Adderall is a mix of 4 amphetamine salts (FDA adverse events), and not much better than the others (but perhaps less addictive); as such, like caffeine or methamphetamine, it is not strictly a nootropic but a cognitive enhancer and can be tricky to use right (for how one should use stimulants, see How To Take Ritalin Correctly). I ordered 10x10mg Adderall IR off Silk Road (Wikipedia). On the 4th day after confirmation from seller, the package arrived. It was a harmless looking little padded mailer. Adderall as promised: 10 blue pills with markings, in a double ziplock baggy (reasonable, it’s not cocaine or anything). They matched pretty much exactly the descriptions of the generic I had found online. (Surprisingly, apparently both the brand name and the generic are manufactured by the same pharmacorp.)
True Focus offers several very positive elements. The ingredients are excellent quality and all natural and without side effects. We like the fact they offer a product that is both vegan and vegetarian friendly, as well as being gluten, soy and dairy free. This allows many consumers to experience the benefits of this product. The fact they do not offer a clear money-back guarantee, we felt, placed them in a weaker position. Moreover, the lack of multi-purchase price deals left us feeling that this was slightly expensive, as with no options to reduce the cost per bottle, consumers will be stuck paying slightly more for each bottle.
It arrived as described, a little bottle around the volume of a soda can. I had handy a plastic syringe with milliliter units which I used to measure out the nicotine-water into my tea. I began with half a ml the first day, 1ml the second day, and 2ml the third day. (My Zeo sleep scores were 85/103/86 (▁▇▁), and the latter had a feline explanation; these values are within normal variation for me, so if nicotine affects my sleep, it does so to a lesser extent than Adderall.) Subjectively, it’s hard to describe. At half a ml, I didn’t really notice anything; at 1 and 2ml, I thought I began to notice it - sort of a cleaner caffeine. It’s nice so far. It’s not as strong as I expected. I looked into whether the boiling water might be breaking it down, but the answer seems to be no - boiling tobacco is a standard way to extract nicotine, actually, and nicotine’s own boiling point is much higher than water; nor do I notice a drastic difference when I take it in ordinary water. And according to various e-cigarette sources, the liquid should be good for at least a year.

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.
Both nootropics startups provide me with samples to try. In the case of Nootrobox, it is capsules called Sprint designed for a short boost of cognitive enhancement. They contain caffeine – the equivalent of about a cup of coffee, and L-theanine – about 10 times what is in a cup of green tea, in a ratio that is supposed to have a synergistic effect (all the ingredients Nootrobox uses are either regulated as supplements or have a “generally regarded as safe” designation by US authorities)
Brain Awake is produced by Irwin Naturals. The ingredients are natural and include some key ingredients. However, it also contained several other inactive ingredients that raised some concerns - namely, beeswax and silicone dioxide. We were not sure why these ingredients are included, and could not find any real explanation as to why they are contained within this product. That said, when we tested the ingredients in this product, they were as reported on the bottle.
These brain enhancers allow users to go without sleep for extended periods of time. But in the long-term, insomnia is a hazardous side effect, not a so-called benefit. Lack of sleep is extremely detrimental to your brain health and function. It’s during sleep that your brain consolidates memories, cleans away toxins, repairs itself, and creates new brain cells. (52, 53, 54, 55)
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:
Our current natural brain health formula contains Cordyceps-Sinensis Extract as well as the complete balance of brain health supporting nutrients that work perfectly together to help your body elevate essential acetylcholine levels while increasing the neurological components (neurotransmitters) needed to help you stay alert, focused, mentally driven and calm.
Zach was on his way to being a doctor when a personal health crisis changed all of that. He decided that he wanted to create wellness instead of fight illness. He lost over a 100 lbs through functional nutrition and other natural healing protocols. He has since been sharing his knowledge of nutrition and functional medicine for the last 12 years as a health coach and health educator.
Growing up, Joe was plagued with a myriad of health issues such as gut problems, autoimmune issues, chronic fatigue, brain fog, insomnia, and general inflammation. Both conventional and alternative doctors weren’t able to help him, so he decided to fix himself. With lots of health questions and few satisfying answers, Joe decided to read every research paper he could get his hands on and conduct thousands of experiments on his own body in order to fix his health issues. Joe started SelfHacked in late 2013 when he successfully fixed all of his issues, and now it gets millions of readers a month looking to educate themselves about how they can improve their health. Joe is now a thriving author, speaker, and serial entrepreneur, founding SelfDecode & LabTestAnalyzer.
Somewhat ironically given the stereotypes, while I was in college I dabbled very little in nootropics, sticking to melatonin and tea. Since then I have come to find nootropics useful, and intellectually interesting: they shed light on issues in philosophy of biology & evolution, argue against naive psychological dualism and for materialism, offer cases in point on the history of technology & civilization or recent psychology theories about addiction & willpower, challenge our understanding of the validity of statistics and psychology - where they don’t offer nifty little problems in statistics and economics themselves, and are excellent fodder for the young Quantified Self movement4; modafinil itself demonstrates the little-known fact that sleep has no accepted evolutionary explanation. (The hard drugs also have more ramifications than one might expect: how can one understand the history of Southeast Asia and the Vietnamese War without reference to heroin, or more contemporaneously, how can one understand the lasting appeal of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the unpopularity & corruption of the central government without reference to the Taliban’s frequent anti-drug campaigns or the drug-funded warlords of the Northern Alliance?)

