These days, young, ambitious professionals prefer prescription stimulants—including methylphenidate (usually sold as Ritalin) and Adderall—that are designed to treat people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and are more common and more acceptable than cocaine or nicotine (although there is a black market for these pills). ADHD makes people more likely to lose their focus on tasks and to feel restless and impulsive. Diagnoses of the disorder have been rising dramatically over the past few decades—and not just in kids: In 2012, about 16 million Adderall prescriptions were written for adults between the ages of 20 and 39, according to a report in the New York Times. Both methylphenidate and Adderall can improve sustained attention and concentration, says Barbara Sahakian, professor of clinical neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge and author of the 2013 book Bad Moves: How Decision Making Goes Wrong, and the Ethics of Smart Drugs. But the drugs do have side effects, including insomnia, lack of appetite, mood swings, and—in extreme cases—hallucinations, especially when taken in amounts the exceed standard doses. Take a look at these 10 foods that help you focus.
If Alex, the Harvard student, and Paul Phillips, the poker player, consider their use of neuroenhancers a private act, Nicholas Seltzer sees his habit as a pursuit that aligns him with a larger movement for improving humanity. Seltzer's job as a researcher at a defence-oriented thinktank in northern Virginia has not left him feeling as intellectually alive as he would like. To compensate, he writes papers in his spare time on subjects like "human biological evolution and warfare". Seltzer, 30, told me he worried that he "didn't have the mental energy, the endurance, the... the sponginess that I seem to recall having when I was younger".

Conversely, you have to consider that the long term effects of Modafinil haven’t been studies very well. It significantly upsets sleep cycles, and 50% of Modafinil users report a number of short term side effects, such as mild to severe headaches, insomnia, nausea, anxiety, nervousness, hypertension, decreased appetite, and weight loss. PET scans show it affects the same areas of the brain that are stimulated by substance abuse.
People with failing memory and worried about Alzheimer’s disease are sometimes seduced by advertisements for Huperzine A, extracted from a type of moss. Some studies have shown that it increases levels of acetylcholine in the brain, a chemical that is in short supply in Alzheimer’s. But despite increasing acetylcholine, aside from a few questionable studies in China, there is no evidence that it improves memory. Unfortunately when it comes to memory pills, they are best forgotten. There is, however, hope that a nasal spray containing insulin can increase the absorption of glucose into brain cells and improve cognitive function. But in the meantime, the best bet to maintain good brain function is to monitor blood glucose and blood pressure, eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and low in simple carbs and saturated fat. And don’t forget that physical exercise also exercises your brain.
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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.)
Kratom (Erowid, Reddit) is a tree leaf from Southeast Asia; it’s addictive to some degree (like caffeine and nicotine), and so it is regulated/banned in Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Bhutan among others - but not the USA. (One might think that kratom’s common use there indicates how very addictive it must be, except it literally grows on trees so it can’t be too hard to get.) Kratom is not particularly well-studied (and what has been studied is not necessarily relevant - I’m not addicted to any opiates!), and it suffers the usual herbal problem of being an endlessly variable food product and not a specific chemical with the fun risks of perhaps being poisonous, but in my reading it doesn’t seem to be particularly dangerous or have serious side-effects.
I’ve spent over a million dollars hacking my own biology. The lion’s share has gone to making my brain produce as much energy as it can. I even wrote a book, Head Strong, about neurofeedback, oxygen deprivation, supplements, deeper sleep, meditation, cold exposure, and about a dozen other brain hacks, and how you can use them to make your brain stronger than you thought possible.
As it happened, Health Supplement Wholesalers (since renamed Powder City) offered me a sample of their products, including their 5g Noopept powder ($13). I’d never used HSW before & they had some issues in the past; but I haven’t seen any recent complaints, so I was willing to try them. My 5g from batch #130830 arrived quickly (photos: packaging, powder contents). I tried some (tastes just slightly unpleasant, like an ultra-weak piracetam), and I set about capping the fluffy white flour-like powder with the hilariously tiny scoop they provide.
A recent study at the University of Innsbruck in Austria found that participants that drank two cups of coffee per day improved memory, reaction time, and neuron signaling, more than the control. More notably, the 676 daily coffee drinker participants experienced less mental decline than nondrinkers over a ten-year period. In other words, bottoms up on your cup of Joe!
