The flanker task is designed to tax cognitive control by requiring subjects to respond based on the identity of a target stimulus (H or S) and not the more numerous and visually salient stimuli that flank the target (as in a display such as HHHSHHH). Servan-Schreiber, Carter, Bruno, and Cohen (1998) administered the flanker task to subjects on placebo and d-AMP. They found an overall speeding of responses but, more importantly, an increase in accuracy that was disproportionate for the incongruent conditions, that is, the conditions in which the target and flankers did not match and cognitive control was needed.
What if you could simply take a pill that would instantly make you more intelligent? One that would enhance your cognitive capabilities including attention, memory, focus, motivation and other higher executive functions? If you have ever seen the movie Limitless, you have an idea of what this would look like—albeit the exaggerated Hollywood version. The movie may be fictional but the reality may not be too far behind.
Despite decades of study, a full picture has yet to emerge of the cognitive effects of the classic psychostimulants and modafinil. Part of the problem is that getting rats, or indeed students, to do puzzles in laboratories may not be a reliable guide to the drugs’ effects in the wider world. Drugs have complicated effects on individuals living complicated lives. Determining that methylphenidate enhances cognition in rats by acting on their prefrontal cortex doesn’t tell you the potential impact that its effects on mood or motivation may have on human cognition.
…Phenethylamine is intrinsically a stimulant, although it doesn’t last long enough to express this property. In other words, it is rapidly and completely destroyed in the human body. It is only when a number of substituent groups are placed here or there on the molecule that this metabolic fate is avoided and pharmacological activity becomes apparent.
Manually mixing powders is too annoying, and pre-mixed pills are expensive in bulk. So if I’m not actively experimenting with something, and not yet rich, the best thing is to make my own pills, and if I’m making my own pills, I might as well make a custom formulation using the ones I’ve found personally effective. And since making pills is tedious, I want to not have to do it again for years. 3 years seems like a good interval - 1095 days. Since one is often busy and mayn’t take that day’s pills (there are enough ingredients it has to be multiple pills), it’s safe to round it down to a nice even 1000 days. What sort of hypothetical stack could I make? What do the prices come out to be, and what might we omit in the interests of protecting our pocketbook?
Adderall is an amphetamine, used as a drug to help focus and concentration in people with ADHD, and promote wakefulness for sufferers of narcolepsy. Adderall increases levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, along with a few other chemicals and neurotransmitters. It’s used off-label as a study drug, because, as mentioned, it is believed to increase focus and concentration, improve cognition and help users stay awake. Please note: Side Effects Possible.
A fundamental aspect of human evolution has been the drive to augment our capabilities. The neocortex is the neural seat of abstract and higher order cognitive processes. As it grew, so did our ability to create. The invention of tools and weapons, writing, the steam engine, and the computer have exponentially increased our capacity to influence and understand the world around us. These advances are being driven by improved higher-order cognitive processing.1Fascinatingly, the practice of modulating our biology through naturally occurring flora predated all of the above discoveries. Indeed, Sumerian clay slabs as old as 5000 BC detail medicinal recipes which include over 250 plants2. The enhancement of human cognition through natural compounds followed, as people discovered plants containing caffeine, theanine, and other cognition-enhancing, or nootropic, agents.

However, normally when you hear the term nootropic kicked around, people really mean a “cognitive enhancer” — something that does benefit thinking in some way (improved memory, faster speed-of-processing, increased concentration, or a combination of these, etc.), but might not meet the more rigorous definition above.  “Smart drugs” is another largely-interchangeable term.
And as before, around 9 AM I began to feel the peculiar feeling that I was mentally able and apathetic (in a sort of aboulia way); so I decided to try what helped last time, a short nap. But this time, though I took a full hour, I slept not a wink and my Zeo recorded only 2 transient episodes of light sleep! A back-handed sort of proof of alertness, I suppose. I didn’t bother trying again. The rest of the day was mediocre, and I wound up spending much of it on chores and whatnot out of my control. Mentally, I felt better past 3 PM.

As professionals and aging baby boomers alike become more interested in enhancing their own brain power (either to achieve more in a workday or to stave off cognitive decline), a huge market has sprung up for nonprescription nootropic supplements. These products don’t convince Sahakian: “As a clinician scientist, I am interested in evidence-based cognitive enhancement,” she says. “Many companies produce supplements, but few, if any, have double-blind, placebo-controlled studies to show that these supplements are cognitive enhancers.” Plus, supplements aren’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so consumers don’t have that assurance as to exactly what they are getting. Check out these 15 memory exercises proven to keep your brain sharp.

