But when aficionados talk about nootropics, they usually refer to substances that have supposedly few side effects and low toxicity. Most often they mean piracetam, which Giurgea first synthesized in 1964 and which is approved for therapeutic use in dozens of countries for use in adults and the elderly. Not so in the United States, however, where officially it can be sold only for research purposes.
More recently, the drug modafinil (brand name: Provigil) has become the brain-booster of choice for a growing number of Americans. According to the FDA, modafinil is intended to bolster “wakefulness” in people with narcolepsy, obstructive sleep apnea or shift work disorder. But when people without those conditions take it, it has been linked with improvements in alertness, energy, focus and decision-making. A 2017 study found evidence that modafinil may enhance some aspects of brain connectivity, which could explain these benefits.
Cytisine is not known as a stimulant and I’m not addicted to nicotine, so why give it a try? Nicotine is one of the more effective stimulants available, and it’s odd how few nicotine analogues or nicotinic agonists there are available; nicotine has a few flaws like short half-life and increasing blood pressure, so I would be interested in a replacement. The nicotine metabolite cotinine, in the human studies available, looks intriguing and potentially better, but I have been unable to find a source for it. One of the few relevant drugs which I can obtain is cytisine, from Ceretropic, at 2x1.5mg doses. There are not many anecdotal reports on cytisine, but at least a few suggest somewhat comparable effects with nicotine, so I gave it a try.
A total of 330 randomly selected Saudi adolescents were included. Anthropometrics were recorded and fasting blood samples were analyzed for routine analysis of fasting glucose, lipid levels, calcium, albumin and phosphorous. Frequency of coffee and tea intake was noted. 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels were measured using enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays…Vitamin D levels were significantly highest among those consuming 9-12 cups of tea/week in all subjects (p-value 0.009) independent of age, gender, BMI, physical activity and sun exposure.
That study is also interesting for finding benefits to chronic piracetam+choline supplementation in the mice, which seems connected to a Russian study which reportedly found that piracetam (among other more obscure nootropics) increased secretion of BDNF in mice. See also Drug heuristics on a study involving choline supplementation in pregnant rats.↩
With all these studies pointing to the nootropic benefits of some essential oils, it can logically be concluded then that some essential oils can be considered “smart drugs.” However, since essential oils have so much variety and only a small fraction of this wide range has been studied, it cannot be definitively concluded that absolutely all essential oils have brain-boosting benefits. The connection between the two is strong, however.
Some data suggest that cognitive enhancers do improve some types of learning and memory, but many other data say these substances have no effect. The strongest evidence for these substances is for the improvement of cognitive function in people with brain injury or disease (for example, Alzheimer's disease and traumatic brain injury). Although "popular" books and companies that sell smart drugs will try to convince you that these drugs work, the evidence for any significant effects of these substances in normal people is weak. There are also important side-effects that must be considered. Many of these substances affect neurotransmitter systems in the central nervous system. The effects of these chemicals on neurological function and behavior is unknown. Moreover, the long-term safety of these substances has not been adequately tested. Also, some substances will interact with other substances. A substance such as the herb ma-huang may be dangerous if a person stops taking it suddenly; it can also cause heart attacks, stroke, and sudden death. Finally, it is important to remember that products labeled as "natural" do not make them "safe."
The majority of studies seem to be done on types of people who are NOT buying nootropics. Like the elderly, people with blatant cognitive deficits, etc. This is analogous to some of the muscle-building research but more extreme. Like there are studies on some compound increasing muscle growth in elderly patients or patients with wasting, and supplement companies use some of those studies to back their supplements.
My worry about the MP variable is that, plausible or not, it does seem relatively weak against manipulation; other variables I could look at, like arbtt window-tracking of how I spend my computer time, # or size of edits to my files, or spaced repetition performance, would be harder to manipulate. If it’s all due to MP, then if I remove the MP and LLLT variables, and summarize all the other variables with factor analysis into 2 or 3 variables, then I should see no increases in them when I put LLLT back in and look for a correlation between the factors & LLLT with a multivariate regression.
2 break days later, I took the quarter-pill at 11:22 PM. I had discovered I had for years physically possessed a very long interview not available online, and transcribing that seemed like a good way to use up a few hours. I did some reading, some Mnemosyne, and started it around midnight, finishing around 2:30 AM. There seemed a mental dip around 30 minutes after the armodafinil, but then things really picked up and I made very good progress transcribing the final draft of 9000 words in that period. (In comparison, The Conscience of the Otaking parts 2 & 4 were much easier to read than the tiny font of the RahXephon booklet, took perhaps 3 hours, and totaled only 6500 words. The nicotine is probably also to thank.) By 3:40 AM, my writing seems to be clumsier and my mind fogged. Began DNB at 3:50: 61/53/44. Went to bed at 4:05, fell asleep in 16 minutes, slept for 3:56. Waking up was easier and I felt better, so the extra hour seemed to help.
