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.
And there are other uses that may make us uncomfortable. The military is interested in modafinil as a drug to maintain combat alertness. A drug such as propranolol could be used to protect soldiers from the horrors of war. That could be considered a good thing – post-traumatic stress disorder is common in soldiers. But the notion of troops being unaffected by their experiences makes many feel uneasy.
For obvious reasons, it’s difficult for researchers to know just how common the “smart drug” or “neuro-enhancing” lifestyle is. However, a few recent studies suggest cognition hacking is appealing to a growing number of people. A survey conducted in 2016 found that 15% of University of Oxford students were popping pills to stay competitive, a rate that mirrored findings from other national surveys of UK university students. In the US, a 2014 study found that 18% of sophomores, juniors, and seniors at Ivy League colleges had knowingly used a stimulant at least once during their academic career, and among those who had ever used uppers, 24% said they had popped a little helper on eight or more occasions. Anecdotal evidence suggests that pharmacological enhancement is also on the rise within the workplace, where modafinil, which treats sleep disorders, has become particularly popular.
These are the most highly studied ingredients and must be combined together to achieve effective results. If any one ingredient is missing in the formula, you may not get the full cognitive benefits of the pill. It is important to go with a company that has these critical ingredients as well as a complete array of supporting ingredients to improve their absorption and effectiveness. Anything less than the correct mix will not work effectively.
A key ingredient of Noehr’s chemical “stack” is a stronger racetam called Phenylpiracetam. He adds a handful of other compounds considered to be mild cognitive enhancers. One supplement, L-theanine, a natural constituent in green tea, is claimed to neutralise the jittery side-effects of caffeine. Another supplement, choline, is said to be important for experiencing the full effects of racetams. Each nootropic is distinct and there can be a lot of variation in effect from person to person, says Lawler. Users semi-annonymously compare stacks and get advice from forums on sites such as Reddit. Noehr, who buys his powder in bulk and makes his own capsules, has been tweaking chemicals and quantities for about five years accumulating more than two dozens of jars of substances along the way. He says he meticulously researches anything he tries, buys only from trusted suppliers and even blind-tests the effects (he gets his fiancée to hand him either a real or inactive capsule).
On the other end of the spectrum is the nootropic stack, a practice where individuals create a cocktail or mixture of different smart drugs for daily intake. The mixture and its variety actually depend on the goals of the user. Many users have said that nootropic stacking is more effective for delivering improved cognitive function in comparison to single nootropics.
This looks interesting: the Noopept effect is positive for all the dose levels, but it looks like a U-curve - low at 10mg, high at 15mg, lower at 20mg, and even lower at 30mg 48mg and 60mg aren’t estimated because they are hit by the missingness problem: the magnesium citrate variable is unavailable for the days the higher doses were taken on, and so their days are omitted and those levels of the factor are not estimated. One way to fix this is to drop magnesium from the model entirely, at the cost of fitting the data much more poorly and losing a lot of R2:
The effect? 3 or 4 weeks later, I’m not sure. When I began putting all of my nootropic powders into pill-form, I put half a lithium pill in each, and nevertheless ran out of lithium fairly quickly (3kg of piracetam makes for >4000 OO-size pills); those capsules were buried at the bottom of the bucket under lithium-less pills. So I suddenly went cold-turkey on lithium. Reflecting on the past 2 weeks, I seem to have been less optimistic and productive, with items now lingering on my To-Do list which I didn’t expect to. An effect? Possibly.
As discussed in my iodine essay (FDA adverse events), iodine is a powerful health intervention as it eliminates cretinism and improves average IQ by a shocking magnitude. If this effect were possible for non-fetuses in general, it would be the best nootropic ever discovered, and so I looked at it very closely. Unfortunately, after going through ~20 experiments looking for ones which intervened with iodine post-birth and took measures of cognitive function, my meta-analysis concludes that: the effect is small and driven mostly by one outlier study. Once you are born, it’s too late. But the results could be wrong, and iodine might be cheap enough to take anyway, or take for non-IQ reasons. (This possibility was further weakened for me by an August 2013 blood test of TSH which put me at 3.71 uIU/ml, comfortably within the reference range of 0.27-4.20.)
