“Certain people might benefit from certain combinations of certain things,” he told me. “But across populations, there is still no conclusive proof that substances of this class improve cognitive functions.” And with no way to reliably measure the impact of a given substance on one’s mental acuity, one’s sincere beliefs about “what works” probably have a lot to do with, say, how demanding their day was, or whether they ate breakfast, or how susceptible they are to the placebo effect.
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).
“There seems to be a growing percentage of intellectual workers in Silicon Valley and Wall Street using nootropics. They are akin to intellectual professional athletes where the stakes and competition is high,” says Geoffrey Woo, the CEO and co-founder of nutrition company HVMN, which produces a line of nootropic supplements. Denton agrees. “I think nootropics just make things more and more competitive. The ease of access to Chinese, Russian intellectual capital in the United States, for example, is increasing. And there is a willingness to get any possible edge that’s available.”
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.
For Malcolm Gladwell, “the thing with doping is that it allows you to train harder than you would have done otherwise.” He argues that we cannot easily call someone a cheater on the basis of having used a drug for this purpose. The equivalent, he explains, would be a student who steals an exam paper from the teacher, and then instead of going home and not studying at all, goes to a library and studies five times harder.
A LessWronger found that it worked well for him as far as motivation and getting things done went, as did another LessWronger who sells it online (terming it a reasonable productivity enhancer) as did one of his customers, a pickup artist oddly enough. The former was curious whether it would work for me too and sent me Speciosa Pro’s Starter Pack: Test Drive (a sampler of 14 packets of powder and a cute little wooden spoon). In SE Asia, kratom’s apparently chewed, but the powders are brewed as a tea.
Spaced repetition at midnight: 3.68. (Graphing preceding and following days: ▅▄▆▆▁▅▆▃▆▄█ ▄ ▂▄▄▅) DNB starting 12:55 AM: 30/34/41. Transcribed Sawaragi 2005, then took a walk. DNB starting 6:45 AM: 45/44/33. Decided to take a nap and then take half the armodafinil on awakening, before breakfast. I wound up oversleeping until noon (4:28); since it was so late, I took only half the armodafinil sublingually. I spent the afternoon learning how to do value of information calculations, and then carefully working through 8 or 9 examples for my various pages, which I published on Lesswrong. That was a useful little project. DNB starting 12:09 AM: 30/38/48. (To graph the preceding day and this night: ▇▂█▆▅▃▃▇▇▇▁▂▄ ▅▅▁▁▃▆) Nights: 9:13; 7:24; 9:13; 8:20; 8:31.
A quick search for drugs that make you smarter will lead you to the discovery of piracetam. Piracetam is the first synthetic smart drug of its kind. All other racetams derive from Piracetam. Some are far more potent, but they may also carry more side effects. Piracetam is an allosteric modulator of acetylcholine receptors. In other words, it enhances acetylcholine synthesis which boosts cognitive function.
Most research on these nootropics suggest they have some benefits, sure, but as Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir explain in the journal Nature, nobody knows their long-term effects. And we don’t know how extended use might change your brain chemistry in the long run. Researchers are getting closer to what makes these substances do what they do, but very little is certain right now. If you’re looking to live out your own Limitless fantasy, do your research first, and proceed with caution.
Take quarter at midnight, another quarter at 2 AM. Night runs reasonably well once I remember to eat a lot of food (I finish a big editing task I had put off for weeks), but the apathy kicks in early around 4 AM so I gave up and watched Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, finishing around 6 AM. I then read until it’s time to go to a big shotgun club function, which occupies the rest of the morning and afternoon; I had nothing to do much of the time and napped very poorly on occasion. By the time we got back at 4 PM, the apathy was completely gone and I started some modafinil research with gusto (interrupted by going to see Puss in Boots). That night: Zeo recorded 8:30 of sleep, gap of about 1:50 in the recording, figure 10:10 total sleep; following night, 8:33; third night, 8:47; fourth, 8:20 (▇▁▁▁).
