read the books many times, as he must have, and still say such a thing?↩
In fact, some of these so-called “smart drugs” are already remarkably popular. One recent survey involving tens of thousands of people found that 30% of Americans who responded had taken them in the last year. It seems as though we may soon all be partaking – and it’s easy to get carried away with the consequences. Will this new batch of intellectual giants lead to dazzling, space-age inventions? Or perhaps an explosion in economic growth? Might the working week become shorter, as people become more efficient?
For illustration, consider amphetamines, Ritalin, and modafinil, all of which have been proposed as cognitive enhancers of attention. These drugs exhibit some positive effects on cognition, especially among individuals with lower baseline abilities. However, individuals of normal or above-average cognitive ability often show negligible improvements or even decrements in performance following drug treatment (for details, see de Jongh, Bolt, Schermer, & Olivier, 2008). For instance, Randall, Shneerson, and File (2005) found that modafinil improved performance only among individuals with lower IQ, not among those with higher IQ. [See also Finke et al 2010 on visual attention.] Farah, Haimm, Sankoorikal, & Chatterjee 2009 found a similar nonlinear relationship of dose to response for amphetamines in a remote-associates task, with low-performing individuals showing enhanced performance but high-performing individuals showing reduced performance. Such ∩-shaped dose-response curves are quite common (see Cools & Robbins, 2004)
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.
If I stop tonight and do nothing Monday (and I sleep the normal eight hours and do not pay any penalty), then that’ll be 4 out of 5 days on modafinil, each saving 3 or 4 hours. Each day took one pill which cost me $1.20, but each pill saved let’s call it 3.5 hours; if I value my time at minimum wage, or 7.25/hr (federal minimum wage), then that 3.5 hours is worth $25.37, which is much more than $1.20, ~21x more.
The placebos can be the usual pills filled with olive oil. The Nature’s Answer fish oil is lemon-flavored; it may be worth mixing in some lemon juice. In Kiecolt-Glaser et al 2011, anxiety was measured via the Beck Anxiety scale; the placebo mean was 1.2 on a standard deviation of 0.075, and the experimental mean was 0.93 on a standard deviation of 0.076. (These are all log-transformed covariates or something; I don’t know what that means, but if I naively plug those numbers into Cohen’s d, I get a very large effect: \frac{1.2 - 0.93}{0.076}=3.55.)
Price discrimination is aided by barriers such as ignorance and oligopolies. An example of the former would be when I went to a Food Lion grocery store in search of spices, and noticed that there was a second selection of spices in the Hispanic/Latino ethnic food aisle, with unit prices perhaps a fourth of the regular McCormick-brand spices; I rather doubt that regular cinnamon varies that much in quality. An example of the latter would be using veterinary drugs on humans - any doctor to do so would probably be guilty of medical malpractice even if the drugs were manufactured in the same factories (as well they might be, considering economies of scale). Similarly, we can predict that whenever there is a veterinary drug which is chemically identical to a human drug, the veterinary drug will be much cheaper, regardless of actual manufacturing cost, than the human drug because pet owners do not value their pets more than themselves. Human drugs are ostensibly held to a higher standard than veterinary drugs; so if veterinary prices are higher, then there will be an arbitrage incentive to simply buy the cheaper human version and downgrade them to veterinary drugs.
As it happens, these are areas I am distinctly lacking in. When I first began reading about testosterone I had no particular reason to think it might be an issue for me, but it increasingly sounded plausible, an aunt independently suggested I might be deficient, a biological uncle turned out to be severely deficient with levels around 90 ng/dl (where the normal range for 20-49yo males is 249-839), and finally my blood test in August 2013 revealed that my actual level was 305 ng/dl; inasmuch as I was 25 and not 49, this is a tad low.
Evidence in support of the neuroprotective effects of flavonoids has increased significantly in recent years, although to date much of this evidence has emerged from animal rather than human studies. Nonetheless, with a view to making recommendations for future good practice, we review 15 existing human dietary intervention studies that have examined the effects of particular types of flavonoid on cognitive performance. The studies employed a total of 55 different cognitive tests covering a broad range of cognitive domains. Most studies incorporated at least one measure of executive function/working memory, with nine reporting significant improvements in performance as a function of flavonoid supplementation compared to a control group. However, some domains were overlooked completely (e.g. implicit memory, prospective memory), and for the most part there was little consistency in terms of the particular cognitive tests used making across study comparisons difficult. Furthermore, there was some confusion concerning what aspects of cognitive function particular tests were actually measuring. Overall, while initial results are encouraging, future studies need to pay careful attention when selecting cognitive measures, especially in terms of ensuring that tasks are actually sensitive enough to detect treatment effects.