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:

“Smart Drugs” are chemical substances that enhance cognition and memory or facilitate learning. However, within this general umbrella of “things you can eat that make you smarter,” there are many variations as far as methods of action within the body, perceptible (and measurable) effects, potential for use and abuse, and the spillover impact on the body’s non-cognitive processes.

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:


The next cheap proposition to test is that the 2ml dose is so large that the sedation/depressive effect of nicotine has begun to kick in. This is easy to test: take much less, like half a ml. I do so two or three times over the next day, and subjectively the feeling seems to be the same - which seems to support that proposition (although perhaps I’ve been placebo effecting myself this whole time, in which case the exact amount doesn’t matter). If this theory is true, my previous sleep results don’t show anything; one would expect nicotine-as-sedative to not hurt sleep or improve it. I skip the day (no cravings or addiction noticed), and take half a ml right before bed at 11:30; I fall asleep in 12 minutes and have a ZQ of ~105. The next few days I try putting one or two drops into the tea kettle, which seems to work as well (or poorly) as before. At that point, I was warned that there were some results that nicotine withdrawal can kick in with delays as long as a week, so I shouldn’t be confident that a few days off proved an absence of addiction; I immediately quit to see what the week would bring. 4 or 7 days in, I didn’t notice anything. I’m still using it, but I’m definitely a little nonplussed and disgruntled - I need some independent source of nicotine to compare with!

Noopept is a nootropic that belongs to the ampakine family. It is known for promoting learning, boosting mood, and improving logical thinking. It has been popular as a study drug for a long time but has recently become a popular supplement for improving vision. Users report seeing colors more brightly and feeling as if their vision is more vivid after taking noopept.


Somewhat ironically given the stereotypes, while I was in college I dabbled very little in nootropics, sticking to melatonin and tea. Since then I have come to find nootropics useful, and intellectually interesting: they shed light on issues in philosophy of biology & evolution, argue against naive psychological dualism and for materialism, offer cases in point on the history of technology & civilization or recent psychology theories about addiction & willpower, challenge our understanding of the validity of statistics and psychology - where they don’t offer nifty little problems in statistics and economics themselves, and are excellent fodder for the young Quantified Self movement4; modafinil itself demonstrates the little-known fact that sleep has no accepted evolutionary explanation. (The hard drugs also have more ramifications than one might expect: how can one understand the history of Southeast Asia and the Vietnamese War without reference to heroin, or more contemporaneously, how can one understand the lasting appeal of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the unpopularity & corruption of the central government without reference to the Taliban’s frequent anti-drug campaigns or the drug-funded warlords of the Northern Alliance?)
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:
Spaced repetition at midnight: 3.68. (Graphing preceding and following days: ▅▄▆▆▁▅▆▃▆▄█ ▄ ▂▄▄▅) DNB starting 12:55 AM: 30/34/41. Transcribed Sawaragi 2005, then took a walk. DNB starting 6:45 AM: 45/44/33. Decided to take a nap and then take half the armodafinil on awakening, before breakfast. I wound up oversleeping until noon (4:28); since it was so late, I took only half the armodafinil sublingually. I spent the afternoon learning how to do value of information calculations, and then carefully working through 8 or 9 examples for my various pages, which I published on Lesswrong. That was a useful little project. DNB starting 12:09 AM: 30/38/48. (To graph the preceding day and this night: ▇▂█▆▅▃▃▇▇▇▁▂▄ ▅▅▁▁▃▆) Nights: 9:13; 7:24; 9:13; 8:20; 8:31.
Vinh Ngo, a San Francisco family practice doctor who specializes in hormone therapy, has become familiar with piracetam and other nootropics through a changing patient base. His office is located in the heart of the city’s tech boom and he is increasingly sought out by young, male tech workers who tell him they are interested in cognitive enhancement.