Over the last few months, as part of a new research project, I have talked with five people who regularly use drugs at work. They are all successful in their jobs, financially secure, in stable relationships, and generally content with their lives. None of them have plans to stop using the drugs, and so far they have kept the secret from their employers. But as their colleagues become more likely to start using the same drugs (people talk, after all), will they continue to do so?
In fact, some of these so-called “smart drugs” are already remarkably popular. One recent survey involving tens of thousands of people found that 30% of Americans who responded had taken them in the last year. It seems as though we may soon all be partaking – and it’s easy to get carried away with the consequences. Will this new batch of intellectual giants lead to dazzling, space-age inventions? Or perhaps an explosion in economic growth? Might the working week become shorter, as people become more efficient?
These are the most popular nootropics available at the moment. Most of them are the tried-and-tested and the benefits you derive from them are notable (e.g. Guarana). Others are still being researched and there haven’t been many human studies on these components (e.g. Piracetam). As always, it’s about what works for you and everyone has a unique way of responding to different nootropics.
Vinpocetine walks a line between herbal and pharmaceutical product. It’s a synthetic derivative of a chemical from the periwinkle plant, and due to its synthetic nature we feel it’s more appropriate as a ‘smart drug’. Plus, it’s illegal in the UK. Vinpocetine is purported to improve cognitive function by improving blood flow to the brain, which is why it's used in some 'study drugs' or 'smart pills'.
The blood half-life is 12-36 hours; hence two or three days ought to be enough to build up and wash out. A week-long block is reasonable since that gives 5 days for effects to manifest, although month-long blocks would not be a bad choice either. (I prefer blocks which fit in round periods because it makes self-experiments easier to run if the blocks fit in normal time-cycles like day/week/month. The most useless self-experiment is the one abandoned halfway.)
But where will it all stop? Ambitious parents may start giving mind-enhancing pills to their children. People go to all sorts of lengths to gain an educational advantage, and eventually success might be dependent on access to these mind-improving drugs. No major studies have been conducted on the long-term effects. Some neuroscientists fear that, over time, these memory-enhancing pills may cause people to store too much detail, cluttering the brain. Read more about smart drugs here.
Took pill 12:11 PM. I am not certain. While I do get some things accomplished (a fair amount of work on the Silk Road article and its submission to places), I also have some difficulty reading through a fiction book (Sum) and I seem kind of twitchy and constantly shifting windows. I am weakly inclined to think this is Adderall (say, 60%). It’s not my normal feeling. Next morning - it was Adderall.
The Nootroo arrives in a shiny gold envelope with the words “proprietary blend” and “intended for use only in neuroscience research” written on the tin. It has been designed, says Matzner, for “hours of enhanced learning and memory”. The capsules contain either Phenylpiracetam or Noopept (a peptide with similar effects and similarly uncategorised) and are distinguished by real flakes of either edible silver or gold. They are to be alternated between daily, allowing about two weeks for the full effect to be felt. Also in the capsules are L-Theanine, a form of choline, and a types of caffeine which it is claimed has longer lasting effects.
“I am nearly four years out from my traumatic brain injury and I have been through 100’s of hours of rehabilitation therapy. I have been surprised by how little attention is given to adequate nutrition for recovering from TBI. I’m always looking for further opportunities to recover and so this book fell into the right hands. Cavin outlines the science and reasoning behind the diet he suggests, but the real power in this book comes when he writes, “WE.” WE can give our brains proper nutrition. Now I’m excited to drink smoothies and eat breakfasts that look like dinners! I will recommend this book to my friends.
Depending on where you live, some nootropics may not be sold over the counter, but they are usually available online. The law regarding nootropics can vary massively around the world, so be sure to do your homework before you purchase something for the first time. Be particularly cautious when importing smart drugs, because quality control and regulations abroad are not always as stringent as they are in the US. Do not put your health at risk if all you are trying to do is gain an edge in a competitive sport.
This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. Quartz does not recommend or endorse any specific products, studies, opinions, or other information mentioned in this article. This article is not intended to be used for, or as a substitute for, professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have before starting any new treatment or discontinuing any existing treatment.Reliance on any information provided in this article or by Quartz is solely at your own risk.