Another class of substances with the potential to enhance cognition in normal healthy individuals is the class of prescription stimulants used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These include methylphenidate (MPH), best known as Ritalin or Concerta, and amphetamine (AMP), most widely prescribed as mixed AMP salts consisting primarily of dextroamphetamine (d-AMP), known by the trade name Adderall. These medications have become familiar to the general public because of the growing rates of diagnosis of ADHD children and adults (Froehlich et al., 2007; Sankaranarayanan, Puumala, & Kratochvil, 2006) and the recognition that these medications are effective for treating ADHD (MTA Cooperative Group, 1999; Swanson et al., 2008).
Do you start your day with a cup (or two, or three) of coffee? It tastes delicious, but it’s also jump-starting your brain because of its caffeine content. Caffeine is definitely a nootropic substance—it’s a mild stimulant that can alleviate fatigue and improve concentration, according to the Mayo Clinic. Current research shows that coffee drinkers don’t suffer any ill effects from drinking up to about four cups of coffee per day. Caffeine is also found in tea, soda, and energy drinks. Not too surprisingly, it’s also in many of the nootropic supplements that are being marketed to people looking for a mental boost. Take a look at these 7 genius brain boosters to try in the morning.
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.
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.
Coconut oil was recommended by Pontus Granström on the Dual N-Back mailing list for boosting energy & mental clarity. It is fairly cheap (~$13 for 30 ounces) and tastes surprisingly good; it has a very bad reputation in some parts, but seems to be in the middle of a rehabilitation. Seth Robert’s Buttermind experiment found no mental benefits to coconut oil (and benefits to eating butter), but I wonder.

After 7 days, I ordered a kg of choline bitartrate from Bulk Powders. Choline is standard among piracetam-users because it is pretty universally supported by anecdotes about piracetam headaches, has support in rat/mice experiments27, and also some human-related research. So I figured I couldn’t fairly test piracetam without some regular choline - the eggs might not be enough, might be the wrong kind, etc. It has a quite distinctly fishy smell, but the actual taste is more citrus-y, and it seems to neutralize the piracetam taste in tea (which makes things much easier for me).

At this point I began to get bored with it and the lack of apparent effects, so I began a pilot trial: I’d use the LED set for 10 minutes every few days before 2PM, record, and in a few months look for a correlation with my daily self-ratings of mood/productivity (for 2.5 years I’ve asked myself at the end of each day whether I did more, the usual, or less work done that day than average, so 2=below-average, 3=average, 4=above-average; it’s ad hoc, but in some factor analyses I’ve been playing with, it seems to load on a lot of other variables I’ve measured, so I think it’s meaningful).
10:30 AM; no major effect that I notice throughout the day - it’s neither good nor bad. This smells like placebo (and part of my mind is going how unlikely is it to get placebo 3 times in a row!, which is just the Gambler’s fallacy talking inasmuch as this is sampling with replacement). I give it 60% placebo; I check the next day right before taking, and it is. Man!
Much better than I had expected. One of the best superhero movies so far, better than Thor or Watchmen (and especially better than the Iron Man movies). I especially appreciated how it didn’t launch right into the usual hackneyed creation of the hero plot-line but made Captain America cool his heels performing & selling war bonds for 10 or 20 minutes. The ending left me a little nonplussed, although I sort of knew it was envisioned as a franchise and I would have to admit that showing Captain America wondering at Times Square is much better an ending than something as cliche as a close-up of his suddenly-opened eyes and then a fade out. (The movie continued the lamentable trend in superhero movies of having a strong female love interest… who only gets the hots for the hero after they get muscles or powers. It was particularly bad in CA because she knows him and his heart of gold beforehand! What is the point of a feminist character who is immediately forced to do that?)↩
Because smart drugs like modafinil, nicotine, and Adderall come with drawbacks, I developed my own line of nootropics, including Forbose and SmartMode, that’s safe, widely available, and doesn’t require a prescription. Forskolin, found in Forbose, has been a part of Indian Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. In addition to being fun to say, forskolin increases cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP), a molecule essential to learning and memory formation. [8]