Similarly, we could try applying Nick Bostrom’s reversal test and ask ourselves, how would we react to a virus which had no effect but to eliminate sleep from alternating nights and double sleep in the intervening nights? We would probably grouch about it for a while and then adapt to our new hedonistic lifestyle of partying or working hard. On the other hand, imagine the virus had the effect of eliminating normal sleep but instead, every 2 minutes, a person would fall asleep for a minute. This would be disastrous! Besides the most immediate problems like safely driving vehicles, how would anything get done? You would hold a meeting and at any point, a third of the participants would be asleep. If the virus made it instead 2 hours on, one hour off, that would be better but still problematic: there would be constant interruptions. And so on, until we reach our present state of 16 hours on, 8 hours off. Given that we rejected all the earlier buffer sizes, one wonders if 16:8 can be defended as uniquely suited to circumstances. Is that optimal? It may be, given the synchronization with the night-day cycle, but I wonder; rush hour alone stands as an argument against synchronized sleep - wouldn’t our infrastructure would be much cheaper if it only had to handle the average daily load rather than cope with the projected peak loads? Might not a longer cycle be better? The longer the day, the less we are interrupted by sleep; it’s a hoary cliche about programmers that they prefer to work in long sustained marathons during long nights rather than sprint occasionally during a distraction-filled day, to the point where some famously adopt a 28 hour day (which evenly divides a week into 6 days). Are there other occupations which would benefit from a 20 hour waking period? Or 24 hour waking period? We might not know because without chemical assistance, circadian rhythms would overpower anyone attempting such schedules. It certainly would be nice if one had long time chunks in which could read a challenging book in one sitting, without heroic arrangements.↩
(In particular, I don’t think it’s because there’s a sudden new surge of drugs. FDA drug approval has been decreasing over the past few decades, so this is unlikely a priori. More specifically, many of the major or hot drugs go back a long time. Bacopa goes back millennia, melatonin I don’t even know, piracetam was the ’60s, modafinil was ’70s or ’80s, ALCAR was ’80s AFAIK, Noopept & coluracetam were ’90s, and so on.)
I’ve tried a few different ways of taking my nootropics—in the morning, in the afternoon, in addition to coffee, as a replacement for coffee—and so far, the effects I'm feeling are much more subtle than I expected. There’s no sweaty-palmed intensity, no eight-hour uninterruptible work sprints, and none of the hyperactivity you’d associate with a caffeine high. It’s just a sensation of being a little amped up, and of being slightly less distracted than normal.
Zack explained that he didn't really like the term enhancement: "We're not talking about superhuman intelligence. No one's saying we're coming out with a pill that's going to make you smarter than Einstein! What we're really talking about is enabling people." He sketched a bell curve on the back of a napkin. "Almost every drug in development is something that will take someone who's working at, like, 40% or 50%, and take them up to 80," he said.
One idea I’ve been musing about is the connections between IQ, Conscientiousness, and testosterone. IQ and Conscientiousness do not correlate to a remarkable degree - even though one would expect IQ to at least somewhat enable a long-term perspective, self-discipline, metacognition, etc! There are indications in studies of gifted youth that they have lower testosterone levels. The studies I’ve read on testosterone indicate no improvements to raw ability. So, could there be a self-sabotaging aspect to human intelligence whereby greater intelligence depends on lack of testosterone, but this same lack also holds back Conscientiousness (despite one’s expectation that intelligence would produce greater self-discipline and planning), undermining the utility of greater intelligence? Could cases of high IQ types who suddenly stop slacking and accomplish great things sometimes be due to changes in testosterone? Studies on the correlations between IQ, testosterone, Conscientiousness, and various measures of accomplishment are confusing and don’t always support this theory, but it’s an idea to keep in mind.
The principal metric would be mood, however defined. Zeo’s web interface & data export includes a field for Day Feel, which is a rating 1-5 of general mood & quality of day. I can record a similar metric at the end of each day. 1-5 might be a little crude even with a year of data, so a more sophisticated measure might be in order. The first mood study is paywalled so I’m not sure what they used, but Shiotsuki 2008 used State-Trait of Anxiety Inventory (STAI) and Profiles of Mood States Test (POMS). The full POMS sounds too long to use daily, but the Brief POMS might work. In the original 1987 paper A brief POMS measure of distress for cancer patients, patients answering this questionnaire had a mean total mean of 10.43 (standard deviation 8.87). Is this the best way to measure mood? I’ve asked Seth Roberts; he suggested using a 0-100 scale, but personally, there’s no way I can assess my mood on 0-100. My mood is sufficiently stable (to me) that 0-5 is asking a bit much, even.
Amphetamines are synthetic stimulants and were first created in 1887. These are among the most powerful stimulant-based smart drugs in use and work primarily by targeting dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline/norepinephrine. Given what you’ve already learned about the dopaminergic effects of modafinil and methylphenidate, you should already be wary of amphetamines’ targeting of dopamine. Hormones and neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine and histamine are known as monoamines, and amphetamines block their uptake by being taken up instead themselves by monoamine transporters. This leads to higher levels of monoamines in synapses, and consequently to the psychostimulant effects characteristic of drugs like Adderall.
The problems with our mental functions begin if the blood flow to the brain cells is disrupted regardless of the reasons. There are countless capillaries in the head, which supply the brain with essential nutrients and oxygen. If the blood doesn’t get to these capillaries, your optimal mental performance is compromised. Here’s a term worth remembering – hypoperfusion. If you’re suffering from hypoperfusion, then this means you are having problems with the blood flow to your brain. Here’s a quick overview of the factors that most commonly cause hypoperfusion:
Research in animals shows that blueberries may help protect the brain from the damage caused by free radicals and may reduce the effects of age-related conditions such as Alzheimer's disease or dementia. Studies also show that diets rich in blueberries improved both the learning and muscle function of aging rats, making them mentally equal to much younger rats.
