There's no magic bullet to boost IQ or make you smarter -- but certain substances, like caffeine, can energize you and help you concentrate. Found in coffee, chocolate, energy drinks, and some medications, caffeine gives you that unmistakable wake-up buzz, though the effects are short-term. And more is often less: Overdo it on caffeine and it can make you jittery and uncomfortable.
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.
The evidence? Found helpful in reducing bodily twitching in myoclonus epilepsy, a rare disorder, but otherwise little studied. Mixed evidence from a study published in 1991 suggests it may improve memory in subjects with cognitive impairment. A meta-analysis published in 2010 that reviewed studies of piracetam and other racetam drugs found that piracetam was somewhat helpful in improving cognition in people who had suffered a stroke or brain injury; the drugs’ effectiveness in treating depression and reducing anxiety was more significant.
One of the other suggested benefits is for boosting serotonin levels; low levels of serotonin are implicated in a number of issues like depression. I’m not yet sure whether tryptophan has helped with motivation or happiness. Trial and error has taught me that it’s a bad idea to take tryptophan in the morning or afternoon, however, even smaller quantities like 0.25g. Like melatonin, the dose-response curve is a U: ~1g is great and induces multiple vivid dreams for me, but ~1.5g leads to an awful night and a headache the next day that was worse, if anything, than melatonin. (One morning I woke up with traces of at least 7 dreams, although I managed to write down only 2. No lucid dreams, though.)
These are the most highly studied ingredients and must be combined together to achieve effective results. If any one ingredient is missing in the formula, you may not get the full cognitive benefits of the pill. It is important to go with a company that has these critical ingredients as well as a complete array of supporting ingredients to improve their absorption and effectiveness. Anything less than the correct mix will not work effectively.
But while some studies have found short-term benefits, Doraiswamy says there is no evidence that what are commonly known as smart drugs — of any type — improve thinking or productivity over the long run. “There’s a sizable demand, but the hype around efficacy far exceeds available evidence,” notes Doraiswamy, adding that, for healthy young people such as Silicon Valley go-getters, “it’s a zero-sum game. That’s because when you up one circuit in the brain, you’re probably impairing another system.”
The evidence? In small studies, healthy people taking modafinil showed improved planning and working memory, and better reaction time, spatial planning, and visual pattern recognition. A 2015 meta-analysis claimed that “when more complex assessments are used, modafinil appears to consistently engender enhancement of attention, executive functions, and learning” without affecting a user’s mood. In a study from earlier this year involving 39 male chess players, subjects taking modafinil were found to perform better in chess games played against a computer.
Another promising "smart pill" is phosphatidylserine, or PS, a natural substance that helps cell walls stay pliable and is thought to boost the effectiveness of neurotransmitters, which relay brain signals. In a May 1991 study published in Neurology, neuroscientist Thomas Crook found that patients with age-associated memory impairment improved their scores on key performance tests after 12 weeks on PS. Yet more research is needed before doctors can know that the supplement is safe and effective.
Zack and Casey Lynch are a young couple who, in 2005, launched NeuroInsights, a company that advises investors on developments in brain-science technology. (Since then, they've also founded a lobbying group, the Neurotechnology Industry Organization.) Casey and Zack met as undergraduates at UCLA; she went on to get a master's in neuroscience and he became an executive at a software company. Last summer I had coffee with them in San Francisco and they both spoke with casual certainty about the coming market for neuroenhancers. Zack, whose book, The Neuro Revolution, was published in July, said: "We live in an information society. What's the next form of human society? The neuro-society." In coming years, he said, scientists will understand the brain better, and we'll have improved neuroenhancers that some people will use therapeutically, others because they are "on the borderline of needing them therapeutically" and others purely "for competitive advantage".
Nootropics—the name given to a broad class of so-called "cognitive-enhancing" drugs—are all the rage in Silicon Valley these days. Programmers like nootropics because they’re said to increase productivity and sharpen focus without the intensity or side effects of a prescription drug like Adderall or modafinil. Some users mix their own nootropics using big bins of powders, purchased off the Internet or in supplement stores. And some take pre-made "stacks" that are designed to produce specific effects.
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.