"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. "
…The first time I took supplemental potassium (50% US RDA in a lot of water), it was like a brain fog lifted that I never knew I had, and I felt profoundly energized in a way that made me feel exercise was reasonable and prudent, which resulted in me and the roommate that had just supplemented potassium going for an hour long walk at 2AM. Experiences since then have not been quite so profound (which probably was so stark for me as I was likely fixing an acute deficiency), but I can still count on a moderately large amount of potassium to give me a solid, nearly side effect free performance boost for a few hours…I had been doing Bikram yoga on and off, and I think I wasn’t keeping up the practice because I wasn’t able to properly rehydrate myself.

Many of the positive effects of cognitive enhancers have been seen in experiments using rats. For example, scientists can train rats on a specific test, such as maze running, and then see if the "smart drug" can improve the rats' performance. It is difficult to see how many of these data can be applied to human learning and memory. For example, what if the "smart drug" made the rat hungry? Wouldn't a hungry rat run faster in the maze to receive a food reward than a non-hungry rat? Maybe the rat did not get any "smarter" and did not have any improved memory. Perhaps the rat ran faster simply because it was hungrier. Therefore, it was the rat's motivation to run the maze, not its increased cognitive ability that affected the performance. Thus, it is important to be very careful when interpreting changes observed in these types of animal learning and memory experiments.

The truth is, taking a smart pill will not allow you to access information that you have not already learned. If you speak English, a smart drug cannot embed the Spanish dictionary into your brain. In other words, they won't make you smarter or more intelligent. We need to throttle back our expectations and explore reality. What advantage can smart drugs provide? Brain enhancing substances have excellent health and cognitive benefits that are worth exploring.
There are a number of treatments for the last. I already use melatonin. I sort of have light therapy from a full-spectrum fluorescent desk lamp. But I get very little sunlight; the surprising thing would be if I didn’t have a vitamin D deficiency. And vitamin D deficiencies have been linked with all sorts of interesting things like near-sightedness, with time outdoors inversely correlating with myopia and not reading or near-work time. (It has been claimed that caffeine interferes with vitamin D absorption and so people like me especially need to take vitamin D, on top of the deficits caused by our vampiric habits, but I don’t think this is true34.) Unfortunately, there’s not very good evidence that vitamin D supplementation helps with mood/SAD/depression: there’s ~6 small RCTs with some findings of benefits, with their respective meta-analysis turning in a positive but currently non-statistically-significant result. Better confirmed is reducing all-cause mortality in elderly people (see, in order of increasing comprehensiveness: Evidence Syntheses 2013, Chung et al 2009, Autier & Gandini 2007, Bolland et al 2014).
The majority of nonmedical users reported obtaining prescription stimulants from a peer with a prescription (Barrett et al., 2005; Carroll et al., 2006; DeSantis et al., 2008, 2009; DuPont et al., 2008; McCabe & Boyd, 2005; Novak et al., 2007; Rabiner et al., 2009; White et al., 2006). Consistent with nonmedical user reports, McCabe, Teter, and Boyd (2006) found 54% of prescribed college students had been approached to divert (sell, exchange, or give) their medication. Studies of secondary school students supported a similar conclusion (McCabe et al., 2004; Poulin, 2001, 2007). In Poulin’s (2007) sample, 26% of students with prescribed stimulants reported giving or selling some of their medication to other students in the past month. She also found that the number of students in a class with medically prescribed stimulants was predictive of the prevalence of nonmedical stimulant use in the class (Poulin, 2001). In McCabe et al.’s (2004) middle and high school sample, 23% of students with prescriptions reported being asked to sell or trade or give away their pills over their lifetime.
Drugs and catastrophe are seemingly never far apart, whether in laboratories, real life or Limitless. Downsides are all but unavoidable: if a drug enhances one particular cognitive function, the price may be paid by other functions. To enhance one dimension of cognition, you’ll need to appropriate resources that would otherwise be available for others.

