As I am not any of the latter, I didn’t really expect a mental benefit. As it happens, I observed nothing. What surprised me was something I had forgotten about: its physical benefits. My performance in Taekwondo classes suddenly improved - specifically, my endurance increased substantially. Before, classes had left me nearly prostrate at the end, but after, I was weary yet fairly alert and happy. (I have done Taekwondo since I was 7, and I have a pretty good sense of what is and is not normal performance for my body. This was not anything as simple as failing to notice increasing fitness or something.) This was driven home to me one day when in a flurry before class, I prepared my customary tea with piracetam, choline & creatine; by the middle of the class, I was feeling faint & tired, had to take a break, and suddenly, thunderstruck, realized that I had absentmindedly forgot to actually drink it! This made me a believer.
Methylphenidate – a benzylpiperidine that had cognitive effects (e.g., working memory, episodic memory, and inhibitory control, aspects of attention, and planning latency) in healthy people.[21][22][23] It also may improve task saliency and performance on tedious tasks.[25] At above optimal doses, methylphenidate had off–target effects that decreased learning.[26]
A “smart pill” is a drug that increases the cognitive ability of anyone taking it, whether the user is cognitively impaired or normal. The Romanian neuroscientist Corneliu Giurgea is often credited with first proposing, in the 1960s, that smart pills should be developed to increase the intelligence of the general population (see Giurgea, 1984). He is quoted as saying, “Man is not going to wait passively for millions of years before evolution offers him a better brain” (Gazzaniga, 2005, p. 71). In their best-selling book, Smart Drugs and Nutrients, Dean and Morgenthaler (1990) reviewed a large number of substances that have been used by healthy individuals with the goal of increasing cognitive ability. These include synthetic and natural products that affect neurotransmitter levels, neurogenesis, and blood flow to the brain. Although many of these substances have their adherents, none have become widely used. Caffeine and nicotine may be exceptions to this generalization, as one motivation among many for their use is cognitive enhancement (Julien, 2001).
It was a productive hour, sure. But it also bore a remarkable resemblance to the normal editing process. I had imagined that the magical elixir coursing through my bloodstream would create towering storm clouds in my brain which, upon bursting, would rain cinematic adjectives onto the page as fast my fingers could type them. Unfortunately, the only thing that rained down were Google searches that began with the words "synonym for"—my usual creative process.
But while some studies have found short-term benefits, Doraiswamy says there is no evidence that what are commonly known as smart drugs — of any type — improve thinking or productivity over the long run. “There’s a sizable demand, but the hype around efficacy far exceeds available evidence,” notes Doraiswamy, adding that, for healthy young people such as Silicon Valley go-getters, “it’s a zero-sum game. That’s because when you up one circuit in the brain, you’re probably impairing another system.”
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.
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.
The amphetamine mix branded Adderall is terribly expensive to obtain even compared to modafinil, due to its tight regulation (a lower schedule than modafinil), popularity in college as a study drug, and reportedly moves by its manufacture to exploit its privileged position as a licensed amphetamine maker to extract more consumer surplus. I paid roughly $4 a pill but could have paid up to $10. Good stimulant hygiene involves recovery periods to avoid one’s body adapting to eliminate the stimulating effects, so even if Adderall was the answer to all my woes, I would not be using it more than 2 or 3 times a week. Assuming 50 uses a year (for specific projects, let’s say, and not ordinary aimless usage), that’s a cool $200 a year. My general belief was that Adderall would be too much of a stimulant for me, as I am amphetamine-naive and Adderall has a bad reputation for letting one waste time on unimportant things. We could say my prediction was 50% that Adderall would be useful and worth investigating further. The experiment was pretty simple: blind randomized pills, 10 placebo & 10 active. I took notes on how productive I was and the next day guessed whether it was placebo or Adderall before breaking the seal and finding out. I didn’t do any formal statistics for it, much less a power calculation, so let’s try to be conservative by penalizing the information quality heavily and assume it had 25%. So \frac{200 - 0}{\ln 1.05} \times 0.50 \times 0.25 = 512! The experiment probably used up no more than an hour or two total.

