“You know how they say that we can only access 20% of our brain?” says the man who offers stressed-out writer Eddie Morra a fateful pill in the 2011 film Limitless. “Well, what this does, it lets you access all of it.” Morra is instantly transformed into a superhuman by the fictitious drug NZT-48. Granted access to all cognitive areas, he learns to play the piano in three days, finishes writing his book in four, and swiftly makes himself a millionaire.
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.
I’m wary of others, though. The trouble with using a blanket term like “nootropics” is that you lump all kinds of substances in together. Technically, you could argue that caffeine and cocaine are both nootropics, but they’re hardly equal. With so many ways to enhance your brain function, many of which have significant risks, it’s most valuable to look at nootropics on a case-by-case basis. Here’s a list of 9 nootropics, along with my thoughts on each.
Low-tech methods of cognitive enhancement include many components of what has traditionally been viewed as a healthy lifestyle, such as exercise, good nutrition, adequate sleep, and stress management. These low-tech methods nevertheless belong in a discussion of brain enhancement because, in addition to benefiting cognitive performance, their effects on brain function have been demonstrated (Almeida et al., 2002; Boonstra, Stins, Daffertshofer, & Beek, 2007; Hillman, Erickson, & Kramer, 2008; Lutz, Slagter, Dunne, & Davidson, 2008; Van Dongen, Maislin, Mullington, & Dinges, 2003).
Many over the counter and prescription smart drugs fall under the category of stimulants. These substances contribute to an overall feeling of enhanced alertness and attention, which can improve concentration, focus, and learning. While these substances are often considered safe in moderation, taking too much can cause side effects such as decreased cognition, irregular heartbeat, and cardiovascular problems.
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.
The use of cognition-enhancing drugs by healthy individuals in the absence of a medical indication spans numerous controversial issues, including the ethics and fairness of their use, concerns over adverse effects, and the diversion of prescription drugs for nonmedical uses, among others. Nonetheless, the international sales of cognition-enhancing supplements exceeded US$1 billion in 2015 when global demand for these compounds grew.