Between midnight and 1:36 AM, I do four rounds of n-back: 50/39/30/55%. I then take 1/4th of the pill and have some tea. At roughly 1:30 AM, AngryParsley linked a SF anthology/novel, Fine Structure, which sucked me in for the next 3-4 hours until I finally finished the whole thing. At 5:20 AM, circumstances forced me to go to bed, still having only taken 1/4th of the pill and that determines this particular experiment of sleep; I quickly do some n-back: 29/20/20/54/42. I fall asleep in 13 minutes and sleep for 2:48, for a ZQ of 28 (a full night being ~100). I did not notice anything from that possible modafinil+caffeine interaction. Subjectively upon awakening: I don’t feel great, but I don’t feel like 2-3 hours of sleep either. N-back at 10 AM after breakfast: 25/54/44/38/33. These are not very impressive, but seem normal despite taking the last armodafinil ~9 hours ago; perhaps the 3 hours were enough. Later that day, at 11:30 PM (just before bed): 26/56/47.
So what about the flip side: a drug to erase bad memories? It may have failed Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but neuroscientists have now discovered an amnesia drug that can dull the pain of traumatic events. The drug, propranolol, was originally used to treat high blood pressure and heart disease. Doctors noticed that patients given the drug suffered fewer signs of stress when recalling a trauma.
Fortunately for me, the FDA decided Smart Powder’s advertising was too explicit and ordered its piracetam sales stopped; I was equivocal at the previous price point, but then I saw that between the bulk discount and the fire-sale coupon, 3kg was only $99.99 (shipping was amortized over that, the choline, caffeine, and tryptophan). So I ordered in September 2010. As well, I had decided to cap my own pills, eliminating the inconvenience and bad taste. 3kg goes a very long way so I am nowhere close to running out of my pills; there is nothing to report since, as the pills are simply part of my daily routine.
If you have spent any time shopping for memory enhancer pills, you have noticed dozens of products on the market. Each product is advertised to improve memory, concentration, and focus. However, choosing the first product promising results may not produce the desired improvements. Taking the time to research your options and compare products will improve your chances of finding a supplement that works.
After I ran out of creatine, I noticed the increased difficulty, and resolved to buy it again at some point; many months later, there was a Smart Powders sale so bought it in my batch order, $12 for 1000g. As before, it made Taekwondo classes a bit easier. I paid closer attention this second time around and noticed that as one would expect, it only helped with muscular fatigue and did nothing for my aerobic issues. (I hate aerobic exercise, so it’s always been a weak point.) I eventually capped it as part of a sulbutiamine-DMAE-creatine-theanine mix. This ran out 1 May 2013. In March 2014, I spent $19 for 1kg of micronized creatine monohydrate to resume creatine use and also to use it as a placebo in a honey-sleep experiment testing Seth Roberts’s claim that a few grams of honey before bedtime would improve sleep quality: my usual flour placebo being unusable because the mechanism might be through simple sugars, which flour would digest into. (I did not do the experiment: it was going to be a fair amount of messy work capping the honey and creatine, and I didn’t believe Roberts’s claims for a second - my only reason to do it would be to prove the claim wrong but he’d just ignore me and no one else cares.) I didn’t try measuring out exact doses but just put a spoonful in my tea each morning (creatine is tasteless). The 1kg lasted from 25 March to 18 September or 178 days, so ~5.6g & $0.11 per day.
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.
This is a small water plant native to India. Bacopa is an adaptogen – it helps your body adapt to stress. It also improves memory in healthy adults and enhances attention and mood in people over 65.  Scientists still don’t fully understand how Bacopa works, but they do know it takes time to work; study participants didn’t feel its memory-enhancing effects until they’d been supplementing with it daily for 4 weeks, so if you try Bacopa, stick with it for a month before you give up on it.