Ngo has experimented with piracetam himself (“The first time I tried it, I thought, ‘Wow, this is pretty strong for a supplement.’ I had a little bit of reflux, heartburn, but in general it was a cognitive enhancer. . . . I found it helpful”) and the neurotransmitter DMEA (“You have an idea, it helps you finish the thought. It’s for when people have difficulty finishing that last connection in the brain”).
The powder totals 227g of magnesium citrate, hence there is ~0.945g per magnesium citrate pill. The nutritional information states that it contains 119 servings of 0.315g magnesium elemental = 37.485g elemental, as expected, and so likewise there is 0.156g elemental magnesium per pill. This is the same dosage as the second half of the first magnesium citrate experiment (249 gel capsules there, 240 here), where the overdose effect seemed to also happen; so to avoid the overdosage, I will take one pill every other day to halve the dose to an average of ~0.078g/78mg elemental per day (piggybacking on the morning-caffeine experiment to make compliance easier).
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Low-dose lithium orotate is extremely cheap, ~$10 a year. There is some research literature on it improving mood and impulse control in regular people, but some of it is epidemiological (which implies considerable unreliability); my current belief is that there is probably some effect size, but at just 5mg, it may be too tiny to matter. I have ~40% belief that there will be a large effect size, but I’m doing a long experiment and I should be able to detect a large effect size with >75% chance. So, the formula is NPV of the difference between taking and not taking, times quality of information, times expectation: \frac{10 - 0}{\ln 1.05} \times 0.75 \times 0.40 = 61.4, which justifies a time investment of less than 9 hours. As it happens, it took less than an hour to make the pills & placebos, and taking them is a matter of seconds per week, so the analysis will be the time-consuming part. This one may actually turn a profit.

When asked if there’s a discrepancy between Qualia’s claims and that disclaimer, Dr. Stickler points out that products such as OS aren’t promising to treat or cure any diseases. That’s the line these companies can’t cross. They can claim their product makes you smarter or more focused without data from clinical trials, but they can’t claim their pill treats traumatic brain injury, ADHD, or Alzheimer’s.
(We already saw that too much iodine could poison both adults and children, and of course too little does not help much - iodine would seem to follow a U-curve like most supplements.) The listed doses at iherb.com often are ridiculously large: 10-50mg! These are doses that seems to actually be dangerous for long-term consumption, and I believe these are doses that are designed to completely suffocate the thyroid gland and prevent it from absorbing any more iodine - which is useful as a short-term radioactive fallout prophylactic, but quite useless from a supplementation standpoint. Fortunately, there are available doses at Fitzgerald 2012’s exact dose, which is roughly the daily RDA: 0.15mg. Even the contrarian materials seem to focus on a modest doubling or tripling of the existing RDA, so the range seems relatively narrow. I’m fairly confident I won’t overshoot if I go with 0.15-1mg, so let’s call this 90%.
After a month of testing nootropics, I’m not ready to commit to them permanently. They’re simply too untested, and while “move fast and break things” might be a good approach to building software, it’s not what I want for my brain. Still, I think we’ll likely hear more about nootropics, especially as recreational users of more powerful prescription drugs like Adderall and modafinil look for less harsh alternatives. Sometimes, when you’re working, you don’t want to put your brain on jet fuel—a little unleaded gas will do. And for those moments, nootropics could be a fertile testing ground for the intrepid body-hacker.
An important dietary step to avoid heavy metal toxicity is choosing seafood and fish that has reduced levels of exposure. The Seafood Watch web page is a fantastic resource that has an extensive list of fish, seafood and sushi products that are safe, as well as those that are best to stay away from. For example, choosing wild pacific caught salmon is safer than Atlantic caught salmon.
In fact, when combined into a variety of different supplement “stacks” and taken in the correct dosage, these compounds – usually referred to as either smart drugs or nootropics (but now also including the category of psychedelics) – can completely change how your brain performs, including impacting receptor sites for neurotransmitters, altering levels of enzymes that break down specific neurotransmitters, changing cell membrane structures and thus controlling the movement of molecules inside and outside of the cell, increasing cerebral perfusion, which improves blood flow to the brain, affecting what are called “biogenic processes”, including neuronal cell creation or “neurogenesis”, and neuroendocrine regulation, regulating hormonal processes of the body specifically related to cognition (See additional studies here, here, here and here.).
Jump up ^ Sattler, Sebastian; Forlini, Cynthia; Racine, Éric; Sauer, Carsten (August 5, 2013). "Impact of Contextual Factors and Substance Characteristics on Perspectives toward Cognitive Enhancement". PLOS ONE. PLOS. 8 (8): e71452. Bibcode:2013PLoSO...871452S. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0071452. ISSN 1932-6203. LCCN 2006214532. OCLC 228234657. PMC 3733969. PMID 23940757. Retrieved April 5, 2014.
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