On the other hand, sometimes you’ll feel a great cognitive boost as soon as you take a pill. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. I find, for example, that modafinil makes you more of what you already are. That means if you are already kind of a dick and you take modafinil, you might act like a really big dick and regret it. It certainly happened to me! I like to think that I’ve done enough hacking of my brain that I’ve gotten over that programming… and that when I use nootropics they help me help people.
Sun: This is a day I devote to spiritual disciplines and deep personal exploration, along with a hefty dose of neurogenesis, and for a day such as this, I’ll use a more potent neuron sprouting and ego-dissolving mix – most notably a blend of psilocybin microdose with Lion’s Mane extract and niacin (if the skin flush and increased blood flow from niacin tends to be too much for you, you can also use “nicotinamide riboside”, a form of vitamin B3 that has similar effects without the flushing).
And yet when enthusiasts share their vision of our neuroenhanced future it can sound dystopian. Zack Lynch, of NeuroInsights, gave me a rationale for smart pills that I found particularly grim. "If you're a 55-year-old in Boston, you have to compete with a 26-year-old from Mumbai now, and those kinds of pressures are only going to grow," he began. Countries other than the US might tend to be a little looser with their regulations and offer approval of new cognitive enhancers first. "And if you're a company that's got 47 offices worldwide, and all of a sudden your Singapore office is using cognitive enablers, and you're saying to Congress: 'I'm moving all my financial operations to Singapore and Taiwan, because it's legal to use those there', you bet that Congress is going to say: 'Well, OK.' It will be a moot question then.
Some supplement blends, meanwhile, claim to work by combining ingredients – bacopa, cat's claw, huperzia serrata and oat straw in the case of Alpha Brain, for example – that have some support for boosting cognition and other areas of nervous system health. One 2014 study in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, suggested that huperzia serrata, which is used in China to fight Alzheimer's disease, may help slow cell death and protect against (or slow the progression of) neurodegenerative diseases. The Alpha Brain product itself has also been studied in a company-funded small randomized controlled trial, which found Alpha Brain significantly improved verbal memory when compared to adults who took a placebo.
There are a number of smart drugs on the market, the most well-known of which are probably Adderall and Ritalin. Both are technically known as psychostimulants, which means that they stimulate increased activity of the central nervous system: the brain and spinal cord. There are also two other common smart drugs, specifically Modafinil and a class of something called “ampakines”. You’re about to learn how each of them works and the benefits and potential risks therein.
Back home, I contacted Aubrey Marcus, whose company Onnit Labs produces Alpha Brain. He attributed my lucid dreaming to increased levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which enhances REM dreaming. Alpha Brain has two ingredients that boost acetylcholine levels: GPC choline, which the body converts to acetylcholine, and Huperzine A, an alkaloid derived from Chinese club moss, also known as Huperzia serrata. "Huperzine A disarms the enzyme that naturally breaks down acetylcholine," Marcus said. "So while the GPC choline is being converted to acetylcholine, the Huperzine A is keeping it from disappearing. It's like plugging the drain and turning on the faucet."
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Walnuts in particular are excellent brain food. These wrinkly nuts—which kind of resemble the human brain—are rich in vitamin E. Researchers at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center studied the lifestyle habits of 6,000 people who were unaffected by Alzheimer’s the memory-robbing condition, and found that those who ate the most vitamin E-rich foods had a reduced risk of developing the memory-robbing condition. Vitamin E may trap free radicals that can damage brain cells, according to the Alzheimer’s Research Center. Here’s some more brain food that your noggin will thank you for eating.
Vinh Ngo, a San Francisco family practice doctor who specializes in hormone therapy, has become familiar with piracetam and other nootropics through a changing patient base. His office is located in the heart of the city’s tech boom and he is increasingly sought out by young, male tech workers who tell him they are interested in cognitive enhancement.
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.
