This world is a competitive place. If you’re not seeking an advantage, you’ll get passed by those who do. Whether you’re studying for a final exam or trying to secure a big business deal, you need a definitive mental edge. Are smart drugs and brain-boosting pills the answer for cognitive enhancement in 2019? If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying, right? Bad advice for some scenarios, but there is a grain of truth to every saying—even this one.
“You know how they say that we can only access 20% of our brain?” says the man who offers stressed-out writer Eddie Morra a fateful pill in the 2011 film Limitless. “Well, what this does, it lets you access all of it.” Morra is instantly transformed into a superhuman by the fictitious drug NZT-48. Granted access to all cognitive areas, he learns to play the piano in three days, finishes writing his book in four, and swiftly makes himself a millionaire.
When I worked on the Bulletproof Diet book, I wanted to verify that the effects I was getting from Bulletproof Coffee were not coming from modafinil, so I stopped using it and measured my cognitive performance while I was off of it. What I found was that on Bulletproof Coffee and the Bulletproof Diet, my mental performance was almost identical to my performance on modafinil. I still travel with modafinil, and I’ll take it on occasion, but while living a Bulletproof lifestyle I rarely feel the need.
These are quite abstract concepts, though. There is a large gap, a grey area in between these concepts and our knowledge of how the brain functions physiologically – and it’s in this grey area that cognitive enhancer development has to operate. Amy Arnsten, Professor of Neurobiology at Yale Medical School, is investigating how the cells in the brain work together to produce our higher cognition and executive function, which she describes as “being able to think about things that aren’t currently stimulating your senses, the fundamentals of abstraction. This involves mental representations of our goals for the future, even if it’s the future in just a few seconds.”
Feeling behind, I resolved to take some armodafinil the next morning, which I did - but in my hurry I failed to recall that 200mg armodafinil was probably too much to take during the day, with its long half life. As a result, I felt irritated and not that great during the day (possibly aggravated by some caffeine - I wish some studies would be done on the possible interaction of modafinil and caffeine so I knew if I was imagining it or not). Certainly not what I had been hoping for. I went to bed after midnight (half an hour later than usual), and suffered severe insomnia. The time wasn’t entirely wasted as I wrote a short story and figured out how to make nicotine gum placebos during the hours in the dark, but I could have done without the experience. All metrics omitted because it was a day usage.
Since the discovery of the effect of nootropics on memory and focus, the number of products on the market has increased exponentially. The ingredients used in a supplement can tell you about the effectiveness of the product. Brain enhancement pills that produce the greatest benefit are formulated with natural vitamins and substances, rather than caffeine and synthetic ingredients. In addition to better results, natural supplements are less likely to produce side effects, compared with drugs formulated with chemical ingredients.
Amphetamine – systematic reviews and meta-analyses report that low-dose amphetamine improved cognitive functions (e.g., inhibitory control, episodic memory, working memory, and aspects of attention) in healthy people and in individuals with ADHD. A 2014 systematic review noted that low doses of amphetamine also improved memory consolidation, in turn leading to improved recall of information in non-ADHD youth. It also improves task saliency (motivation to perform a task) and performance on tedious tasks that required a high degree of effort.