Clarke and Sokoloff (1998) remarked that although [a] common view equates concentrated mental effort with mental work…there appears to be no increased energy utilization by the brain during such processes (p. 664), and …the areas that participate in the processes of such reasoning represent too small a fraction of the brain for changes in their functional and metabolic activities to be reflected in the energy metabolism of the brain… (p. 675).
There are hundreds of cognitive enhancing pills (so called smart pills) on the market that simply do NOT work! With each of them claiming they are the best, how can you find the brain enhancing supplements that are both safe and effective? Our top brain enhancing pills have been picked by sorting and ranking the top brain enhancing products yourself. Our ratings are based on the following criteria.
The important factors seem to be: #1/MR6 (Creativity.self.rating, Time.Bitcoin, Time.Backups, Time.Blackmarkets, Gwern.net.linecount.log), #2/MR1 (Time.PDF, Time.Stats), #7/MR7 (Time.Writing, Time.Sysadmin, Time.Programming, Gwern.net.patches.log), and #8/MR8 (Time.States, Time.SRS, Time.Sysadmin, Time.Backups, Time.Blackmarkets). The rest seem to be time-wasting or reflect dual n-back/DNB usage (which is not relevant in the LLLT time period).
Brain focus pills mostly contain chemical components like L-theanine which is naturally found in green and black tea. It’s associated with enhancing alertness, cognition, relaxation, arousal, and reducing anxiety to a large extent.  Theanine is an amino and glutamic acid that has been proven to be a safe psychoactive substance. Some studies suggest that this compound influences, the expression in the genes present in the brain which is responsible for aggression, fear, and memory. This, in turn, helps in balancing the behavioral responses to stress and also helps in improving specific conditions, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
One thing to notice is that the default case matters a lot. This asymmetry is because you switch decisions in different possible worlds - when you would take Adderall but stop you’re in the world where Adderall doesn’t work, and when you wouldn’t take Adderall but do you’re in the world where Adderall does work (in the perfect information case, at least). One of the ways you can visualize this is that you don’t penalize tests for giving you true negative information, and you reward them for giving you true positive information. (This might be worth a post by itself, and is very Litany of Gendlin.)
After trying out 2 6lb packs between 12 September & 25 November 2012, and 20 March & 20 August 2013, I have given up on flaxseed meal. They did not seem to go bad in the refrigerator or freezer, and tasted OK, but I had difficulty working them into my usual recipes: it doesn’t combine well with hot or cold oatmeal, and when I tried using flaxseed meal in soups I learned flaxseed is a thickener which can give soup the consistency of snot. It’s easier to use fish oil on a daily basis.
Though their product includes several vitamins including Bacopa, it seems to be missing the remaining four of the essential ingredients: DHA Omega 3, Huperzine A, Phosphatidylserine and N-Acetyl L-Tyrosine. It missed too many of our key criteria and so we could not endorse this product of theirs. Simply, if you don’t mind an insufficient amount of essential ingredients for improved brain and memory function and an inclusion of unwanted ingredients – then this could be a good fit for you.
Second, users are concerned with the possibility of withdrawal if they stop taking the nootropics. They worry that if they stop taking nootropics they won’t be as smart as when they were taking nootropics, and will need to continue taking them to function. Some users report feeling a slight brain fog when discontinuing nootropics, but that isn’t a sign of regression.
A Romanian psychologist and chemist named Corneliu Giurgea started using the word nootropic in the 1970s to refer to substances that improve brain function, but humans have always gravitated toward foods and chemicals that make us feel sharper, quicker, happier, and more content. Our brains use about 20 percent of our energy when our bodies are at rest (compared with 8 percent for apes), according to National Geographic, so our thinking ability is directly affected by the calories we’re taking in as well as by the nutrients in the foods we eat. Here are the nootropics we don’t even realize we’re using, and an expert take on how they work.
One should note the serious caveats here: it is a small in vitro study of a single category of human cells with an effect size that is not clear on a protein which feeds into who-knows-what pathways. It is not a result in a whole organism on any clinically meaningful endpoint, even if we take it at face-value (many results never replicate). A look at followup work citing Rapuri et al 2007 is not encouraging: Google Scholar lists no human studies of any kind, much less high-quality studies like RCTs; just some rat followups on the calcium effect. This is not to say Rapuri et al 2007 is a bad study, just that it doesn’t bear the weight people are putting on it: if you enjoy caffeine, this is close to zero evidence that you should reduce or drop caffeine consumption; if you’re taking too much caffeine, you already have plenty of reasons to reduce; if you’re drinking lots of coffee, you already have plenty of reasons to switch to tea; etc.
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:
Regarding other methods of cognitive enhancement, little systematic research has been done on their prevalence among healthy people for the purpose of cognitive enhancement. One exploratory survey found evidence of modafinil use by people seeking cognitive enhancement (Maher, 2008), and anecdotal reports of this can be found online (e.g., Arrington, 2008; Madrigal, 2008). Whereas TMS requires expensive equipment, tDCS can be implemented with inexpensive and widely available materials, and online chatter indicates that some are experimenting with this method.
Not that everyone likes to talk about using the drugs. People don’t necessarily want to reveal how they get their edge and there is stigma around people trying to become smarter than their biology dictates, says Lawler. Another factor is undoubtedly the risks associated with ingesting substances bought on the internet and the confusing legal statuses of some. Phenylpiracetam, for example, is a prescription drug in Russia. It isn’t illegal to buy in the US, but the man-made chemical exists in a no man’s land where it is neither approved nor outlawed for human consumption, notes Lawler.
Took pill around 6 PM; I had a very long drive to and from an airport ahead of me, ideal for Adderall. In case it was Adderall, I chewed up the pill - by making it absorb faster, more of the effect would be there when I needed it, during driving, and not lingering in my system past midnight. Was it? I didn’t notice any change in my pulse, I yawned several times on the way back, my conversation was not more voluminous than usual. I did stay up later than usual, but that’s fully explained by walking to get ice cream. All in all, my best guess was that the pill was placebo, and I feel fairly confident but not hugely confident that it was placebo. I’d give it ~70%. And checking the next morning… I was right! Finally.
This continued up to 1 AM, at which point I decided not to take a second armodafinil (why spend a second pill to gain what would likely be an unproductive set of 8 hours?) and finish up the experiment with some n-backing. My 5 rounds: 60/38/62/44/5023. This was surprising. Compare those scores with scores from several previous days: 39/42/44/40/20/28/36. I had estimated before the n-backing that my scores would be in the low-end of my usual performance (20-30%) since I had not slept for the past 41 hours, and instead, the lowest score was 38%. If one did not know the context, one might think I had discovered a good nootropic! Interesting evidence that armodafinil preserves at least one kind of mental performance.