A total of 330 randomly selected Saudi adolescents were included. Anthropometrics were recorded and fasting blood samples were analyzed for routine analysis of fasting glucose, lipid levels, calcium, albumin and phosphorous. Frequency of coffee and tea intake was noted. 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels were measured using enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays…Vitamin D levels were significantly highest among those consuming 9-12 cups of tea/week in all subjects (p-value 0.009) independent of age, gender, BMI, physical activity and sun exposure.
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He first took up the game in 1995, when he was in college. He recalled: "It was very mathematical, but you could also inject yourself into the game and manipulate the other guy with words" - more so than in a game like chess. Phillips soon felt that he had mastered the strategic aspects of poker. The key variable was execution. At tournaments he needed to be able to stay focused for 14 hours at a stretch, often for several days, but he found it difficult to do so. In 2003, a doctor gave him a diagnosis of ADHD and he began taking Adderall. Within six months, he had won $1.6m at poker - far more than he'd won in the previous four years. Adderall not only helped him concentrate, it also helped him resist the impulse to keep playing losing hands out of boredom. In 2004, Phillips asked his doctor to give him a prescription for Provigil, which he added to his Adderall regimen. He took 200-300mg of Provigil a day, which he felt helped him settle into an even more serene and objective state of mindfulness; as he put it, he felt "less like a participant than an observer - and a very effective one". Though Phillips sees neuroenhancers as essentially steroids for the brain, they haven't yet been banned from poker competitions.

Gibson and Green (2002), talking about a possible link between glucose and cognition, wrote that research in the area …is based on the assumption that, since glucose is the major source of fuel for the brain, alterations in plasma levels of glucose will result in alterations in brain levels of glucose, and thus neuronal function. However, the strength of this notion lies in its common-sense plausibility, not in scientific evidence… (p. 185).

Lucas Baker, a Switzerland-based software engineer with a large tech company, takes nootropics every day. He says it helps him maintain focus, especially on projects he might otherwise put off. “When I find an unpleasant task, I can just power through it,” he says. Baker also makes the coffee comparison: “There’s already a universally-embraced nootropic called caffeine,” he says. “It’s just about making it more widely researched.”
The single most reliable way to protect our brain cells as we age, most researchers agree, is to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, which are chock-full of antioxidants and nutrients. In a study published in the October 1997 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers tested 260 people aged 65 to 90 with a series of mental exercises that involved memorizing words or doing mental arithmetic. The top performers were those who consumed the most fruits and vegetables and ate the least artery-clogging saturated fat.
Nootropics – sometimes called smart drugs – are compounds that enhance brain function. They’re becoming a popular way to give your mind an extra boost. According to one Telegraph report, up to 25% of students at leading UK universities have taken the prescription smart drug modafinil [1], and California tech startup employees are trying everything from Adderall to LSD to push their brains into a higher gear [2].