Similarly, Mehta et al 2000 noted that the positive effects of methylphenidate (40 mg) on spatial working memory performance were greatest in those volunteers with lower baseline working memory capacity. In a study of the effects of ginkgo biloba in healthy young adults, Stough et al 2001 found improved performance in the Trail-Making Test A only in the half with the lower verbal IQ.
as scientific papers become much more accessible online due to Open Access, digitization by publishers, and cheap hosting for pirates, the available knowledge about nootropics increases drastically. This reduces the perceived risk by users, and enables them to educate themselves and make much more sophisticated estimates of risk and side-effects and benefits. (Take my modafinil page: in 1997, how could an average person get their hands on any of the papers available up to that point? Or get detailed info like the FDA’s prescribing guide? Even assuming they had a computer & Internet?)
Took pill #6 at 12:35 PM. Hard to be sure. I ultimately decided that it was Adderall because I didn’t have as much trouble as I normally would in focusing on reading and then finishing my novel (Surface Detail) despite my family watching a movie, though I didn’t notice any lack of appetite. Call this one 60-70% Adderall. I check the next evening and it was Adderall.
Two increasingly popular options are amphetamines and methylphenidate, which are prescription drugs sold under the brand names Adderall and Ritalin. In the United States, both are approved as treatments for people with ADHD, a behavioural disorder which makes it hard to sit still or concentrate. Now they’re also widely abused by people in highly competitive environments, looking for a way to remain focused on specific tasks.
"Where can you draw the line between Red Bull, six cups of coffee and a prescription drug that keeps you more alert," says Michael Schrage of the MIT Center for Digital Business, who has studied the phenomenon. "You can't draw the line meaningfully - some organizations have cultures where it is expected that employees go the extra mile to finish an all-nighter. "
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).
Table 1 shows all of the studies of middle school, secondary school, and college students that we identified. As indicated in the table, the studies are heterogeneous, with varying populations sampled, sample sizes, and year of data collection, and they focused on different subsets of the epidemiological questions addressed here, including prevalence and frequency of use, motivations for use, and method of obtaining the medication.
Many of these supplements include exotic-sounding ingredients. Ginseng root and an herb called bacopa are two that have shown some promising memory and attention benefits, says Dr. Guillaume Fond, a psychiatrist with France’s Aix-Marseille University Medical School who has studied smart drugs and cognitive enhancement. “However, data are still lacking to definitely confirm their efficacy,” he adds.
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.
The main area of the brain effected by smart pills is the prefrontal cortex, where representations of our goals for the future are created. Namely, the prefrontal cortex consists of pyramidal cells that keep each other firing. However in some instances they can become disconnected due to chemical imbalances, or due to being tired, stressed, and overworked.
With just 16 predictions, I can’t simply bin the predictions and say yep, that looks good. Instead, we can treat each prediction as equivalent to a bet and see what my winnings (or losses) were; the standard such proper scoring rule is the logarithmic rule which pretty simple: you earn the logarithm of the probability if you were right, and the logarithm of the negation if you were wrong; he who racks up the fewest negative points wins. We feed in a list and get back a number:
Modafinil is a eugeroic, or ‘wakefulness promoting agent’, intended to help people with narcolepsy. It was invented in the 1970s, but was first approved by the American FDA in 1998 for medical use. Recent years have seen its off-label use as a ‘smart drug’ grow. It’s not known exactly how Modafinil works, but scientists believe it may increase levels of histamines in the brain, which can keep you awake. It might also inhibit the dissipation of dopamine, again helping wakefulness, and it may help alertness by boosting norepinephrine levels, contributing to its reputation as a drug to help focus and concentration.
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.
From the standpoint of absorption, the drinking of tobacco juice and the interaction of the infusion or concoction with the small intestine is a highly effective method of gastrointestinal nicotine administration. The epithelial area of the intestines is incomparably larger than the mucosa of the upper tract including the stomach, and the small intestine represents the area with the greatest capacity for absorption (Levine 1983:81-83). As practiced by most of the sixty-four tribes documented here, intoxicated states are achieved by drinking tobacco juice through the mouth and/or nose…The large intestine, although functionally little equipped for absorption, nevertheless absorbs nicotine that may have passed through the small intestine.
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.
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.