The abuse liability of caffeine has been evaluated.147,148 Tolerance development to the subjective effects of caffeine was shown in a study in which caffeine was administered at 300 mg twice each day for 18 days.148 Tolerance to the daytime alerting effects of caffeine, as measured by the MSLT, was shown over 2 days on which 250 g of caffeine was given twice each day48 and to the sleep-disruptive effects (but not REM percentage) over 7 days of 400 mg of caffeine given 3 times each day.7 In humans, placebo-controlled caffeine-discontinuation studies have shown physical dependence on caffeine, as evidenced by a withdrawal syndrome.147 The most frequently observed withdrawal symptom is headache, but daytime sleepiness and fatigue are also often reported. The withdrawal-syndrome severity is a function of the dose and duration of prior caffeine use…At higher doses, negative effects such as dysphoria, anxiety, and nervousness are experienced. The subjective-effect profile of caffeine is similar to that of amphetamine,147 with the exception that dysphoria/anxiety is more likely to occur with higher caffeine doses than with higher amphetamine doses. Caffeine can be discriminated from placebo by the majority of participants, and correct caffeine identification increases with dose.147 Caffeine is self-administered by about 50% of normal subjects who report moderate to heavy caffeine use. In post-hoc analyses of the subjective effects reported by caffeine choosers versus nonchoosers, the choosers report positive effects and the nonchoosers report negative effects. Interestingly, choosers also report negative effects such as headache and fatigue with placebo, and this suggests that caffeine-withdrawal syndrome, secondary to placebo choice, contributes to the likelihood of caffeine self-administration. This implies that physical dependence potentiates behavioral dependence to caffeine.
the rise of IP scofflaw countries which enable the manufacture of known drugs: India does not respect the modafinil patents, enabling the cheap generics we all use, and Chinese piracetam manufacturers don’t give a damn about the FDA’s chilling-effect moves in the US. If there were no Indian or Chinese manufacturers, where would we get our modafinil? Buy them from pharmacies at $10 a pill or worse? It might be worthwhile, but think of the chilling effect on new users.