More than once I have seen results indicating that high-IQ types benefit the least from random nootropics; nutritional deficits are the premier example, because high-IQ types almost by definition suffer from no major deficiencies like iodine. But a stimulant modafinil may be another such nootropic (see Cognitive effects of modafinil in student volunteers may depend on IQ, Randall et al 2005), which mentions:
You’ve no doubt heard that we’re now entering a new golden age of psychedelics, and microdosing with LSD, psilocybin, ketamine and other compounds previously placed in the realm of party animals and rave enthusiasts is now commonplace for CEO’s, the Navy SEALs, famous authors and beyond. You no longer have to be a tree-hugging, anti-war rebel to achieve the many positive health benefits of psychedelics. My own personal experience with these compounds has spanned several years of quarterly heavy psilocybin and DMT dosages for personal self-discovery, weekly LSD microdoses for creativity and productivity, and iboga microdosing for a pre-workout boost.
Not all drug users are searching for a chemical escape hatch. A newer and increasingly normalized drug culture is all about heightening one’s current relationship to reality—whether at work or school—by boosting the brain’s ability to think under stress, stay alert and productive for long hours, and keep track of large amounts of information. In the name of becoming sharper traders, medical interns, or coders, people are taking pills typically prescribed for conditions including ADHD, narcolepsy, and Alzheimer’s. Others down “stacks” of special “nootropic” supplements.
Methylphenidate was accepted into medical practice in 1960 as a way to treat narcolepsy and ADHD. It works by inhibiting the reuptake of dopamine and norepinephrine into the nervous system, causing a flooding of dopamine and norepinephrine in the synapse between the nerves, which in turn leads to amplified signaling between neurons. It’s been said that these effects are basically the same as those of amphetamines (see more details below), which are synthetic, addictive, mood-altering drugs, used illegally in sports as a stimulant and also legally as a prescription drug – like Ritalin – to treat children with ADD and adults with narcolepsy.
There is no official data on their usage, but nootropics as well as other smart drugs appear popular in the Silicon Valley. “I would say that most tech companies will have at least one person on something,” says Noehr. It is a hotbed of interest because it is a mentally competitive environment, says Jesse Lawler, a LA based software developer and nootropics enthusiast who produces the podcast Smart Drug Smarts. “They really see this as translating into dollars.” But Silicon Valley types also do care about safely enhancing their most prized asset – their brains – which can give nootropics an added appeal, he says.
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.
On the nutritional naughty list for years, egg yolks are finally experiencing their well-deserved day in the sun. If you’ve been eating only egg whites, the yolk’s on you. Yolks contain large amounts of choline, which helps in fetal brain development for pregnant women. It also breaks down bethane, a chemical that produces hormones related to happiness. That’s right, eggs can make you happy! (6)
If you want to focus on boosting your brain power, Lebowitz says you should primarily focus on improving your cardiovascular health, which is "the key to good thinking." For example, high blood pressure and cholesterol, which raise the risk of heart disease, can cause arteries to harden, which can decrease blood flow to the brain. The brain relies on blood to function normally.
We felt that NeuroFuse was pretty much on par with other similar products. We were happy to see that this supplier offers a money-back guarantee. However, we didn't really like the 14-day trial offer they promote. On the surface it seems good, however, our experience on these matters suggests that if consumers are not happy with the product, cancelling subscriptions can be a nightmare. We much prefer a simple clear money-back guarantee, it's safer for consumers.
(People aged <=18 shouldn’t be using any of this except harmless stuff - where one may have nutritional deficits - like fish oil & vitamin D; melatonin may be especially useful, thanks to the effects of screwed-up school schedules & electronics use on teenagers’ sleep. Changes in effects with age are real - amphetamines’ stimulant effects and modafinil’s histamine-like side-effects come to mind as examples.)
Cost-wise, the gum itself (~$5) is an irrelevant sunk cost and the DNB something I ought to be doing anyway. If the results are negative (which I’ll define as d<0.2), I may well drop nicotine entirely since I have no reason to expect other forms (patches) or higher doses (2mg+) to create new benefits. This would save me an annual expense of ~$40 with a net present value of <820 ($); even if we count the time-value of the 20 minutes for the 5 DNB rounds over 48 days (0.2 \times 48 \times 7.25 = 70), it’s still a clear profit to run a convincing experiment.
