More photos from this reportage are featured in Quartz’s new book The Objects that Power the Global Economy. You may not have seen these objects before, but they’ve already changed the way you live. Each chapter examines an object that is driving radical change in the global economy. This is from the chapter on the drug modafinil, which explores modifying the mind for a more productive life.
First half at 6 AM; second half at noon. Wrote a short essay I’d been putting off and napped for 1:40 from 9 AM to 10:40. This approach seems to work a little better as far as the aboulia goes. (I also bother to smell my urine this time around - there’s a definite off smell to it.) Nights: 10:02; 8:50; 10:40; 7:38 (2 bad nights of nasal infections); 8:28; 8:20; 8:43 (▆▃█▁▂▂▃).
Alpha Brain's most noticeable impact on hunting was making it easier to wake up early. Since I'm typically not a morning person, this was striking, and helpful. I also felt slightly more organized, and a curious sense of emotional stability. These changes could also be attributed to parenthood, and my determination to do the deed and get home as soon as possible.
Besides Adderall, I also purchased on Silk Road 5x250mg pills of armodafinil. The price was extremely reasonable, 1.5btc or roughly $23 at that day’s exchange rate; I attribute the low price to the seller being new and needing feedback, and offering a discount to induce buyers to take a risk on him. (Buyers bear a large risk on Silk Road since sellers can easily physically anonymize themselves from their shipment, but a buyer can be found just by following the package.) Because of the longer active-time, I resolved to test the armodafinil not during the day, but with an all-nighter.
On the other hand, Phillips said, Provigil's effects "have attenuated over time. The body is an amazing adjusting machine, and there's no upside that I've been able to see to just taking more." A few years ago Phillips tired of poker and started playing competitive Scrabble. He was good, but not that good. He was older than many of his rivals and he needed to undertake a lot of rote memorisation, which didn't come as easily as it once had. "I stopped short of memorising the entire dictionary, and to be really good you have to get up to eight- and nine-letter words," he told me. "But I did learn every word up to five letters, plus maybe 10,000 seven- and eight-letter words." Provigil, he said, helped with the memorisation process but, "it's not going to make you smarter. It's going to make you better able to use the tools you have for a sustained period."
Because smart drugs like modafinil, nicotine, and Adderall come with drawbacks, I developed my own line of nootropics, including Forbose and SmartMode, that’s safe, widely available, and doesn’t require a prescription. Forskolin, found in Forbose, has been a part of Indian Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. In addition to being fun to say, forskolin increases cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP), a molecule essential to learning and memory formation. 
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Long story short, aging is your brain’s worst enemy. The same applies to all organs of our body, but the brain suffers the most. Both neurotransmitters and neurons are taking the blow too. As a result, the neuron communication is affected. Now, this may seem like the rocket science to you, but it’s enough to say, serotonin and dopamine are the most important neurotransmitters. Without these components, you can forget about good mood. Serotonin and dopamine levels drop at a rate of approximately 10% for every decade you add to your age.
Alpha Lipoic Acid is a vitamin-like chemical filled with antioxidant properties, that naturally occur in broccoli, spinach, yeast, kidney, liver, and potatoes. The compound is generally prescribed to patients suffering from nerve-related symptoms of diabetes because it helps in preventing damage to the nerve cells and improves the functioning of neurons.
Recently I spoke on the phone with Barbara Sahakian, a clinical neuropsychologist at Cambridge University and the co-author of a 2007 article in Nature entitled "Professor's Little Helper". Sahakian, who also consults for several pharmaceutical companies, and her co-author, Sharon Morein-Zamir, reported that a number of their colleagues were using prescription drugs like Adderall and Provigil. Because the drugs are easy to buy online, they wrote, it would be difficult to stop their spread: "The drive for self-enhancement of cognition is likely to be as strong if not stronger than in the realms of 'enhancement' of beauty and sexual function." (In places like Cambridge, at least.)