It is not because of the few thousand francs which would have to be spent to put a roof [!] over the third-class carriages or to upholster the third-class seats that some company or other has open carriages with wooden benches. What the company is trying to do is to prevent the passengers who can pay the second class fare from traveling third class; it hits the poor, not because it wants to hurt them, but to frighten the rich. And it is again for the same reason that the companies, having proved almost cruel to the third-class passengers and mean to the second-class ones, become lavish in dealing with first-class passengers. Having refused the poor what is necessary, they give the rich what is superfluous.
Your mileage will vary. There are so many parameters and interactions in the brain that any of them could be the bottleneck or responsible pathway, and one could fall prey to the common U-shaped dose-response curve (eg. Yerkes-Dodson law; see also Chemistry of the adaptive mind & de Jongh et al 2007) which may imply that the smartest are those who benefit least23 but ultimately they all cash out in a very few subjective assessments like energetic or motivated, with even apparently precise descriptions like working memory or verbal fluency not telling you much about what the nootropic actually did. It’s tempting to list the nootropics that worked for you and tell everyone to go use them, but that is merely generalizing from one example (and the more nootropics - or meditation styles, or self-help books, or getting things done systems - you try, the stronger the temptation is to evangelize). The best you can do is read all the testimonials and studies and use that to prioritize your list of nootropics to try. You don’t know in advance which ones will pay off and which will be wasted. You can’t know in advance. And wasted some must be; to coin a Umeshism: if all your experiments work, you’re just fooling yourself. (And the corollary - if someone else’s experiments always work, they’re not telling you everything.)

The difference in standard deviations is not, from a theoretical perspective, all that strange a phenomenon: at the very beginning of this page, I covered some basic principles of nootropics and mentioned how many stimulants or supplements follow a inverted U-curve where too much or too little lead to poorer performance (ironically, one of the examples in Kruschke 2012 was a smart drug which did not affect means but increased standard deviations).
According to McCabe's research team, white male undergraduates at highly competitive schools are the most frequent student users of neuroenhancers. Users are also more likely to belong to a fraternity or a sorority, and to have a grade point average (GPA) of 3.0 - ie satisfactory - or lower. They are 10 times as likely to report that they have smoked marijuana in the past year and 20 times as likely to say that they have used cocaine. In other words, they are decent students at schools where to be a great student you have to give up a lot more partying than they're willing to give up.
Of course learning, working memory and cognitive control represent just a few aspects of thinking. Farah concluded that studies looking at other kinds of cognition - verbal fluency, for instance - were too few and too contradictory to tell us much. Both Chatterjee and Farah have wondered whether drugs that heighten users' focus might dampen their creativity. After all, some of our best ideas come to us not when we sit down at a desk but rather when we're in the shower or walking the dog - letting our minds roam. Jimi Hendrix reported that the inspiration for "Purple Haze" came to him in a dream; the chemist Friedrich August Kekule claimed that he discovered the ring structure of benzene during a reverie in which he saw the image of a snake biting its tail. Farah told me: "There is some evidence that suggests that individuals who are better able to focus on one thing and filter out distractions tend to be less creative.
Finally, it’s not clear that caffeine results in performance gains after long-term use; homeostasis/tolerance is a concern for all stimulants, but especially for caffeine. It is plausible that all caffeine consumption does for the long-term chronic user is restore performance to baseline. (Imagine someone waking up and drinking coffee, and their performance improves - well, so would the performance of a non-addict who is also slowly waking up!) See for example, James & Rogers 2005, Sigmon et al 2009, and Rogers et al 2010. A cross-section of thousands of participants in the Cambridge brain-training study found caffeine intake showed negligible effect sizes for mean and component scores (participants were not told to use caffeine, but the training was recreational & difficult, so one expects some difference).
Nootropics. You might have heard of them. The “limitless pill” that keeps Billionaires rich. The ‘smart drugs’ that students are taking to help boost their hyperfocus. The cognitive enhancers that give corporate executives an advantage. All very exciting. But as always, the media are way behind the curve. Yes, for the past few decades, cognitive enhancers were largely sketchy substances that people used to grasp at a short term edge at the expense of their health and wellbeing. But the days of taking prescription pills to pull an all-nighter are so 2010. The better, safer path isn’t with these stimulants but with nootropics. Nootropics consist of supplements and substances which enhance your cognition, in particular when it comes to motivation, creativity, memory, and other executive functions.