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[12] and enhances attention and mood in people over 65. [13] 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.
Frustrated by the lack of results, pharmaceutical companies have been shutting down their psychiatric drug research programmes. Traditional methods, such as synthesising new molecules and seeing what effect they have on symptoms, seem to have run their course. A shift of strategy is looming, towards research that focuses on genes and brain circuitry rather than chemicals. The shift will prolong the wait for new blockbuster drugs further, as the new systems are developed, and offers no guarantees of results.
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.
This tendency is exacerbated by general inefficiencies in the nootropics market - they are manufactured for vastly less than they sell for, although the margins aren’t as high as they are in other supplement markets, and not nearly as comical as illegal recreational drugs. (Global Price Fixing: Our Customers are the Enemy (Connor 2001) briefly covers the vitamin cartel that operated for most of the 20th century, forcing food-grade vitamins prices up to well over 100x the manufacturing cost.) For example, the notorious Timothy Ferriss (of The Four-hour Work Week) advises imitators to find a niche market with very high margins which they can insert themselves into as middlemen and reap the profits; one of his first businesses specialized in… nootropics & bodybuilding. Or, when Smart Powders - usually one of the cheapest suppliers - was dumping its piracetam in a fire sale of half-off after the FDA warning, its owner mentioned on forums that the piracetam was still profitable (and that he didn’t really care because selling to bodybuilders was so lucrative); this was because while SP was selling 2kg of piracetam for ~$90, Chinese suppliers were offering piracetam on AliBaba for $30 a kilogram or a third of that in bulk. (Of course, you need to order in quantities like 30kg - this is more or less the only problem the middlemen retailers solve.) It goes without saying that premixed pills or products are even more expensive than the powders.
The question of whether stimulants are smart pills in a pragmatic sense cannot be answered solely by consideration of the statistical significance of the difference between stimulant and placebo. A drug with tiny effects, even if statistically significant, would not be a useful cognitive enhancer for most purposes. We therefore report Cohen’s d effect size measure for published studies that provide either means and standard deviations or relevant F or t statistics (Thalheimer & Cook, 2002). More generally, with most sample sizes in the range of a dozen to a few dozen, small effects would not reliably be found.

Sure, those with a mental illness may very well need a little more monitoring to make sure they take their medications, but will those suffering from a condition with hallmark symptoms of paranoia and anxiety be helped by consuming a technology that quite literally puts a tracking device inside their body? For patients hearing voices telling them that they're being watched, a monitoring device may be a hard pill to swallow.

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.
To judge from recent reports in the popular media, healthy people have also begun to use MPH and AMPs for cognitive enhancement. Major daily newspapers such as The New York Times, The LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal; magazines including Time, The Economist, The New Yorker, and Vogue; and broadcast news organizations including the BBC, CNN, and NPR have reported a trend toward growing use of prescription stimulants by healthy people for the purpose of enhancing school or work performance.
Burke says he definitely got the glow. “The first time I took it, I was working on a business plan. I had to juggle multiple contingencies in my head, and for some reason a tree with branches jumped into my head. I was able to place each contingency on a branch, retract and go back to the trunk, and in this visual way I was able to juggle more information.”

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.
I have also tried to get in contact with senior executives who have experience with these drugs (either themselves or in their firms), but without success. I have to wonder: Are they completely unaware of the drugs’ existence? Or are they actively suppressing the issue? For now, companies can ignore the use of smart drugs. And executives can pretend as if these drugs don’t exist in their workplaces. But they can’t do it forever.
The one indisputable finding from the literature so far is that many people are seeking cognitive enhancement. Beyond that, the literature yields only partial and tentative answers to the questions just raised. Given the potential impact of cognitive enhancement on society, more research is needed. For research on the epidemiology of cognitive enhancement, studies focused on the cognitive-enhancement practices and experiences of students and nonstudent workers are needed. For research on the cognitive effects of prescription stimulants, larger samples are needed. Only with substantially larger samples will it be possible to assess small but potentially important benefits, as well as risks, and to distinguish individual differences in drug response. Large samples would also be required to compare these effects to the cognitive effects of improved sleep, exercise, nutrition, and stress management. To include more ecologically valid measures of cognition in academic and work environments would in addition require the equivalent of a large clinical trial.
Another popular option is nicotine. Scientists are increasingly realising that this drug is a powerful nootropic, with the ability to improve a person’s memory and help them to focus on certain tasks – though it also comes with well-documented obvious risks and side effects. “There are some very famous neuroscientists who chew Nicorette in order to enhance their cognitive functioning. But they used to smoke and that’s their substitute,” says Huberman.
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.)
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.
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.
Fish oil (Examine.com, buyer’s guide) provides benefits relating to general mood (eg. inflammation & anxiety; see later on anxiety) and anti-schizophrenia; it is one of the better supplements one can take. (The known risks are a higher rate of prostate cancer and internal bleeding, but are outweighed by the cardiac benefits - assuming those benefits exist, anyway, which may not be true.) The benefits of omega acids are well-researched.
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.
In nootropic stacks, it’s almost always used as a counterbalance to activating ingredients like caffeine. L-Theanine, in combination with caffeine, increases alertness, reaction time, and general attention [40, 41]. At the same time, it reduces possible headaches and removes the jitteriness caused by caffeine [42]. It takes the edge of other nootropic compounds.
Factor analysis. The strategy: read in the data, drop unnecessary data, impute missing variables (data is too heterogeneous and collected starting at varying intervals to be clean), estimate how many factors would fit best, factor analyze, pick the ones which look like they match best my ideas of what productive is, extract per-day estimates, and finally regress LLLT usage on the selected factors to look for increases.

