The nootropics community is surprisingly large and involved. When I wade into forums and the nootropics subreddit, I find members trading stack recipes and notifying each other of newly synthesized compounds. Some of these “psychonauts” seem like they’ve studied neuroscience; others appear to be novices dipping their toes into the world of cognitive enhancement. But all of them have the same goal: amplifying the brain’s existing capabilities without screwing anything up too badly. It’s the same impulse that grips bodybuilders—the feeling that with small chemical tweaks and some training, we can squeeze more utility out of the body parts we have. As Taylor Hatmaker of the Daily Dot recently wrote, “Together, these faceless armchair scientists seek a common truth—a clean, unharmful way to make their brains better—enforcing their own self-imposed safety parameters and painstakingly precise methods, all while publishing their knowledge for free, in plain text, to relatively crude, shared databases."
I do recommend a few things, like modafinil or melatonin, to many adults, albeit with misgivings about any attempt to generalize like that. (It’s also often a good idea to get powders, see the appendix.) Some of those people are helped; some have told me that they tried and the suggestion did little or nothing. I view nootropics as akin to a biological lottery; one good discovery pays for all. I forge on in the hopes of further striking gold in my particular biology. Your mileage will vary. All you have to do, all you can do is to just try it. Most of my experiences were in my 20s as a right-handed 5’11 white male weighing 190-220lbs, fitness varying over time from not-so-fit to fairly fit. In rough order of personal effectiveness weighted by costs+side-effects, I rank them as follows:
Spinach is rich in the antioxidant lutein, which is thought to help protect against cognitive decline, according to researchers from Tufts University. And a longitudinal study at Harvard Medical School found that women who reported eating the most leafy green and cruciferous vegetables had a markedly lower rate of cognitive decline, compared to those who ate the least.
This was so unexpected that I wondered if I had somehow accidentally put the magnesium pills into the placebo pill baggie or had swapped values while typing up the data into a spreadsheet, and checked into that. The spreadsheet accorded with the log above, which rules out data entry mistakes; and looking over the log, I discovered that some earlier slip-ups were able to rule out the pill-swap: I had carelessly put in some placebo pills made using rice, in order to get rid of them, and that led to me being unblinded twice before I became irritated enough to pick them all out of the bag of placebos - but how could that happen if I had swapped the groups of pills?
As with any thesis, there are exceptions to this general practice. For example, theanine for dogs is sold under the brand Anxitane is sold at almost a dollar a pill, and apparently a month’s supply costs $50+ vs $13 for human-branded theanine; on the other hand, this thesis predicts downgrading if the market priced pet versions higher than human versions, and that Reddit poster appears to be doing just that with her dog.↩
That it is somewhat valuable is clear if we consider it under another guise. Imagine you received the same salary you do, but paid every day. Accounting systems would incur considerable costs handling daily payments, since they would be making so many more and so much smaller payments, and they would have to know instantly whether you showed up to work that day and all sorts of other details, and the recipients themselves would waste time dealing with all these checks or looking through all the deposits to their account, and any errors would be that much harder to track down. (And conversely, expensive payday loans are strong evidence that for poor people, a bi-weekly payment is much too infrequent.) One might draw a comparison to batching or buffers in computers: by letting data pile up in buffers, the computer can then deal with them in one batch, amortizing overhead over many items rather than incurring the overhead again and again. The downside, of course, is that latency will suffer and performance may drop based on that or the items becoming outdated & useless. The right trade-off will depend on the specifics; one would not expect random buffer-sizes to be optimal, but one would have to test and see what works best.
In 2011, a story surfaced that struck fear into many: A woman was being treated for brain and memory disorders, when in reality she was just incredibly low in B12 stores. Turns out, this isn’t uncommon; many physicians don’t run routine blood tests for the nutrient, which is especially troublesome considering that our ability to absorb B12 is dramatically reduced with age. Over time, low vitamin B12 can do a number of your cognition.