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“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.


These days, nootropics are beginning to take their rightful place as a particularly powerful tool in the Neurohacker’s toolbox. After all, biochemistry is deeply foundational to neural function. Whether you are trying to fix the damage that is done to your nervous system by a stressful and toxic environment or support and enhance your neural functioning, getting the chemistry right is table-stakes. And we are starting to get good at getting it right. What’s changed?
Popular among computer programmers, oxiracetam, another racetam, has been shown to be effective in recovery from neurological trauma and improvement to long-term memory. It is believed to effective in improving attention span, memory, learning capacity, focus, sensory perception, and logical thinking. It also acts as a stimulant, increasing mental energy, alertness, and motivation.
A 100mg dose of caffeine (half of a No-Doz or one cup of strong coffee) with 200mg of L-theanine is what the nootropics subreddit recommends in their beginner’s FAQ, and many nootropic sellers, like Peak Nootropics, suggest the same. In my own experiments, I used a pre-packaged combination from Nootrobox called Go Cubes. They’re essentially chewable coffee cubes (not as gross as it sounds) filled with that same beginner dose of caffeine, L-theanine, as well as a few B vitamins thrown into the mix. After eating an entire box of them (12 separate servings—not all at once), I can say eating them made me feel more alert and energetic, but less jittery than my usual three cups of coffee every day. I noticed enough of a difference in the past two weeks that I’ll be looking into getting some L-theanine supplements to take with my daily coffee.
Even the best of today’s nootropics only just barely scratch the surface. You might say that we are in the “Nokia 1100” phase of taking nootropics, and as better tools and more data come along, the leading thinkers in the space see a powerful future. For example, they are already beginning to look past biochemistry to the epigenome. Not only is the epigenome the code that runs much of your native biochemistry, we now know that experiences in life can be recorded in your epigenome and then passed onto future generations. There is every reason to believe that you are currently running epigenetic code that you inherited from your great-grandmother’s life experiences. And there is every reason to believe that the epigenome can be hacked – that the nootropics of the future can not only support and enhance our biochemistry, but can permanently change the epigenetic code that drives that biochemistry and that we pass onto our children. This is why many healthy individuals use nootropics. They have great benefits and can promote brain function and reduce oxidative stress. They can also improve sleep quality.
For the sake of organizing the review, we have divided the literature according to the general type of cognitive process being studied, with sections devoted to learning and to various kinds of executive function. Executive function is a broad and, some might say, vague concept that encompasses the processes by which individual perceptual, motoric, and mnemonic abilities are coordinated to enable appropriate, flexible task performance, especially in the face of distracting stimuli or alternative competing responses. Two major aspects of executive function are working memory and cognitive control, responsible for the maintenance of information in a short-term active state for guiding task performance and responsible for inhibition of irrelevant information or responses, respectively. A large enough literature exists on the effects of stimulants on these two executive abilities that separate sections are devoted to each. In addition, a final section includes studies of miscellaneous executive abilities including planning, fluency, and reasoning that have also been the subjects of published studies.
Racetams are often used as a smart drug by finance workers, students, and individuals in high-pressure jobs as a way to help them get into a mental flow state and work for long periods of time. Additionally, the habits and skills that an individual acquires while using a racetam can still be accessed when someone is not taking racetams because it becomes a habit.
Analgesics Anesthetics General Local Anorectics Anti-ADHD agents Antiaddictives Anticonvulsants Antidementia agents Antidepressants Antimigraine agents Antiparkinson agents Antipsychotics Anxiolytics Depressants Entactogens Entheogens Euphoriants Hallucinogens Psychedelics Dissociatives Deliriants Hypnotics/Sedatives Mood Stabilizers Neuroprotectives Nootropics Neurotoxins Orexigenics Serenics Stimulants Wakefulness-promoting agents
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