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.

While the commentary makes effective arguments — that this isn't cheating, because cheating is based on what the rules are; that this is fair, because hiring a tutor isn't outlawed for being unfair to those who can't afford it; that this isn't unnatural, because humans with computers and antibiotics have been shaping what is natural for millennia; that this isn't drug abuse anymore than taking multivitamins is — the authors seem divorced from reality in the examples they provide of effective stimulant use today.
What if you could simply take a pill that would instantly make you more intelligent? One that would enhance your cognitive capabilities including attention, memory, focus, motivation and other higher executive functions? If you have ever seen the movie Limitless, you have an idea of what this would look like—albeit the exaggerated Hollywood version. The movie may be fictional but the reality may not be too far behind.
Only two of the eight experiments reviewed in this section found that stimulants enhanced performance, on a nonverbal fluency task in one case and in Raven’s Progressive Matrices in the other. The small number of studies of any given type makes it difficult to draw general conclusions about the underlying executive function systems that might be influenced.
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.
Coconut oil was recommended by Pontus Granström on the Dual N-Back mailing list for boosting energy & mental clarity. It is fairly cheap (~$13 for 30 ounces) and tastes surprisingly good; it has a very bad reputation in some parts, but seems to be in the middle of a rehabilitation. Seth Robert’s Buttermind experiment found no mental benefits to coconut oil (and benefits to eating butter), but I wonder.
“I bought this book because I didn’t want a weightloss diet, but I wanted the most optimal gut/brain food I could find to help with an autoimmune. I subscribe to Cavin’s podcast and another newsletter for gut health which also recommended this book. Also, he’s a personal friend of mine who’s recovery I have witnessed firsthand. Thank you so much for all of the research and your continued dedication to not only help yourself, but for also helping others!”
Does little alone, but absolutely necessary in conjunction with piracetam. (Bought from Smart Powders.) When turning my 3kg of piracetam into pills, I decided to avoid the fishy-smelling choline and go with 500g of DMAE (Examine.com); it seemed to work well when I used it before with oxiracetam & piracetam, since I had no piracetam headaches, and be considerably less bulky.
One of the most common strategies to beat this is cycling. Users who cycle their nootropics take them for a predetermined period, (usually around five days) before taking a two-day break from using them. Once the two days are up, they resume the cycle. By taking a break, nootropic users reduce the tolerance for nootropics and lessen the risk of regression and tolerance symptoms.
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By which I mean that simple potassium is probably the most positively mind altering supplement I’ve ever tried…About 15 minutes after consumption, it manifests as a kind of pressure in the head or temples or eyes, a clearing up of brain fog, increased focus, and the kind of energy that is not jittery but the kind that makes you feel like exercising would be the reasonable and prudent thing to do. I have done no tests, but feel smarter from this in a way that seems much stronger than piracetam or any of the conventional weak nootropics. It is not just me – I have been introducing this around my inner social circle and I’m at 7/10 people felt immediately noticeable effects. The 3 that didn’t notice much were vegetarians and less likely to have been deficient. Now that I’m not deficient, it is of course not noticeable as mind altering, but still serves to be energizing, particularly for sustained mental energy as the night goes on…Potassium chloride initially, but since bought some potassium gluconate pills… research indicates you don’t want to consume large amounts of chloride (just moderate amounts).
11:30 AM. By 2:30 PM, my hunger is quite strong and I don’t feel especially focused - it’s difficult to get through the tab-explosion of the morning, although one particularly stupid poster on the DNB ML makes me feel irritated like I might on Adderall. I initially figure the probability at perhaps 60% for Adderall, but when I wake up at 2 AM and am completely unable to get back to sleep, eventually racking up a Zeo score of 73 (compared to the usual 100s), there’s no doubt in my mind (95%) that the pill was Adderall. And it was the last Adderall pill indeed.

Piracetam boosts acetylcholine function, a neurotransmitter responsible for memory consolidation. Consequently, it improves memory in people who suffer from age-related dementia, which is why it is commonly prescribed to Alzheimer’s patients and people struggling with pre-dementia symptoms. When it comes to healthy adults, it is believed to improve focus and memory, enhancing the learning process altogether.