Since LLLT was so cheap, seemed safe, was interesting, just trying it would involve minimal effort, and it would be a favor to lostfalco, I decided to try it. I purchased off eBay a $13 48 LED illuminator light IR Infrared Night Vision+Power Supply For CCTV. Auto Power-On Sensor, only turn-on when the surrounding is dark. IR LED wavelength: 850nm. Powered by DC 12V 500mA adaptor. It arrived in 4 days, on 7 September 2013. It fits handily in my palm. My cellphone camera verified it worked and emitted infrared - important because there’s no visible light at all (except in complete darkness I can make out a faint red light), no noise, no apparent heat (it took about 30 minutes before the lens or body warmed up noticeably when I left it on a table). This was good since I worried that there would be heat or noise which made blinding impossible; all I had to do was figure out how to randomly turn the power on and I could run blinded self-experiments with it.
See Melatonin for information on effects & cost; I regularly use melatonin to sleep (more to induce sleep than prolong or deepen it), and investigating with my Zeo, it does seem to improve & shorten my sleep. Some research suggests that higher doses are not necessarily better and may be overkill, so each time I’ve run out, I’ve been steadily decreasing the dose from 3mg to 1.5mg to 1mg, without apparently compromising the usefulness.
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
The intradimensional– extradimensional shift task from the CANTAB battery was used in two studies of MPH and measures the ability to shift the response criterion from one dimension to another, as in the WCST, as well as to measure other abilities, including reversal learning, measured by performance in the trials following an intradimensional shift. With an intradimensional shift, the learned association between values of a given stimulus dimension and reward versus no reward is reversed, and participants must learn to reverse their responses accordingly. Elliott et al. (1997) reported finding no effects of the drug on ability to shift among dimensions in the extradimensional shift condition and did not describe performance on the intradimensional shift. Rogers et al. (1999) found that accuracy improved but responses slowed with MPH on trials requiring a shift from one dimension to another, which leaves open the question of whether the drug produced net enhancement, interference, or neither on these trials once the tradeoff between speed and accuracy is taken into account. For intradimensional shifts, which require reversal learning, these authors found drug-induced impairment: significantly slower responding accompanied by a borderline-significant impairment of accuracy.
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.
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).
The general cost of fish oil made me interested in possible substitutes. Seth Roberts uses exclusively flaxseed oil or flaxseed meal, and this seems to work well for him with subjective effects (eg. noticing his Chinese brands seemed to not work, possibly because they were unrefrigerated and slightly rancid). It’s been studied much less than fish oil, but omega acids are confusing enough in general (is there a right ratio? McCluskey’s roundup gives the impression claims about ratios may have been overstated) that I’m not convinced ALA is a much inferior replacement for fish oil’s mixes of EPA & DHA.
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.
The soft gels are very small; one needs to be a bit careful - Vitamin D is fat-soluble and overdose starts in the range of 70,000 IU35, so it would take at least 14 pills, and it’s unclear where problems start with chronic use. Vitamin D, like many supplements, follows a U-shaped response curve (see also Melamed et al 2008 and Durup et al 2012) - too much can be quite as bad as too little. Too little, though, is likely very bad. The previously cited studies with high acute doses worked out to <1,000 IU a day, so they may reassure us about the risks of a large acute dose but not tell us much about smaller chronic doses; the mortality increases due to too-high blood levels begin at ~140nmol/l and reading anecdotes online suggest that 5k IU daily doses tend to put people well below that (around 70-100nmol/l). I probably should get a blood test to be sure, but I have something of a needle phobia.
One claim was partially verified in passing by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Supplementing potassium (citrate) hasn’t helped me much, but works dramatically for Anna, Kevin, and Vassar…About the same as drinking a cup of coffee - i.e., it works as a perker-upper, somehow. I’m not sure, since it doesn’t do anything for me except possibly mitigate foot cramps.)
One study of helicopter pilots suggested that 600 mg of modafinil given in three doses can be used to keep pilots alert and maintain their accuracy at pre-deprivation levels for 40 hours without sleep. However, significant levels of nausea and vertigo were observed. Another study of fighter pilots showed that modafinil given in three divided 100 mg doses sustained the flight control accuracy of sleep-deprived F-117 pilots to within about 27% of baseline levels for 37 hours, without any considerable side effects. In an 88-hour sleep loss study of simulated military grounds operations, 400 mg/day doses were mildly helpful at maintaining alertness and performance of subjects compared to placebo, but the researchers concluded that this dose was not high enough to compensate for most of the effects of complete sleep loss.
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.
Several chemical influences can completely disconnect those circuits so they’re no longer able to excite each other. “That’s what happens when we’re tired, when we’re stressed.” Drugs like caffeine and nicotine enhance the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which helps restore function to the circuits. Hence people drink tea and coffee, or smoke cigarettes, “to try and put [the] prefrontal cortex into a more optimal state”.
With something like creatine, you’d know if it helps you pump out another rep at the gym on a sustainable basis. With nootropics, you can easily trick yourself into believing they help your mindset. The ideal is to do a trial on yourself. Take identical looking nootropic pills and placebo pills for a couple weeks each, then see what the difference is. With only a third party knowing the difference, of course.
On the other hand, sometimes you’ll feel a great cognitive boost as soon as you take a pill. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. I find, for example, that modafinil makes you more of what you already are. That means if you are already kind of a dick and you take modafinil, you might act like a really big dick and regret it. It certainly happened to me! I like to think that I’ve done enough hacking of my brain that I’ve gotten over that programming… and that when I use nootropics they help me help people.