Both nootropics startups provide me with samples to try. In the case of Nootrobox, it is capsules called Sprint designed for a short boost of cognitive enhancement. They contain caffeine – the equivalent of about a cup of coffee, and L-theanine – about 10 times what is in a cup of green tea, in a ratio that is supposed to have a synergistic effect (all the ingredients Nootrobox uses are either regulated as supplements or have a “generally regarded as safe” designation by US authorities)
Other drugs, like cocaine, are used by bankers to manage their 18-hour workdays [81]. Unlike nootropics, dependency is very likely and not only mentally but also physically. Bankers and other professionals who take drugs to improve their productivity will become dependent. Almost always, the negative consequences outweigh any positive outcomes from using drugs.
Federal law classifies most nootropics as dietary supplements, which means that the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate manufacturers’ statements about their benefits (as the giant “This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease” disclaimer on the label indicates). And the types of claims that the feds do allow supplement companies to make are often vague and/or supported by less-than-compelling scientific evidence. “If you find a study that says that an ingredient caused neurons to fire on rat brain cells in a petri dish,” says Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, “you can probably get away with saying that it ‘enhances memory’ or ‘promotes brain health.’”
“Certain people might benefit from certain combinations of certain things,” he told me. “But across populations, there is still no conclusive proof that substances of this class improve cognitive functions.” And with no way to reliably measure the impact of a given substance on one’s mental acuity, one’s sincere beliefs about “what works” probably have a lot to do with, say, how demanding their day was, or whether they ate breakfast, or how susceptible they are to the placebo effect.
That first night, I had severe trouble sleeping, falling asleep in 30 minutes rather than my usual 19.6±11.9, waking up 12 times (5.9±3.4), and spending ~90 minutes awake (18.1±16.2), and naturally I felt unrested the next day; I initially assumed it was because I had left a fan on (moving air keeps me awake) but the new potassium is also a possible culprit. When I asked, Kevin said:
One should note the serious caveats here: it is a small in vitro study of a single category of human cells with an effect size that is not clear on a protein which feeds into who-knows-what pathways. It is not a result in a whole organism on any clinically meaningful endpoint, even if we take it at face-value (many results never replicate). A look at followup work citing Rapuri et al 2007 is not encouraging: Google Scholar lists no human studies of any kind, much less high-quality studies like RCTs; just some rat followups on the calcium effect. This is not to say Rapuri et al 2007 is a bad study, just that it doesn’t bear the weight people are putting on it: if you enjoy caffeine, this is close to zero evidence that you should reduce or drop caffeine consumption; if you’re taking too much caffeine, you already have plenty of reasons to reduce; if you’re drinking lots of coffee, you already have plenty of reasons to switch to tea; etc.
Starting from the studies in my meta-analysis, we can try to estimate an upper bound on how big any effect would be, if it actually existed. One of the most promising null results, Southon et al 1994, turns out to be not very informative: if we punch in the number of kids, we find that they needed a large effect size (d=0.81) before they could see anything:
Fish oil (Examine.com, buyer’s guide) provides benefits relating to general mood (eg. inflammation & anxiety; see later on anxiety) and anti-schizophrenia; it is one of the better supplements one can take. (The known risks are a higher rate of prostate cancer and internal bleeding, but are outweighed by the cardiac benefits - assuming those benefits exist, anyway, which may not be true.) The benefits of omega acids are well-researched.

Finally, two tasks measuring subjects’ ability to control their responses to monetary rewards were used by de Wit et al. (2002) to assess the effects of d-AMP. When subjects were offered the choice between waiting 10 s between button presses for high-probability rewards, which would ultimately result in more money, and pressing a button immediately for lower probability rewards, d-AMP did not affect performance. However, when subjects were offered choices between smaller rewards delivered immediately and larger rewards to be delivered at later times, the normal preference for immediate rewards was weakened by d-AMP. That is, subjects were more able to resist the impulse to choose the immediate reward in favor of the larger reward.
Since my experiment had a number of flaws (non-blind, varying doses at varying times of day), I wound up doing a second better experiment using blind standardized smaller doses in the morning. The negative effect was much smaller, but there was still no mood/productivity benefit. Having used up my first batch of potassium citrate in these 2 experiments, I will not be ordering again since it clearly doesn’t work for me.

Now, what is the expected value (EV) of simply taking iodine, without the additional work of the experiment? 4 cans of 0.15mg x 200 is $20 for 2.1 years’ worth or ~$10 a year or a NPV cost of $205 (\frac{10}{\ln 1.05}) versus a 20% chance of $2000 or $400. So the expected value is greater than the NPV cost of taking it, so I should start taking iodine.