A provisional conclusion about the effects of stimulants on learning is that they do help with the consolidation of declarative learning, with effect sizes varying widely from small to large depending on the task and individual study. Indeed, as a practical matter, stimulants may be more helpful than many of the laboratory tasks indicate, given the apparent dependence of enhancement on length of delay before testing. Although, as a matter of convenience, experimenters tend to test memory for learned material soon after the learning, this method has not generally demonstrated stimulant-enhanced learning. However, when longer periods intervene between learning and test, a more robust enhancement effect can be seen. Note that the persistence of the enhancement effect well past the time of drug action implies that state-dependent learning is not responsible. In general, long-term effects on learning are of greater practical value to people. Even students cramming for exams need to retain information for more than an hour or two. We therefore conclude that stimulant medication does enhance learning in ways that may be useful in the real world.
Enhanced learning was also observed in two studies that involved multiple repeated encoding opportunities. Camp-Bruno and Herting (1994) found MPH enhanced summed recall in the Buschke Selective Reminding Test (Buschke, 1973; Buschke & Fuld, 1974) when 1-hr and 2-hr delays were combined, although individually only the 2-hr delay approached significance. Likewise, de Wit, Enggasser, and Richards (2002) found no effect of d-AMP on the Hopkins Verbal Learning Test (Brandt, 1991) after a 25-min delay. Willett (1962) tested rote learning of nonsense syllables with repeated presentations, and his results indicate that d-AMP decreased the number of trials needed to reach criterion.
Vinh Ngo, a San Francisco family practice doctor who specializes in hormone therapy, has become familiar with piracetam and other nootropics through a changing patient base. His office is located in the heart of the city’s tech boom and he is increasingly sought out by young, male tech workers who tell him they are interested in cognitive enhancement.

At dose #9, I’ve decided to give up on kratom. It is possible that it is helping me in some way that careful testing (eg. dual n-back over weeks) would reveal, but I don’t have a strong belief that kratom would help me (I seem to benefit more from stimulants, and I’m not clear on how an opiate-bearer like kratom could stimulate me). So I have no reason to do careful testing. Oh well.
As Sulbutiamine crosses the blood-brain barrier very easily, it has a positive effect on the cholinergic and the glutamatergic receptors that are responsible for essential activities impacting memory, concentration, and mood. The compound is also fat-soluble, which means it circulates rapidly and widely throughout the body and the brain, ensuring positive results. Thus, patients with schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease will find the drug to be very effective.
If stimulants truly enhance cognition but do so to only a small degree, this raises the question of whether small effects are of practical use in the real world. Under some circumstances, the answer would undoubtedly be yes. Success in academic and occupational competitions often hinges on the difference between being at the top or merely near the top. A scholarship or a promotion that can go to only one person will not benefit the runner-up at all. Hence, even a small edge in the competition can be important.
If you want to make sure that whatever you’re taking is safe, search for nootropics that have been backed by clinical trials and that have been around long enough for any potential warning signs about that specific nootropic to begin surfacing. There are supplements and nootropics that have been tested in a clinical setting, so there are options out there.
A provisional conclusion about the effects of stimulants on learning is that they do help with the consolidation of declarative learning, with effect sizes varying widely from small to large depending on the task and individual study. Indeed, as a practical matter, stimulants may be more helpful than many of the laboratory tasks indicate, given the apparent dependence of enhancement on length of delay before testing. Although, as a matter of convenience, experimenters tend to test memory for learned material soon after the learning, this method has not generally demonstrated stimulant-enhanced learning. However, when longer periods intervene between learning and test, a more robust enhancement effect can be seen. Note that the persistence of the enhancement effect well past the time of drug action implies that state-dependent learning is not responsible. In general, long-term effects on learning are of greater practical value to people. Even students cramming for exams need to retain information for more than an hour or two. We therefore conclude that stimulant medication does enhance learning in ways that may be useful in the real world.
It is at the top of the supplement snake oil list thanks to tons of correlations; for a review, see Luchtman & Song 2013 but some specifics include Teenage Boys Who Eat Fish At Least Once A Week Achieve Higher Intelligence Scores, anti-inflammatory properties (see Fish Oil: What the Prescriber Needs to Know on arthritis), and others - Fish oil can head off first psychotic episodes (study; Seth Roberts commentary), Fish Oil May Fight Breast Cancer, Fatty Fish May Cut Prostate Cancer Risk & Walnuts slow prostate cancer, Benefits of omega-3 fatty acids tally up, Serum Phospholipid Docosahexaenonic Acid Is Associated with Cognitive Functioning during Middle Adulthood endless anecdotes.
Didn't seem very important to me. Trump's ability to discern importance in military projects, sure, why not. Shanahan may be the first honest cabinet head; it could happen. With the record this administration has I'd need some long odds to bet that way. Does anyone doubt he got the loyalty spiel and then the wink and nod that anything he could get away with was fine. monies

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.


Aniracetam is known as one of the smart pills with the widest array of uses. From benefits for dementia patients and memory boost in adults with healthy brains, to the promotion of brain damage recovery. It also improves the quality of sleep, what affects the overall increase in focus during the day. Because it supports the production of dopamine and serotonin, it elevates our mood and helps fight depression and anxiety.