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.)
We’d want 53 pairs, but Fitzgerald 2012’s experimental design called for 32 weeks of supplementation for a single pair of before-after tests - so that’d be 1664 weeks or ~54 months or ~4.5 years! We can try to adjust it downwards with shorter blocks allowing more frequent testing; but problematically, iodine is stored in the thyroid and can apparently linger elsewhere - many of the cited studies used intramuscular injections of iodized oil (as opposed to iodized salt or kelp supplements) because this ensured an adequate supply for months or years with no further compliance by the subjects. If the effects are that long-lasting, it may be worthless to try shorter blocks than ~32 weeks.
Looking at the prices, the overwhelming expense is for modafinil. It’s a powerful stimulant - possibly the single most effective ingredient in the list - but dang expensive. Worse, there’s anecdotal evidence that one can develop tolerance to modafinil, so we might be wasting a great deal of money on it. (And for me, modafinil isn’t even very useful in the daytime: I can’t even notice it.) If we drop it, the cost drops by a full $800 from $1761 to $961 (almost halving) and to $0.96 per day. A remarkable difference, and if one were genetically insensitive to modafinil, one would definitely want to remove it.

There is an ancient precedent to humans using natural compounds to elevate cognitive performance. Incan warriors in the 15th century would ingest coca leaves (the basis for cocaine) before battle. Ethiopian hunters in the 10th century developed coffee bean paste to improve hunting stamina. Modern athletes ubiquitously consume protein powders and hormones to enhance their training, recovery, and performance. The most widely consumed psychoactive compound today is caffeine. Millions of people use coffee and tea to be more alert and focused.
The hormone testosterone (Examine.com; FDA adverse events) needs no introduction. This is one of the scariest substances I have considered using: it affects so many bodily systems in so many ways that it seems almost impossible to come up with a net summary, either positive or negative. With testosterone, the problem is not the usual nootropics problem that that there is a lack of human research, the problem is that the summary constitutes a textbook - or two. That said, the 2011 review The role of testosterone in social interaction (excerpts) gives me the impression that testosterone does indeed play into risk-taking, motivation, and social status-seeking; some useful links and a representative anecdote:
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).
These are quite abstract concepts, though. There is a large gap, a grey area in between these concepts and our knowledge of how the brain functions physiologically – and it’s in this grey area that cognitive enhancer development has to operate. Amy Arnsten, Professor of Neurobiology at Yale Medical School, is investigating how the cells in the brain work together to produce our higher cognition and executive function, which she describes as “being able to think about things that aren’t currently stimulating your senses, the fundamentals of abstraction. This involves mental representations of our goals for the future, even if it’s the future in just a few seconds.”

It’s not clear that there is much of an effect at all. This makes it hard to design a self-experiment - how big an effect on, say, dual n-back should I be expecting? Do I need an arduous long trial or an easy short one? This would principally determine the value of information too; chocolate seems like a net benefit even if it does not affect the mind, but it’s also fairly costly, especially if one likes (as I do) dark chocolate. Given the mixed research, I don’t think cocoa powder is worth investigating further as a nootropic.

Another interpretation of the mixed results in the literature is that, in some cases at least, individual differences in response to stimulants have led to null results when some participants in the sample are in fact enhanced and others are not. This possibility is not inconsistent with the previously mentioned ones; both could be at work. Evidence has already been reviewed that ability level, personality, and COMT genotype modulate the effect of stimulants, although most studies in the literature have not broken their samples down along these dimensions. There may well be other as-yet-unexamined individual characteristics that determine drug response. The equivocal nature of the current literature may reflect a mixture of substantial cognitive-enhancement effects for some individuals, diluted by null effects or even counteracted by impairment in others.
The original “smart drug” is piracetam, which was discovered by the Romanian scientist Corneliu Giurgea in the early 1960s. At the time, he was looking for a chemical that could sneak into the brain and make people feel sleepy. After months of testing, he came up with “Compound 6215”. It was safe, it had very few side effects – and it didn’t work. The drug didn’t send anyone into a restful slumber and seemed to work in the opposite way to that intended.
Modafinil is not addictive, but there may be chances of drug abuse and memory impairment. This can manifest in people who consume it to stay up for way too long; as a result, this would probably make them ill. Long-term use of Modafinil may reduce plasticity and may harm the memory of some individuals. Hence, it is sold only on prescription by a qualified physician.

Intrigued by old scientific results & many positive anecdotes since, I experimented with microdosing LSD - taking doses ~10μg, far below the level at which it causes its famous effects. At this level, the anecdotes claim the usual broad spectrum of positive effects on mood, depression, ability to do work, etc. After researching the matter a bit, I discovered that as far as I could tell, since the original experiment in the 1960s, no one had ever done a blind or even a randomized self-experiment on it.
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.
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