The fact is, many of these compounds in small amounts and less frequent use can be relatively safe, but as you’re probably not surprised to hear, I’m not 100% convinced of the overall long-term safety or efficacy of most smart drugs used frequently or in moderate to high dosages for the reasons stated above. It is true that some are slightly less risky than others and are increasing in popularity among biohackers and medical professionals. They’re also becoming used with high frequency by students, athletes and e-gamers, three populations for which smart drug “doping control” is becoming more frequently banned and considered to be illegal use of performance-enhancing drugs. Yes, “brain doping” and “brain PED’s” (brain Performance Enhancing Drugs) are now a thing. But I’d consider carefully the use of smart drugs as daily go-to brain enhancing supplements, especially in light of the safer alternative you’re about to discover: the entire category of natural and synthetic nootropic compounds.
Seltzer's decision to take piracetam was based on his own online reading, which included medical-journal abstracts. He hadn't consulted a doctor. Since settling on a daily regime of supplements, he had sensed an improvement in his intellectual work and his ability to engage in stimulating conversation. He continued: "I feel I'm better able to articulate my thoughts. I'm sure you've been in the zone - you're having a really exciting debate with somebody, your brain feels alive. I feel that more. But I don't want to say that it's this profound change."
Traditional Chinese medicine also has a long, well-established relationship with nootropic herbs and plants. One of the most popular and well-known is ginkgo biloba, derived from the Chinese maidenhair tree, a relic of the ancient world. The maidenhair tree is the last living species of the division Ginkgophyta>. Some believe that the name ginkgo is a misspelling of the original Japanese gin kyo, meaning “silver apricot”. It’s seen as a symbol of longevity and vitality and is known to be effective at stimulating the growth of new neurons. Researchers have demonstrated that ginkgo flavonoids, the main constituents in ginkgo extract, provide potent anti-Alzheimer’s effects via antioxidant activity in the brains of mice and also stabilize and improve the cognitive performance of Alzheimer patients for 6 months to 1 year. Effective doses range from 120 to 240 mg one to four hours before performance, and for older adults, doses range from 40 to 120 mg three times a day.
The realm of natural nootropics is also accompanied by a family of synthetic nootropics called racetams, most notably piracetam and aniracetam. Piracetam is known to directly enhance learning, memory and attention and, with no observed adverse side effects, can restore cognitive performance in patients who have suffered cranial trauma, inflammation, strokes and ischemic complications following coronary bypass surgery. It can also improve symptoms of delirium and reduce depression and anxiety. In adults, the standard dose of piracetam ranges from 1,200 to 4,800 mg, often broken up into three smaller doses throughout the day. Aniracetam has been shown to concentration-dependently counteract cell death induced by excitotoxicity caused by glutamate, resulting in an overall neuroprotective effect. While you may not be shoveling mouthfuls of glutamate down your hatch or eating cartonsful of MSG-containing Chinese food each night, the same mechanism of action can help protect your brain from excitotoxicity or inflammation caused by other central nervous system irritants, such as toxins, chemicals, herbicides, pesticides, rancid oils, etc. Effective doses of aniracetam range from a single 400 mg dose to two doses per day between 500 and 750 mg, taken with meals.
However, as a result of the efficacy of this type of stacking, the supplement world is saturated with brain-boosting blends, and it can be difficult to cut through the confusion and figure out what really works and what could be a waste of time and money, or downright dangerous. The fact is, when creating your own stack, you must carefully think about your specific needs and goals. For example, if you want to reduce anxiety and depression, but don’t necessarily care to enhance your cognitive performance or get through a day of work in a sleep-deprived state, you could just stick to a single nootropic that increases dopamine levels, such as Mucuna pruriens or tryptophan. Or if you wanted to reduce anxiety and depression while simultaneously improving your memory because you’re studying for a school or work exam, you could add Bacopa monnieri to the mucuna or tryptophan. Then, let’s say you want long-term cognitive performance to the mix that lasts an entire day: in this case, you’d add a racetam, and to avoid an end of day crash, a touch of choline or DHA. It’s a bit like cooking in the kitchen, isn’t it?