The above are all reasons to expect that even if I do excellent single-subject design self-experiments, there will still be the old problem of internal validity versus external validity: an experiment may be wrong or erroneous or unlucky in some way (lack of internal validity) or be right but not matter to anyone else (lack of external validity). For example, alcohol makes me sad & depressed; I could run the perfect blind randomized experiment for hundreds of trials and be extremely sure that alcohol makes me less happy, but would that prove that alcohol makes everyone sad or unhappy? Of course not, and as far as I know, for a lot of people alcohol has the opposite effect. So my hypothetical alcohol experiment might have tremendous internal validity (it does prove that I am sadder after inebriating), and zero external validity (someone who has never tried alcohol learns nothing about whether they will be depressed after imbibing). Keep this in mind if you are minded to take the experiments too seriously.
Iluminal is an example of an over-the-counter serotonergic drug used by people looking for performance enhancement, memory improvements, and mood-brightening. Also noteworthy, a wide class of prescription anti-depression drugs are based on serotonin reuptake inhibitors that slow the absorption of serotonin by the presynaptic cell, increasing the effect of the neurotransmitter on the receptor neuron – essentially facilitating the free flow of serotonin throughout the brain.
There is no clear answer to this question. Many of the smart drugs have decades of medical research and widespread use behind them, as well as only minor, manageable, or nonexistent side effects, but are still used primarily as a crutch for people already experiencing cognitive decline, rather than as a booster-rocket for people with healthy brains. Unfortunately, there is a bias in Western medicine in favor of prescribing drugs once something bad has already begun, rather than for up-front prevention. There’s also the principle of “leave well enough alone” – in this case, extended to mean, don’t add unnecessary or unnatural drugs to the human body in place of a normal diet. [Smart Drug Smarts would argue that the average human diet has strayed so far from what is physiologically “normal” that leaving well enough alone is already a failed proposition.]

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).


But how to blind myself? I used my pill maker to make 9 OO pills of piracetam mix, and then 9 OO pills of piracetam mix+the Adderall, then I put them in a baggy. The idea is that I can blind myself as to what pill I am taking that day since at the end of the day, I can just look in the baggy and see whether a placebo or Adderall pill is missing: the big capsules are transparent so I can see whether there is a crushed-up blue Adderall in the end or not. If there are fewer Adderall than placebo, I took an Adderall, and vice-versa. Now, since I am checking at the end of each day, I also need to remove or add the opposite pill to maintain the ratio and make it easy to check the next day; more importantly I need to replace or remove a pill, because otherwise the odds will be skewed and I will know how they are skewed. (Imagine I started with 4 Adderalls and 4 placebos, and then 3 days in a row I draw placebos but I don’t add or remove any pills; the next day, because most of the placebos have been used up, there’s only a small chance I will get a placebo…)
Nature magazine conducted a poll asking its readers about their cognitive-enhancement practices and their attitudes toward cognitive enhancement. Hundreds of college faculty and other professionals responded, and approximately one fifth reported using drugs for cognitive enhancement, with Ritalin being the most frequently named (Maher, 2008). However, the nature of the sample—readers choosing to answer a poll on cognitive enhancement—is not representative of the academic or general population, making the results of the poll difficult to interpret. By analogy, a poll on Vermont vacations, asking whether people vacation in Vermont, what they think about Vermont, and what they do if and when they visit, would undoubtedly not yield an accurate estimate of the fraction of the population that takes its vacations in Vermont.
Hericium erinaceus (Examine.com) was recommended strongly by several on the ImmInst.org forums for its long-term benefits to learning, apparently linked to Nerve growth factor. Highly speculative stuff, and it’s unclear whether the mushroom powder I bought was the right form to take (ImmInst.org discussions seem to universally assume one is taking an alcohol or hotwater extract). It tasted nice, though, and I mixed it into my sleeping pills (which contain melatonin & tryptophan). I’ll probably never know whether the $30 for 0.5lb was well-spent or not.
The main concern with pharmaceutical drugs is adverse effects, which also apply to nootropics with undefined effects. Long-term safety evidence is typically unavailable for nootropics.[13] Racetams — piracetam and other compounds that are structurally related to piracetam — have few serious adverse effects and low toxicity, but there is little evidence that they enhance cognition in people having no cognitive impairments.[19]
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