“In 183 pages, Cavin Balaster’s new book, How to Feed A Brain provides an outline and plan for how to maximize one’s brain performance. The “Citation Notes” provide all the scientific and academic documentation for further understanding. The “Additional Resources and Tips” listing takes you to Cavin’s website for more detail than could be covered in 183 pages. Cavin came to this knowledge through the need to recover from a severe traumatic brain injury and he did not keep his lessons learned to himself. This book is enlightening for anyone with a brain. We all want to function optimally, even to take exams, stay dynamic, and make positive contributions to our communities. Bravo Cavin for sharing your lessons learned!”


Supplements, medications, and coffee certainly might play a role in keeping our brains running smoothly at work or when we’re trying to remember where we left our keys. But the long-term effects of basic lifestyle practices can’t be ignored. “For good brain health across the life span, you should keep your brain active,” Sahakian says. “There is good evidence for ‘use it or lose it.’” She suggests brain-training apps to improve memory, as well as physical exercise. “You should ensure you have a healthy diet and not overeat. It is also important to have good-quality sleep. Finally, having a good work-life balance is important for well-being.” Try these 8 ways to get smarter while you sleep.
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.
Accordingly, we searched the literature for studies in which MPH or d-AMP was administered orally to nonelderly adults in a placebo-controlled design. Some of the studies compared the effects of multiple drugs, in which case we report only the results of stimulant–placebo comparisons; some of the studies compared the effects of stimulants on a patient group and on normal control subjects, in which case we report only the results for control subjects. The studies varied in many other ways, including the types of tasks used, the specific drug used, the way in which dosage was determined (fixed dose or weight-dependent dose), sample size, and subject characteristics (e.g., age, college sample or not, gender). Our approach to the classic splitting versus lumping dilemma has been to take a moderate lumping approach. We group studies according to the general type of cognitive process studied and, within that grouping, the type of task. The drug and dose are reported, as well as sample characteristics, but in the absence of pronounced effects of these factors, we do not attempt to make generalizations about them.
The fish oil can be considered a free sunk cost: I would take it in the absence of an experiment. The empty pill capsules could be used for something else, so we’ll put the 500 at $5. Filling 500 capsules with fish and olive oil will be messy and take an hour. Taking them regularly can be added to my habitual morning routine for vitamin D and the lithium experiment, so that is close to free but we’ll call it an hour over the 250 days. Recording mood/productivity is also free a sunk cost as it’s necessary for the other experiments; but recording dual n-back scores is more expensive: each round is ~2 minutes and one wants >=5, so each block will cost >10 minutes, so 18 tests will be >180 minutes or >3 hours. So >5 hours. Total: 5 + (>5 \times 7.25) = >41.
Spaced repetition at midnight: 3.68. (Graphing preceding and following days: ▅▄▆▆▁▅▆▃▆▄█ ▄ ▂▄▄▅) DNB starting 12:55 AM: 30/34/41. Transcribed Sawaragi 2005, then took a walk. DNB starting 6:45 AM: 45/44/33. Decided to take a nap and then take half the armodafinil on awakening, before breakfast. I wound up oversleeping until noon (4:28); since it was so late, I took only half the armodafinil sublingually. I spent the afternoon learning how to do value of information calculations, and then carefully working through 8 or 9 examples for my various pages, which I published on Lesswrong. That was a useful little project. DNB starting 12:09 AM: 30/38/48. (To graph the preceding day and this night: ▇▂█▆▅▃▃▇▇▇▁▂▄ ▅▅▁▁▃▆) Nights: 9:13; 7:24; 9:13; 8:20; 8:31.
This calculation - reaping only \frac{7}{9} of the naive expectation - gives one pause. How serious is the sleep rebound? In another article, I point to a mice study that sleep deficits can take 28 days to repay. What if the gain from modafinil is entirely wiped out by repayment and all it did was defer sleep? Would that render modafinil a waste of money? Perhaps. Thinking on it, I believe deferring sleep is of some value, but I cannot decide whether it is a net profit.
However, when I didn’t stack it with Choline, I would get what users call “racetam headaches.” Choline, as Patel explains, is not a true nootropic, but it’s still a pro-cognitive compound that many take with other nootropics in a stack. It’s an essential nutrient that humans need for functions like memory and muscle control, but we can’t produce it, and many Americans don’t get enough of it. The headaches I got weren’t terribly painful, but they were uncomfortable enough that I stopped taking Piracetam on its own. Even without the headache, though, I didn’t really like the level of focus Piracetam gave me. I didn’t feel present when I used it, even when I tried to mix in caffeine and L-theanine. And while it seemed like I could focus and do my work faster, I was making more small mistakes in my writing, like skipping words. Essentially, it felt like my brain was moving faster than I could.