The price is not as good as multivitamins or melatonin. The studies showing effects generally use pretty high dosages, 1-4g daily. I took 4 capsules a day for roughly 4g of omega acids. The jar of 400 is 100 days’ worth, and costs ~$17, or around 17¢ a day. The general health benefits push me over the edge of favoring its indefinite use, but looking to economize. Usually, small amounts of packaged substances are more expensive than bulk unprocessed, so I looked at fish oil fluid products; and unsurprisingly, liquid is more cost-effective than pills (but like with the powders, straight fish oil isn’t very appetizing) in lieu of membership somewhere or some other price-break. I bought 4 bottles (16 fluid ounces each) for $53.31 total (thanks to coupons & sales), and each bottle lasts around a month and a half for perhaps half a year, or ~$100 for a year’s supply. (As it turned out, the 4 bottles lasted from 4 December 2010 to 17 June 2011, or 195 days.) My next batch lasted 19 August 2011-20 February 2012, and cost $58.27. Since I needed to buy empty 00 capsules (for my lithium experiment) and a book (Stanovich 2010, for SIAI work) from Amazon, I bought 4 more bottles of 16fl oz Nature’s Answer (lemon-lime) at $48.44, which I began using 27 February 2012. So call it ~$70 a year.
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.
The real-life Limitless Pill? One of the newer offerings in the nootropic industry, Avanse Laboratories’ new ingenious formula has been generating quite much popularity on the internet, and has been buzzing around on dedicated nootropic forums. Why do we pick this awesome formula to be the #1 nootropic supplement of 2017 and 2018? Simple, name another supplement that contains “potent 1160mg capsule” including 15 mg of world's most powerful nootropic agent (to find out, please click on Learn More). It is cheap, in our opinion, compared to what it contains. And we don’t think their price will stay this low for long. Avanse Laboratories is currently playing… Learn More...
For 2 weeks, upon awakening I took close-up photographs of my right eye. Then I ordered two jars of Life-Extension Sea-Iodine (60x1mg) (1mg being an apparently safe dose), and when it arrived on 10 September 2012, I stopped the photography and began taking 1 iodine pill every other day. I noticed no ill effects (or benefits) after a few weeks and upped the dose to 1 pill daily. After the first jar of 60 pills was used up, I switched to the second jar, and began photography as before for 2 weeks. The photographs were uploaded, cropped by hand in Gimp, and shrunk to more reasonable dimensions; both sets are available in a Zip file.
Many people find it difficult to think clearly when they are stressed out. Ongoing stress leads to progressive mental fatigue and an eventual breakdown. Luckily, there are several ways that nootropics can help relieve stress. One is through the natural promotion of feelings of relaxation and the other is by replenishing the brain chemicals drained by stress.
“Cavin’s personal experience and humble writing to help educate, not only people who have suffered brain injuries, but anyone interested in the best nutritional advice for optimum brain function is a great introduction to proper nutrition filled with many recommendations of how you can make a changes to your diet immediately. This book provides amazing personal insight related to Cavin’s recovery accompanied with well cited peer reviewed sources throughout the entire book detailing the most recent findings around functional neurology!
A related task is the B–X version of the CPT, in which subjects must respond when an X appears only if it was preceded by a B. As in the 1-back task, the subject must retain the previous trial’s letter in working memory because it determines the subject’s response to the current letter. In this case, when the current letter is an X, then the subject should respond only if the previous letter was a B. Two studies examined stimulant effects in this task. Rapoport et al. (1980) found that d-AMP reduced errors of omission in the longer of two test sessions, and Klorman et al. (1984) found that MPH reduced errors of omission and response time.