Dark chocolate. Let's end with the good stuff. Dark chocolate has powerful antioxidant properties, contains several natural stimulants, including caffeine, which enhance focus and concentration, and stimulates the production of endorphins, which helps improve mood. One-half ounce to 1 ounce a day will provide all the benefits you need, says Kulze. This is one "superfood" where more is not better. "You have to do this one in moderation," says Kulze.
I took the pill at 11 PM the evening of (technically, the day before); that day was a little low on sleep than usual, since I had woken up an hour or half-hour early. I didn’t yawn at all during the movie (merely mediocre to my eyes with some questionable parts)23. It worked much the same as it did the previous time - as I walked around at 5 AM or so, I felt perfectly alert. I made good use of the hours and wrote up my memories of ICON 2011.
The third category was cognitive control - how effectively you can check yourself in circumstances where the most natural response is the wrong one. A classic test is the Stroop Task, in which people are shown the name of a colour (let's say orange) written in a different colour (let's say purple). They're asked to read the word (which is easy, because our habitual response to a word is to read it) or to name the ink colour (which is harder, because our first impulse is to say "orange"). These studies presented a more mixed picture, but overall they showed some benefit "for most normal healthy subjects" - especially for people who had inherently poorer cognitive control.
Taking the tryptophan is fairly difficult. The powder as supplied by Bulk Nutrition is extraordinarily dry and fine; it seems to be positively hydrophobic. The first time I tried to swallow a teaspoon, I nearly coughed it out - the power had seemed to explode in my mouth and go down my lungs. Thenceforth I made sure to have a mouth of water first. After a while, I took a different tack: I mixed in as much Hericium as would fit in the container. The mushroom powder is wetter and chunkier than the tryptophan, and seems to reduce the problem. Combining the mix with chunks of melatonin inside a pill works even better.
Tuesday: I went to bed at 1am, and first woke up at 6am, and I wrote down a dream; the lucid dreaming book I was reading advised that waking up in the morning and then going back for a short nap often causes lucid dreams, so I tried that - and wound up waking up at 10am with no dreams at all. Oops. I take a pill, but the whole day I don’t feel so hot, although my conversation and arguments seem as cogent as ever. I’m also having a terrible time focusing on any actual work. At 8 I take another; I’m behind on too many things, and it looks like I need an all-nighter to catch up. The dose is no good; at 11, I still feel like at 8, possibly worse, and I take another along with the choline+piracetam (which makes a total of 600mg for the day). Come 12:30, and I disconsolately note that I don’t seem any better, although I still seem to understand the IQ essays I am reading. I wonder if this is tolerance to modafinil, or perhaps sleep catching up to me? Possibly it’s just that I don’t remember what the quasi-light-headedness of modafinil felt like. I feel this sort of zombie-like state without change to 4am, so it must be doing something, when I give up and go to bed, getting up at 7:30 without too much trouble. Some N-backing at 9am gives me some low scores but also some pretty high scores (38/43/66/40/24/67/60/71/54 or ▂▂▆▂▁▆▅▇▄), which suggests I can perform normally if I concentrate. I take another pill and am fine the rest of the day, going to bed at 1am as usual.
I have been taking these supplements for almost three weeks now. What I have noticed is there is a marked difference in the decrease of my daily brain fog. This was huge for me! However, I gave the product 4 stars because of my concern about the high count of vitamin B6. I think this should have been addressed in a disclaimer for concerned consumers
The first night I was eating some coconut oil, I did my n-backing past 11 PM; normally that damages my scores, but instead I got 66/66/75/88/77% (▁▁▂▇▃) on D4B and did not feel mentally exhausted by the end. The next day, I performed well on the Cambridge mental rotations test. An anecdote, of course, and it may be due to the vitamin D I simultaneously started. Or another day, I was slumped under apathy after a promising start to the day; a dose of fish & coconut oil, and 1 last vitamin D, and I was back to feeling chipper and optimist. Unfortunately I haven’t been testing out coconut oil & vitamin D separately, so who knows which is to thank. But still interesting.