11:30 AM. By 2:30 PM, my hunger is quite strong and I don’t feel especially focused - it’s difficult to get through the tab-explosion of the morning, although one particularly stupid poster on the DNB ML makes me feel irritated like I might on Adderall. I initially figure the probability at perhaps 60% for Adderall, but when I wake up at 2 AM and am completely unable to get back to sleep, eventually racking up a Zeo score of 73 (compared to the usual 100s), there’s no doubt in my mind (95%) that the pill was Adderall. And it was the last Adderall pill indeed.
And as before, around 9 AM I began to feel the peculiar feeling that I was mentally able and apathetic (in a sort of aboulia way); so I decided to try what helped last time, a short nap. But this time, though I took a full hour, I slept not a wink and my Zeo recorded only 2 transient episodes of light sleep! A back-handed sort of proof of alertness, I suppose. I didn’t bother trying again. The rest of the day was mediocre, and I wound up spending much of it on chores and whatnot out of my control. Mentally, I felt better past 3 PM.
NGF may sound intriguing, but the price is a dealbreaker: at suggested doses of 1-100μg (NGF dosing in humans for benefits is, shall we say, not an exact science), and a cost from sketchy suppliers of $1210/100μg/$470/500μg/$750/1000μg/$1000/1000μg/$1030/1000μg/$235/20μg. (Levi-Montalcini was presumably able to divert some of her lab’s production.) A year’s supply then would be comically expensive: at the lowest doses of 1-10μg using the cheapest sellers (for something one is dumping into one’s eyes?), it could cost anywhere up to $10,000.
Most of the most solid fish oil results seem to meliorate the effects of age; in my 20s, I’m not sure they are worth the cost. But I would probably resume fish oil in my 30s or 40s when aging really becomes a concern. So the experiment at most will result in discontinuing for a decade. At $X a year, that’s a net present value of sum $ map (\n -> 70 / (1 + 0.05)^n) [1..10] = $540.5.
However, they fell short in several categories. The key issue with their product is that it does not contain DHA Omega 3 and the other essential vitamins and nutrients needed to support the absorption of Huperzine A and Phosphatidylserine. Without having DHA Omega 3 it will not have an essential piece to maximum effectiveness. This means that you would need to take a separate pill of DHA Omega 3 and several other essential vitamins to ensure you are able to reach optimal memory support. They also are still far less effective than our #1 pick’s complete array of the 3 essential brain supporting ingredients and over 30 supporting nutrients, making their product less effective.
Barbara Sahakian, a neuroscientist at Cambridge University, doesn’t dismiss the possibility of nootropics to enhance cognitive function in healthy people. She would like to see society think about what might be considered acceptable use and where it draws the line – for example, young people whose brains are still developing. But she also points out a big problem: long-term safety studies in healthy people have never been done. Most efficacy studies have only been short-term. “Proving safety and efficacy is needed,” she says.
A week later: Golden Sumatran, 3 spoonfuls, a more yellowish powder. (I combined it with some tea dregs to hopefully cut the flavor a bit.) Had a paper to review that night. No (subjectively noticeable) effect on energy or productivity. I tried 4 spoonfuls at noon the next day; nothing except a little mental tension, for lack of a better word. I think that was just the harbinger of what my runny nose that day and the day before was, a head cold that laid me low during the evening.
Most people I talk to about modafinil seem to use it for daytime usage; for me that has not ever worked out well, but I had nothing in particular to show against it. So, as I was capping the last of my piracetam-caffeine mix and clearing off my desk, I put the 4 remaining Modalerts pills into capsules with the last of my creatine powder and then mixed them with 4 of the theanine-creatine pills. Like the previous Adderall trial, I will pick one pill blindly each day and guess at the end which it was. If it was active (modafinil-creatine), take a break the next day; if placebo (theanine-creatine), replace the placebo and try again the next day. We’ll see if I notice anything on DNB or possibly gwern.net edits.
Regardless of your goal, there is a supplement that can help you along the way. Below, we’ve put together the definitive smart drugs list for peak mental performance. There are three major groups of smart pills and cognitive enhancers. We will cover each one in detail in our list of smart drugs. They are natural and herbal nootropics, prescription ADHD medications, and racetams and synthetic nootropics.
Weyandt et al. (2009) Large public university undergraduates (N = 390) 7.5% (past 30 days) Highest rated reasons were to perform better on schoolwork, perform better on tests, and focus better in class 21.2% had occasionally been offered by other students; 9.8% occasionally or frequently have purchased from other students; 1.4% had sold to other students