Armodafinil is sort of a purified modafinil which Cephalon sells under the brand-name Nuvigil (and Sun under Waklert20). Armodafinil acts much the same way (see the ADS Drug Profile) but the modafinil variant filtered out are the faster-acting molecules21. Hence, it is supposed to last longer. as studies like Pharmacodynamic effects on alertness of single doses of armodafinil in healthy subjects during a nocturnal period of acute sleep loss seem to bear out; anecdotally, it’s also more powerful, with Cephalon offering pills with doses as low as 50mg. (To be technical, modafinil is racemic: it comes in two forms which are rotations, mirror-images of each other. The rotation usually doesn’t matter, but sometimes it matters tremendously - for example, one form of thalidomide stops morning sickness, and the other rotation causes hideous birth defects.)
Exercise and nutrition also play an important role in neuroplasticity. Many vitamins and ingredients found naturally in food products have been shown to have cognitive enhancing effects. Some of these include vitamins B6 and B12, caffeine, phenethylamine found in chocolate and l-theanine, found in green tea, whose combined effects with caffeine are more extensively researched.
First was a combination of L-theanine and aniracetam, a synthetic compound prescribed in Europe to treat degenerative neurological diseases. I tested it by downing the recommended dosages and then tinkering with a story I had finished a few days earlier, back when caffeine was my only performance-enhancing drug. I zoomed through the document with renewed vigor, striking some sentences wholesale and rearranging others to make them tighter and punchier.
Another common working memory task is the n-back task, which requires the subject to view a series of items (usually letters) and decide whether the current item is identical to the one presented n items back. This task taxes working memory because the previous items must be held in working memory to be compared with the current item. The easiest version of this is a 1-back task, which is also called a double continuous performance task (CPT) because the subject is continuously monitoring for a repeat or double. Three studies examined the effects of MPH on working memory ability as measured by the 1-back task, and all found enhancement of performance in the form of reduced errors of omission (Cooper et al., 2005; Klorman et al., 1984; Strauss et al., 1984). Fleming et al. (1995) tested the effects of d-AMP on a 5-min CPT and found a decrease in reaction time, but did not specify which version of the CPT was used.
Many people find it difficult to think clearly when they are stressed out. Ongoing stress leads to progressive mental fatigue and an eventual breakdown. Luckily, there are several ways that nootropics can help relieve stress. One is through the natural promotion of feelings of relaxation and the other is by replenishing the brain chemicals drained by stress.
A study mentioned in Neuropsychopharmacology as of August 2002, revealed that Bacopa Monnieri decreases the rate of forgetting newly acquired information, memory consolidations, and verbal learning rate. It also helps in enhancing the nerve impulse transmission, which leads to increased alertness. It is also known to relieve the effects of anxiety and depression. All these benefits happen as Bacopa Monnieri dosage helps in activating choline acetyltransferase and inhibiting acetylcholinesterase which enhances the levels of acetylcholine in the brain, a chemical that is also associated in improving memory and attention.
Since dietary supplements do not require double-blind, placebo-controlled, pharmaceutical-style human studies before going to market, there is little incentive for companies to really prove that something does what they say it does. This means that, in practice, nootropics may not live up to all the grandiose, exuberant promises advertised on the bottle in which they come. The flip side, though? There’s no need to procure a prescription in order to try them out. Good news for aspiring biohackers—and for people who have no aspirations to become biohackers, but still want to be Bradley Cooper in Limitless (me).
In 3, you’re considering adding a new supplement, not stopping a supplement you already use. The I don’t try Adderall case has value $0, the Adderall fails case is worth -$40 (assuming you only bought 10 pills, and this number should be increased by your analysis time and a weighted cost for potential permanent side effects), and the Adderall succeeds case is worth $X-40-4099, where $X is the discounted lifetime value of the increased productivity due to Adderall, minus any discounted long-term side effect costs. If you estimate Adderall will work with p=.5, then you should try out Adderall if you estimate that 0.5 \times (X-4179) > 0 ~> $X>4179$. (Adderall working or not isn’t binary, and so you might be more comfortable breaking down the various how effective Adderall is cases when eliciting X, by coming up with different levels it could work at, their values, and then using a weighted sum to get X. This can also give you a better target with your experiment- this needs to show a benefit of at least Y from Adderall for it to be worth the cost, and I’ve designed it so it has a reasonable chance of showing that.)
Finally, a workforce high on stimulants wouldn’t necessarily be more productive overall. “One thinks ‘are these things dangerous?’ – and that’s important to consider in the short term,” says Huberman. “But there’s also a different question, which is: ‘How do you feel the day afterwards?’ Maybe you’re hyper-focused for four hours, 12 hours, but then you’re below baseline for 24 or 48.”
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.”

Sarter is downbeat, however, about the likelihood of the pharmaceutical industry actually turning candidate smart drugs into products. Its interest in cognitive enhancers is shrinking, he says, “because these drugs are not working for the big indications, which is the market that drives these developments. Even adult ADHD has not been considered a sufficiently attractive large market.”