Vitamin D is probably the most important supplement you can take, and one of the best brain food. It acts on more than over 1,000 different genes and is a substrate for testosterone, progesterone, estradiol, and other hormones. It also influences inflammation and brain calcium absorption. No surprise that optimal vitamin D levels are linked to stronger cognitive function and slower brain aging.
Another factor to consider is whether the nootropic is natural or synthetic. Natural nootropics generally have effects which are a bit more subtle, while synthetic nootropics can have more pronounced effects. It’s also important to note that there are natural and synthetic nootropics. Some natural nootropics include Ginkgo biloba and ginseng. One benefit to using natural nootropics is they boost brain function and support brain health. They do this by increasing blood flow and oxygen delivery to the arteries and veins in the brain.
Too much caffeine may be bad for bone health because it can deplete calcium. Overdoing the caffeine also may affect the vitamin D in your body, which plays a critical role in your body’s bone metabolism. However, the roles of vitamin D as well as caffeine in the development of osteoporosis continue to be a source of debate. Significance: Caffeine may interfere with your body’s metabolism of vitamin D, according to a 2007 Journal of Steroid Biochemistry & Molecular Biology study. You have vitamin D receptors, or VDRs, in your osteoblast cells. These large cells are responsible for the mineralization and synthesis of bone in your body. They create a sheet on the surface of your bones. The D receptors are nuclear hormone receptors that control the action of vitamin D-3 by controlling hormone-sensitive gene expression. These receptors are critical to good bone health. For example, a vitamin D metabolism disorder in which these receptors don’t work properly causes rickets.
We reached out to several raw material manufacturers and learned that Phosphatidylserine and Huperzine A are in short supply. We also learned that these ingredients can be pricey, incentivizing many companies to cut corners. A company has to have the correct ingredients in the correct proportions in order for a brain health formula to be effective. We learned that not just having the two critical ingredients was important – but, also that having the correct supporting ingredients was essential in order to be effective.
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.)
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Nootropics are classically defined as something that a) improves brain health, and b) does no harm. So, while many treatments being advertised online and on TV can be classified as nootropics, some of them don’t fit the bill because of the dangerous and damaging side effects they also confer upon the unwary consumer. In fact, most of the results you might get from searching ‘best brain pills’ are similarly not that great, let alone the best.
But notice that most of the cost imbalance is coming from the estimate of the benefit of IQ - if it quadrupled to a defensible $8000, that would be close to the experiment cost! So in a way, what this VoI calculation tells us is that what is most valuable right now is not that iodine might possibly increase IQ, but getting a better grip on how much any IQ intervention is worth.
But it's not the mind-expanding 1960s any more. Every era, it seems, has its own defining drug. Neuroenhancers are perfectly suited to the anxiety of white-collar competition in a floundering economy. And they have a synergistic relationship with our multiplying digital technologies: the more gadgets we own, the more distracted we become and the more we need help in order to focus. The experience that neuroenhancement offers is not, for the most part, about opening the doors of perception, or about breaking the bonds of the self, or about experiencing a surge of genius. It's about squeezing out an extra few hours to finish those sales figures when you'd really rather collapse into bed; getting a B instead of a B-minus on the final exam in a lecture class where you spent half your time texting; cramming for the GREs (postgraduate entrance exams) at night, because the information-industry job you got after college turned out to be deadening. Neuroenhancers don't offer freedom. Rather, they facilitate a pinched, unromantic, grindingly efficient form of productivity.
I asked Marcus which nootropic he would want if he were stranded on a desert island. "I guess it would depend on the challenges I was facing on the island. If staying healthy was the biggest challenge, then I'd choose AC-11," he said. "If I needed to stay motivated to rebuild the village, I would choose Mucuna [pruriens]. If I was hunting, I'd choose Huperzia serrata, for mental acuity and speed."
l-Theanine – A 2014 systematic review and meta-analysis found that concurrent caffeine and l-theanine use had synergistic psychoactive effects that promoted alertness, attention, and task switching; these effects were most pronounced during the first hour post-dose. However, the European Food Safety Authority reported that, when L-theanine is used by itself (i.e. without caffeine), there is insufficient information to determine if these effects exist.