Nootropics are a broad classification of cognition-enhancing compounds that produce minimal side effects and are suitable for long-term use. These compounds include those occurring in nature or already produced by the human body (such as neurotransmitters), and their synthetic analogs. We already regularly consume some of these chemicals: B vitamins, caffeine, and L-theanine, in our daily diets.
Vinpocetine walks a line between herbal and pharmaceutical product. It’s a synthetic derivative of a chemical from the periwinkle plant, and due to its synthetic nature we feel it’s more appropriate as a ‘smart drug’. Plus, it’s illegal in the UK. Vinpocetine is purported to improve cognitive function by improving blood flow to the brain, which is why it's used in some 'study drugs' or 'smart pills'.
When you drink tea, you’re getting some caffeine (less than the amount in coffee), plus an amino acid called L-theanine that has been shown in studies to increase activity in the brain’s alpha frequency band, which can lead to relaxation without drowsiness. These calming-but-stimulating effects might contribute to tea’s status as the most popular beverage aside from water. People have been drinking it for more than 4,000 years, after all, but modern brain hackers try to distill and enhance the benefits by taking just L-theanine as a nootropic supplement. Unfortunately, that means they’re missing out on the other health effects that tea offers. It’s packed with flavonoids, which are associated with longevity, reduced inflammation, weight loss, cardiovascular health, and cancer prevention.
Last spring, 100 people showed up at a Peak Performance event where psychedelic psychologist James Fadiman said the key to unleashing the cognition-enhancing effects of LSD — which he listed as less anxiety, better focus, improved sleep, greater creativity — was all in the dosage. He recommended a tenth of a “party dose” — enough to give you “the glow” and enhance your cognitive powers without “the trip.”
The evidence? Ritalin is FDA-approved to treat ADHD. It has also been shown to help patients with traumatic brain injury concentrate for longer periods, but does not improve memory in those patients, according to a 2016 meta-analysis of several trials. A study published in 2012 found that low doses of methylphenidate improved cognitive performance, including working memory, in healthy adult volunteers, but high doses impaired cognitive performance and a person’s ability to focus. (Since the brains of teens have been found to be more sensitive to the drug’s effect, it’s possible that methylphenidate in lower doses could have adverse effects on working memory and cognitive functions.)
We reviewed recent studies concerning prescription stimulant use specifically among students in the United States and Canada, using the method illustrated in Figure 1. Although less informative about the general population, these studies included questions about students’ specific reasons for using the drugs, as well as frequency of use and means of obtaining them. These studies typically found rates of use greater than those reported by the nationwide NSDUH or the MTF surveys. This probably reflects a true difference in rates of usage among the different populations. In support of that conclusion, the NSDUH data for college age Americans showed that college students were considerably more likely than nonstudents of the same age to use prescription stimulants nonmedically (odds ratio: 2.76; Herman-Stahl, Krebs, Kroutil, & Heller, 2007).

Those who have taken them swear they do work – though not in the way you might think. Back in 2015, a review of the evidence found that their impact on intelligence is “modest”. But most people don’t take them to improve their mental abilities. Instead, they take them to improve their mental energy and motivation to work. (Both drugs also come with serious risks and side effects – more on those later).
I can test fish oil for mood, since the other claimed benefits like anti-schizophrenia are too hard to test. The medical student trial (Kiecolt-Glaser et al 2011) did not see changes until visit 3, after 3 weeks of supplementation. (Visit 1, 3 weeks, visit 2, supplementation started for 3 weeks, visit 3, supplementation continued 3 weeks, visit 4 etc.) There were no tests in between the test starting week 1 and starting week 3, so I can’t pin it down any further. This suggests randomizing in 2 or 3 week blocks. (For an explanation of blocking, see the footnote in the Zeo page.)
Ethical issues also arise with the use of drugs to boost brain power. Their use as cognitive enhancers isn’t currently regulated. But should it be, just as the use of certain performance-enhancing drugs is regulated for professional athletes? Should universities consider dope testing to check that students aren’t gaining an unfair advantage through drug use? 
Please note: Smart Pills, Smart Drugs or Brain Food Supplements are also known as: Brain Smart Vitamins, Brain Tablets, Brain Vitamins, Brain Booster Supplements, Brain Enhancing Supplements, Cognitive Enhancers, Focus Enhancers, Concentration Supplements, Mental Focus Supplements, Mind Supplements, Neuro Enhancers, Neuro Focusers, Vitamins for Brain Function,Vitamins for Brain Health, Smart Brain Supplements, Nootropics, or "Natural Nootropics"
Schroeder, Mann-Koepke, Gualtieri, Eckerman, and Breese (1987) assessed the performance of subjects on placebo and MPH in a game that allowed subjects to switch between two different sectors seeking targets to shoot. They did not observe an effect of the drug on overall level of performance, but they did find fewer switches between sectors among subjects who took MPH, and perhaps because of this, these subjects did not develop a preference for the more fruitful sector.
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).