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:

Although piracetam has a history of “relatively few side effects,” it has fallen far short of its initial promise for treating any of the illnesses associated with cognitive decline, according to Lon Schneider, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. “We don’t use it at all and never have.”
(People aged <=18 shouldn’t be using any of this except harmless stuff - where one may have nutritional deficits - like fish oil & vitamin D; melatonin may be especially useful, thanks to the effects of screwed-up school schedules & electronics use on teenagers’ sleep. Changes in effects with age are real - amphetamines’ stimulant effects and modafinil’s histamine-like side-effects come to mind as examples.)

I take my piracetam in the form of capped pills consisting (in descending order) of piracetam, choline bitartrate, anhydrous caffeine, and l-tyrosine. On 8 December 2012, I happened to run out of them and couldn’t fetch more from my stock until 27 December. This forms a sort of (non-randomized, non-blind) short natural experiment: did my daily 1-5 mood/productivity ratings fall during 8-27 December compared to November 2012 & January 2013? The graphed data28 suggests to me a decline:
The title question, whether prescription stimulants are smart pills, does not find a unanimous answer in the literature. The preponderance of evidence is consistent with enhanced consolidation of long-term declarative memory. For executive function, the overall pattern of evidence is much less clear. Over a third of the findings show no effect on the cognitive processes of healthy nonelderly adults. Of the rest, most show enhancement, although impairment has been reported (e.g., Rogers et al., 1999), and certain subsets of participants may experience impairment (e.g., higher performing participants and/or those homozygous for the met allele of the COMT gene performed worse on drug than placebo; Mattay et al., 2000, 2003). Whereas the overall trend is toward enhancement of executive function, the literature contains many exceptions to this trend. Furthermore, publication bias may lead to underreporting of these exceptions.
The use of cognitive enhancers by healthy individuals sparked debate about ethics and safety. Cognitive enhancement by pharmaceutical means was considered a form of illicit drug use in some places, even while other cognitive enhancers, such as caffeine and nicotine, were freely available. The conflict therein raised the possibility for further acceptance of smart drugs in the future. However, the long-term effects of smart drugs on otherwise healthy brains were unknown, delaying safety assessments.
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 fairly powerful nootropic substance that, appropriately, has fallen out of favor is nicotine. It’s the chemical that gives tobacco products their stimulating kick. It isn’t what makes them so deadly, but it does make smoking very addictive. When Europeans learned about tobacco’s use from indigenous tribes they encountered in the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries, they got hooked on its mood-altering effects right away and even believed it could cure joint pain, epilepsy, and the plague. Recently, researchers have been testing the effects of nicotine that’s been removed from tobacco, and they believe that it might help treat neurological disorders including Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia; it may also improve attention and focus. But, please, don’t start smoking or vaping. Check out these 14 weird brain exercises that make you smarter.

If you’re suffering from blurred or distorted vision or you’ve noticed a sudden and unexplained decline in the clarity of your vision, do not try to self-medicate. It is one thing to promote better eyesight from an existing and long-held baseline, but if you are noticing problems with your eyes, then you should see an optician and a doctor to rule out underlying medical conditions.
Probably most significantly, use of the term “drug” has a significant negative connotation in our culture. “Drugs” are bad: So proclaimed Richard Nixon in the War on Drugs, and Nancy “No to Drugs” Reagan decades later, and other leaders continuing to present day. The legitimate demonization of the worst forms of recreational drugs has resulted in a general bias against the elective use of any chemical to alter the body’s processes. Drug enhancement of athletes is considered cheating – despite the fact that many of these physiological shortcuts obviously work. University students and professionals seeking mental enhancements by taking smart drugs are now facing similar scrutiny.
Smart drugs could lead to enhanced cognitive abilities in the military. Also known as nootropics, smart drugs can be viewed similarly to medical enhancements. What’s important to remember though, is that smart drugs do not increase your intelligence; however, they may improve cognitive and executive functions leading to an increase in intelligence.
Noopept was developed in Russia in the 90s, and is alleged to improve learning. This drug modifies acetylcholine and AMPA receptors, increasing the levels of these neurotransmitters in the brain. This is believed to account for reports of its efficacy as a 'study drug'. Noopept in the UK is illegal, as the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act made it an offence to sell this drug in the UK - selling it could even lead to 7 years in prison. To enhance its nootropic effects, some users have been known to snort Noopept.

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?
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