I posted a link to the survey on my Google+ account, and inserted the link at the top of all gwern.net pages; 51 people completed all 11 binary choices (most of them coming from North America & Europe), which seems adequate since the 11 questions are all asking the same question, and 561 responses to one question is quite a few. A few different statistical tests seem applicable: a chi-squared test whether there’s a difference between all the answers, a two-sample test on the averages, and most meaningfully, summing up the responses as a single pair of numbers and doing a binomial test:
Most epidemiological research on nonmedical stimulant use has been focused on issues relevant to traditional problems of drug abuse and addiction, and so, stimulant use for cognitive enhancement is not generally distinguished from use for other purposes, such as staying awake or getting high. As Boyd and McCabe (2008) pointed out, the large national surveys of nonmedical prescription drug use have so far failed to distinguish the ways and reasons that people use the drugs, and this is certainly true where prescription stimulants are concerned. The largest survey to investigate prescription stimulant use in a nationally representative sample of Americans, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), phrases the question about nonmedical use as follows: “Have you ever, even once, used any of these stimulants when they were not prescribed for you or that you took only for the experience or feeling they caused?” (Snodgrass & LeBaron 2007). This phrasing does not strictly exclude use for cognitive enhancement, but it emphasizes the noncognitive effects of the drugs. In 2008, the NSDUH found a prevalence of 8.5% for lifetime nonmedical stimulant use by Americans over the age of 12 years and a prevalence of 12.3% for Americans between 21 and 25 (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2009).
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.
Do note that this isn’t an extensive list by any means, there are plenty more ‘smart drugs’ out there purported to help focus and concentration. Most (if not all) are restricted under the Psychoactive Substances Act, meaning they’re largely illegal to sell. We strongly recommend against using these products off-label, as they can be dangerous both due to side effects and their lack of regulation on the grey/black market.
For illustration, consider amphetamines, Ritalin, and modafinil, all of which have been proposed as cognitive enhancers of attention. These drugs exhibit some positive effects on cognition, especially among individuals with lower baseline abilities. However, individuals of normal or above-average cognitive ability often show negligible improvements or even decrements in performance following drug treatment (for details, see de Jongh, Bolt, Schermer, & Olivier, 2008). For instance, Randall, Shneerson, and File (2005) found that modafinil improved performance only among individuals with lower IQ, not among those with higher IQ. [See also Finke et al 2010 on visual attention.] Farah, Haimm, Sankoorikal, & Chatterjee 2009 found a similar nonlinear relationship of dose to response for amphetamines in a remote-associates task, with low-performing individuals showing enhanced performance but high-performing individuals showing reduced performance. Such ∩-shaped dose-response curves are quite common (see Cools & Robbins, 2004)
First off, overwhelming evidence suggests that smart drugs actually work. A meta-analysis by researchers at Harvard Medical School and Oxford showed that Modafinil has significant cognitive benefits for those who do not suffer from sleep deprivation. The drug improves their ability to plan and make decisions and has a positive effect on learning and creativity. Another study, by researchers at Imperial College London, showed that Modafinil helped sleep-deprived surgeons become better at planning, redirecting their attention, and being less impulsive when making decisions.
That said, there are plenty of studies out there that point to its benefits. One study, published in the British Journal of Pharmacology, suggests brain function in elderly patients can be greatly improved after regular dosing with Piracetam. Another study, published in the journal Psychopharmacology, found that Piracetam improved memory in most adult volunteers. And another, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, suggests it can help students, especially dyslexic students, improve their nonverbal learning skills, like reading ability and reading comprehension. Basically, researchers know it has an effect, but they don’t know what or how, and pinning it down requires additional research.
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.
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.↩
One reason I like modafinil is that it enhances dopamine release, but it binds to your dopamine receptors differently than addictive substances like cocaine and amphetamines do, which may be part of the reason modafinil shares many of the benefits of other stimulants but doesn’t cause addiction or withdrawal symptoms.   It does increase focus, problem-solving abilities, and wakefulness, but it is not in the same class of drugs as Adderall, and it is not a classical stimulant. Modafinil is off of patent, so you can get it generically, or order it from India. It’s a prescription drug, so you need to talk to a physician.