Finally, all of the questions raised here in relation to MPH and d-AMP can also be asked about newer drugs and even about nonpharmacological methods of cognitive enhancement. An example of a newer drug with cognitive-enhancing potential is modafinil. Originally marketed as a therapy for narcolepsy, it is widely used off label for other purposes (Vastag, 2004), and a limited literature on its cognitive effects suggests some promise as a cognitive enhancer for normal healthy people (see Minzenberg & Carter, 2008, for a review).
Sure, those with a mental illness may very well need a little more monitoring to make sure they take their medications, but will those suffering from a condition with hallmark symptoms of paranoia and anxiety be helped by consuming a technology that quite literally puts a tracking device inside their body? For patients hearing voices telling them that they're being watched, a monitoring device may be a hard pill to swallow.
In my last post, I talked about the idea that there is a resource that is necessary for self-control…I want to talk a little bit about the candidate for this resource, glucose. Could willpower fail because the brain is low on sugar? Let’s look at the numbers. A well-known statistic is that the brain, while only 2% of body weight, consumes 20% of the body’s energy. That sounds like the brain consumes a lot of calories, but if we assume a 2,400 calorie/day diet - only to make the division really easy - that’s 100 calories per hour on average, 20 of which, then, are being used by the brain. Every three minutes, then, the brain - which includes memory systems, the visual system, working memory, then emotion systems, and so on - consumes one (1) calorie. One. Yes, the brain is a greedy organ, but it’s important to keep its greediness in perspective… Suppose, for instance, that a brain in a person exerting their willpower - resisting eating brownies or what have you - used twice as many calories as a person not exerting willpower. That person would need an extra one third of a calorie per minute to make up the difference compared to someone not exerting willpower. Does exerting self control burn more calories?