The most common front-line of treatment for ADHD is medication and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Prescriptions for ADHD drugs such as Ritalin, have doubled to 922,000 a year in the last decade, and whilst it offers symptom management for many, it has also been found to have significant negative side effects such as weight loss, liver toxicity, and suicidal thoughts, and in the short term may suppress pubertal growth. The aetiology of ADHD is multifactorial, meaning that there are varying influencing factors that drive the symptoms. This is perhaps why this condition has been hard to study and find effective treatment for.
Herbs and plants have been used for cognitive enhancement for at least 5,000 years in Indian and Chinese medicine, long before the first synthetic nootropic was created. The practice of Indian Ayurvedic medicine includes the use of a group of nootropic plants known as Medhya Rasayana, the four primary plants of which are Mandukaparni, Yastimadhu, Duduchi and Shankhapushpi, though other lesser known plants are also used. One of the most common supplements in Ayurvedic medicine is Brahmi, known scientifically as “Bacopa monnieri” or “B. monnieri “ and more commonly as water hyssop, Thyme-leaved Gratiola, herb of grace or Indian pennywort. It is named after Lord Brahma, the creator God and originator of Ayurveda, and has been used for centuries to treat disorders ranging from pain and epilepsy to inflammation and memory dysfunction. The exact mechanism behind its action is not fully understood, but it is believed to promote antioxidant activity as well as protect neurons in the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and corpus striatum against cytotoxicity and DNA damage associated with Alzheimer’s. The prefrontal cortex is critical in rational, social and personality behavior, the hippocampus is believed to be the seat of memory and the autonomic nervous system and the striatum play a role in the reward system of action, so the protection Brahmi provides is extremely helpful in preventing the degeneration of many important cognitive faculties. An effective dose ranges from 300 to 450 mg per day. Winter cherry (ashwagandha) is another well-known Ayurvedic supplement that can promote improved cognitive development, memory and intelligence and reduce the effects of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s. The optimal dose is 6,000 mg per day divided into three 2,000 mg doses. Aloeweed (shankhpushpi) is also used in Ayurvedic medicine to improve memory and intellect as well as treat hypertension, epilepsy and diabetes. Effective doses for most neuroenhancing benefits range as high as 40 g per day.
I’ve been taking nootropics on and off for a month, and despite my spurts of productivity, I’m still not 100 percent sure that they’re working. I could well be placebo-ing myself into thinking I'm working harder and focusing better than I typically do. But apparently enough people are feeling some effect, placebo or not, because nootropics start-ups are thriving. There’s truBrain, Nootrobrain, Nootroo, and a host of others. Nootrobox, the company that makes my pills, says that it’s selling "five figures" worth of cognitive supplements monthly to customers that include top Silicon Valley executives and Hollywood moguls.
Vitamin C has long been thought to have the power to increase mental agility, and some research suggests that a deficiency may be a risk factor for age-related brain degeneration including dementia and Alzheimer's. Furthermore, interesting studies demonstrate that vitamin C may be useful in managing anxiety and stress. One of the best sources of this vital vitamin are blackcurrants. Others include red peppers, citrus fruits such as oranges and broccoli.
Nootropics still exist largely in an unregulated gray area, which makes users somewhat hesitant to discuss their regimens. But I did speak to several people who told tales of increased productivity and sharpened focus. Bob Carter, a financial analyst for a start-up called LendingHome, says that nootropics have replaced his other morning stimulant. “I basically think of it as a substitute for coffee,” he says. “I think the problem with a cappuccino from Starbucks is that it gives you the feeling of being jittery. Whereas with this particular supplement, I feel more calm.”
Second, users are concerned with the possibility of withdrawal if they stop taking the nootropics. They worry that if they stop taking nootropics they won’t be as smart as when they were taking nootropics, and will need to continue taking them to function. Some users report feeling a slight brain fog when discontinuing nootropics, but that isn’t a sign of regression.