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:
While the mechanism is largely unknown, one commonly mechanism possibility is that light of the relevant wavelengths is preferentially absorbed by the protein cytochrome c oxidase, which is a key protein in mitochondrial metabolism and production of ATP, substantially increasing output, and this extra output presumably can be useful for cellular activities like healing or higher performance.
The blood half-life is 12-36 hours; hence two or three days ought to be enough to build up and wash out. A week-long block is reasonable since that gives 5 days for effects to manifest, although month-long blocks would not be a bad choice either. (I prefer blocks which fit in round periods because it makes self-experiments easier to run if the blocks fit in normal time-cycles like day/week/month. The most useless self-experiment is the one abandoned halfway.)
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.
The research literature, while copious, is messy and varied: methodologies and devices vary substantially, sample sizes are tiny, the study designs vary from paper to paper, metrics are sometimes comically limited (one study measured speed of finishing a RAPM IQ test but not scores), blinding is rare and unclear how successful, etc. Relevant papers include Chung et al 2012, Rojas & Gonzalez-Lima 2013, & Gonzalez-Lima & Barrett 2014. Another Longecity user ran a self-experiment, with some design advice from me, where he performed a few cognitive tests over several periods of LLLT usage (the blocks turned out to be ABBA), using his father and towels to try to blind himself as to condition. I analyzed his data, and his scores did seem to improve, but his scores improved so much in the last part of the self-experiment I found myself dubious as to what was going on - possibly a failure of randomness given too few blocks and an temporal exogenous factor in the last quarter which was responsible for the improvement.
The title question, whether prescription stimulants are smart pills, does not find a unanimous answer in the literature. The preponderance of evidence is consistent with enhanced consolidation of long-term declarative memory. For executive function, the overall pattern of evidence is much less clear. Over a third of the findings show no effect on the cognitive processes of healthy nonelderly adults. Of the rest, most show enhancement, although impairment has been reported (e.g., Rogers et al., 1999), and certain subsets of participants may experience impairment (e.g., higher performing participants and/or those homozygous for the met allele of the COMT gene performed worse on drug than placebo; Mattay et al., 2000, 2003). Whereas the overall trend is toward enhancement of executive function, the literature contains many exceptions to this trend. Furthermore, publication bias may lead to underreporting of these exceptions.
We included studies of the effects of these drugs on cognitive processes including learning, memory, and a variety of executive functions, including working memory and cognitive control. These studies are listed in Table 2, along with each study’s sample size, gender, age and tasks administered. Given our focus on cognition enhancement, we excluded studies whose measures were confined to perceptual or motor abilities. Studies of attention are included when the term attention refers to an executive function but not when it refers to the kind of perceptual process taxed by, for example, visual search or dichotic listening or when it refers to a simple vigilance task. Vigilance may affect cognitive performance, especially under conditions of fatigue or boredom, but a more vigilant person is not generally thought of as a smarter person, and therefore, vigilance is outside of the focus of the present review. The search and selection process is summarized in Figure 2.
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).
along with the previous bit of globalization is an important factor: shipping is ridiculously cheap. The most expensive S&H in my modafinil price table is ~$15 (and most are international). To put this in perspective, I remember in the 90s you could easily pay $15 for domestic S&H when you ordered online - but it’s 2013, and the dollar has lost at least half its value, so in real terms, ordering from abroad may be like a quarter of what it used to cost, which makes a big difference to people dipping their toes in and contemplating a small order to try out this ’nootropics thing they’ve heard about.
Blinding stymied me for a few months since the nasty taste was unmistakable and I couldn’t think of any gums with a similar flavor to serve as placebo. (The nasty taste does not seem to be due to the nicotine despite what one might expect; Vaniver plausibly suggested the bad taste might be intended to prevent over-consumption, but nothing in the Habitrol ingredient list seemed to be noted for its bad taste, and a number of ingredients were sweetening sugars of various sorts. So I couldn’t simply flavor some gum.)
The question of how much nonmedical use of stimulants occurs on college campuses is only partly answered by the proportion of students using the drugs in this way. The other part of the answer is how frequently they are used by those students. Three studies addressed this issue. Low and Gendaszek (2002) found a high past-year rate of 35.3%, but only 10% and 8% of this population used monthly and weekly, respectively. White et al. (2006) found a larger percentage used frequently: 15.5% using two to three times per week and 33.9% using two to three times per month. Teter et al. (2006) found that most nonmedical users take prescription stimulants sporadically, with well over half using five or fewer times and nearly 40% using only once or twice in their lives. DeSantis et al. (2008) offered qualitative evidence on the issue, reporting that students often turned to stimulants at exam time only, particularly when under pressure to study for multiple exams at the same time. Thus, there appears to be wide variation in the regularity of stimulant use, with the most common pattern appearing to be infrequent use.
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It is not because of the few thousand francs which would have to be spent to put a roof [!] over the third-class carriages or to upholster the third-class seats that some company or other has open carriages with wooden benches. What the company is trying to do is to prevent the passengers who can pay the second class fare from traveling third class; it hits the poor, not because it wants to hurt them, but to frighten the rich. And it is again for the same reason that the companies, having proved almost cruel to the third-class passengers and mean to the second-class ones, become lavish in dealing with first-class passengers. Having refused the poor what is necessary, they give the rich what is superfluous.
Nevertheless, a drug that improved your memory could be said to have made you smarter. We tend to view rote memory, the ability to memorize facts and repeat them, as a dumber kind of intelligence than creativity, strategy, or interpersonal skills. "But it is also true that certain abilities that we view as intelligence turn out to be in fact a very good memory being put to work," Farah says.
…The first time I took supplemental potassium (50% US RDA in a lot of water), it was like a brain fog lifted that I never knew I had, and I felt profoundly energized in a way that made me feel exercise was reasonable and prudent, which resulted in me and the roommate that had just supplemented potassium going for an hour long walk at 2AM. Experiences since then have not been quite so profound (which probably was so stark for me as I was likely fixing an acute deficiency), but I can still count on a moderately large amount of potassium to give me a solid, nearly side effect free performance boost for a few hours…I had been doing Bikram yoga on and off, and I think I wasn’t keeping up the practice because I wasn’t able to properly rehydrate myself.
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We can read off the results from the table or graph: the nicotine days average 1.1% higher, for an effect size of 0.24; however, the 95% credible interval (equivalent of confidence interval) goes all the way from 0.93 to -0.44, so we cannot exclude 0 effect and certainly not claim confidence the effect size must be >0.1. Specifically, the analysis gives a 66% chance that the effect size is >0.1. (One might wonder if any increase is due purely to a training effect - getting better at DNB. Probably not25.)
^ EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies; European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Parma, Italy (2011). "Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to L-theanine from Camellia sinensis (L.) Kuntze (tea) and improvement of cognitive function (ID 1104, 1222, 1600, 1601, 1707, 1935, 2004, 2005), alleviation of psychological stress (ID 1598, 1601), maintenance of normal sleep (ID 1222, 1737, 2004) and reduction of menstrual discomfort (ID 1599) pursuant to Article 13(1) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006". EFSA Journal. 9 (6): 2238. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2011.2238.