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.
Aniracetam is known as one of the smart pills with the widest array of uses. From benefits for dementia patients and memory boost in adults with healthy brains, to the promotion of brain damage recovery. It also improves the quality of sleep, what affects the overall increase in focus during the day. Because it supports the production of dopamine and serotonin, it elevates our mood and helps fight depression and anxiety.
Phenylpiracetam (Phenotropil) is one of the best smart drugs in the racetam family. It has the highest potency and bioavailability among racetam nootropics. This substance is almost the same as Piracetam; only it contains a phenyl group molecule. The addition to its chemical structure improves blood-brain barrier permeability. This modification allows Phenylpiracetam to work faster than other racetams. Its cognitive enhancing effects can last longer as well.
One curious thing that leaps out looking at the graphs is that the estimated underlying standard deviations differ: the nicotine days have a strikingly large standard deviation, indicating greater variability in scores - both higher and lower, since the means weren’t very different. The difference in standard deviations is just 6.6% below 0, so the difference almost reaches our usual frequentist levels of confidence too, which we can verify by testing:
Ngo has experimented with piracetam himself (“The first time I tried it, I thought, ‘Wow, this is pretty strong for a supplement.’ I had a little bit of reflux, heartburn, but in general it was a cognitive enhancer. . . . I found it helpful”) and the neurotransmitter DMEA (“You have an idea, it helps you finish the thought. It’s for when people have difficulty finishing that last connection in the brain”).
Imagine a pill you can take to speed up your thought processes, boost your memory, and make you more productive. If it sounds like the ultimate life hack, you’re not alone. There are pills that promise that out there, but whether they work is complicated. Here are the most popular cognitive enhancers available, and what science actually says about them.
All clear? Try one (not dozens) of nootropics for a few weeks and keep track of how you feel, Kerl suggests. It’s also important to begin with as low a dose as possible; when Cyr didn’t ease into his nootropic regimen, his digestion took the blow, he admits. If you don’t notice improvements, consider nixing the product altogether and focusing on what is known to boost cognitive function – eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep regularly and exercising. "Some of those lifestyle modifications," Kerl says, "may improve memory over a supplement."
Only two of the eight experiments reviewed in this section found that stimulants enhanced performance, on a nonverbal fluency task in one case and in Raven’s Progressive Matrices in the other. The small number of studies of any given type makes it difficult to draw general conclusions about the underlying executive function systems that might be influenced.
The smart pill industry has popularized many herbal nootropics. Most of them first appeared in Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine. Ayurveda is a branch of natural medicine originating from India. It focuses on using herbs as remedies for improving quality of life and healing ailments. Evidence suggests our ancestors were on to something with this natural approach.
Popular smart drugs on the market include methylphenidate (commonly known as Ritalin) and amphetamine (Adderall), stimulants normally used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD. In recent years, another drug called modafinil has emerged as the new favourite amongst college students. Primarily used to treat excessive sleepiness associated with the sleep disorder narcolepsy, modafinil increases alertness and energy.
Related to the famous -racetams but reportedly better (and much less bulky), Noopept is one of the many obscure Russian nootropics. (Further reading: Google Scholar, Examine.com, Reddit, Longecity, Bluelight.ru.) Its advantages seem to be that it’s far more compact than piracetam and doesn’t taste awful so it’s easier to store and consume; doesn’t have the cloud hanging over it that piracetam does due to the FDA letters, so it’s easy to purchase through normal channels; is cheap on a per-dose basis; and it has fans claiming it is better than piracetam.
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.
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).
A poster or two on Longecity claimed that iodine supplementation had changed their eye color, suggesting a connection to the yellow-reddish element bromine - bromides being displaced by their chemical cousin, iodine. I was skeptical this was a real effect since I don’t know why visible amounts of either iodine or bromine would be in the eye, and the photographs produced were less than convincing. But it’s an easy thing to test, so why not?
Table 4 lists the results of 27 tasks from 23 articles on the effects of d-AMP or MPH on working memory. The oldest and most commonly used type of working memory task in this literature is the Sternberg short-term memory scanning paradigm (Sternberg, 1966), in which subjects hold a set of items (typically letters or numbers) in working memory and are then presented with probe items, to which they must respond “yes” (in the set) or “no” (not in the set). The size of the set, and hence the working memory demand, is sometimes varied, and the set itself may be varied from trial to trial to maximize working memory demands or may remain fixed over a block of trials. Taken together, the studies that have used a version of this task to test the effects of MPH and d-AMP on working memory have found mixed and somewhat ambiguous results. No pattern is apparent concerning the specific version of the task or the specific drug. Four studies found no effect (Callaway, 1983; Kennedy, Odenheimer, Baltzley, Dunlap, & Wood, 1990; Mintzer & Griffiths, 2007; Tipper et al., 2005), three found faster responses with the drugs (Fitzpatrick, Klorman, Brumaghim, & Keefover, 1988; Ward et al., 1997; D. E. Wilson et al., 1971), and one found higher accuracy in some testing sessions at some dosages, but no main effect of drug (Makris et al., 2007). The meaningfulness of the increased speed of responding is uncertain, given that it could reflect speeding of general response processes rather than working memory–related processes. Aspects of the results of two studies suggest that the effects are likely due to processes other than working memory: D. E. Wilson et al. (1971) reported comparable speeding in a simple task without working memory demands, and Tipper et al. (2005) reported comparable speeding across set sizes.

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?)↩


In addition, while the laboratory research reviewed here is of interest concerning the effects of stimulant drugs on specific cognitive processes, it does not tell us about the effects on cognition in the real world. How do these drugs affect academic performance when used by students? How do they affect the total knowledge and understanding that students take with them from a course? How do they affect various aspects of occupational performance? Similar questions have been addressed in relation to students and workers with ADHD (Barbaresi, Katusic, Colligan, Weaver, & Jacobsen, 2007; Halmøy, Fasmer, Gillberg, & Haavik, 2009; see also Advokat, 2010) but have yet to be addressed in the context of cognitive enhancement of normal individuals.


The power calculation indicates a 20% chance of getting useful information. My quasi-experiment has <70% chance of being right, and I preserve a general skepticism about any experiment, even one as well done as the medical student one seems to be, and give that one a <80% chance of being right; so let’s call it 70% the effect exists, or 30% it doesn’t exist (which is the case in which I save money by dropping fish oil for 10 years).
A record of nootropics I have tried, with thoughts about which ones worked and did not work for me. These anecdotes should be considered only as anecdotes, and one’s efforts with nootropics a hobby to put only limited amounts of time into due to the inherent limits of drugs as a force-multiplier compared to other things like programming1; for an ironic counterpoint, I suggest the reader listen to a video of Jonathan Coulton’s I Feel Fantastic while reading.
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.
Regardless of your goal, there is a supplement that can help you along the way. Below, we’ve put together the definitive smart drugs list for peak mental performance. There are three major groups of smart pills and cognitive enhancers. We will cover each one in detail in our list of smart drugs. They are natural and herbal nootropics, prescription ADHD medications, and racetams and synthetic nootropics.
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