The methodology would be essentially the same as the vitamin D in the morning experiment: put a multiple of 7 placebos in one container, the same number of actives in another identical container, hide & randomly pick one of them, use container for 7 days then the other for 7 days, look inside them for the label to determine which period was active and which was placebo, refill them, and start again.
The easiest way to use 2mg was to use half a gum; I tried not chewing it but just holding it in my cheek. The first night I tried, this seemed to work well for motivation; I knocked off a few long-standing to-do items. Subsequently, I began using it for writing, where it has been similarly useful. One difficult night, I wound up using the other half (for a total of 4mg over ~5 hours), and it worked but gave me a fairly mild headache and a faint sensation of nausea; these may have been due to forgetting to eat dinner, but this still indicates 3mg should probably be my personal ceiling until and unless tolerance to lower doses sets in.
If this is the case, this suggests some thoughtfulness about my use of nicotine: there are times when use of nicotine will not be helpful, but times where it will be helpful. I don’t know what makes the difference, but I can guess it relates to over-stimulation: on some nights during the experiment, I had difficult concentrating on n-backing because it was boring and I was thinking about the other things I was interested in or working on - in retrospect, I wonder if those instances were nicotine nights.
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.
Similarly, Mehta et al 2000 noted that the positive effects of methylphenidate (40 mg) on spatial working memory performance were greatest in those volunteers with lower baseline working memory capacity. In a study of the effects of ginkgo biloba in healthy young adults, Stough et al 2001 found improved performance in the Trail-Making Test A only in the half with the lower verbal IQ.
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"More and more of our young people are using these drugs to help them work. They've got their laptop, their iPhone, and their Adderall. This rising generation of workers and leaders may have a subtly different style of thinking and working, because they're using these drugs or because they learned to work using these drugs, so that even if you take the drugs away they'll still have a certain approach. I'm a little concerned that we could be raising a generation of very focused accountants."
Research on animals has shown that intermittent fasting — limiting caloric intake at least two days a week — can help improve neural connections in the hippocampus and protect against the accumulation of plaque, a protein prevalent in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Research has also shown that intermittent fasting helped reduce anxiety in mice.
Still, the scientific backing and ingredient sourcing of nootropics on the market varies widely, and even those based in some research won't necessarily immediately, always or ever translate to better grades or an ability to finally crank out that novel. Nor are supplements of any kind risk-free, says Jocelyn Kerl, a pharmacist in Madison, Wisconsin.
“Most people assume that because it’s a supplement, it can’t be bad for you because it’s natural,” says Louis Kraus, M.D., a psychiatrist with Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. In 2016, he chaired a committee that investigated nootropics for the American Medical Association. After reviewing the science, the committee found little to no evidence to support the efficacy or safety of nootropics.
I met Alex one evening last summer, at an appealingly scruffy bar in the New England city where he lives. Skinny and bearded, and wearing faded hipster jeans, he looked like the lead singer in an indie band. He was ingratiating and articulate, and smoked cigarettes with an ironic air of defiance. Alex was happy enough to talk about his frequent use of Adderall at Harvard, but he didn't want to see his name in print; he's involved with an internet start-up and worried that potential investors might disapprove of his habit.
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.)
I split the 2 pills into 4 doses for each hour from midnight to 4 AM. 3D driver issues in Debian unstable prevented me from using Brain Workshop, so I don’t have any DNB scores to compare with the armodafinil DNB scores. I had the subjective impression that I was worse off with the Modalert, although I still managed to get a fair bit done so the deficits couldn’t’ve been too bad. The apathy during the morning felt worse than armodafinil, but that could have been caused by or exacerbated by an unexpected and very stressful 2 hour drive through rush hour and multiple accidents; the quick hour-long nap at 10 AM was half-waking half-light-sleep according to the Zeo, but seemed to help a bit. As before, I began to feel better in the afternoon and by evening felt normal, doing my usual reading. That night, the Zeo recorded my sleep as lasting ~9:40, when it was usually more like 8:40-9:00 (although I am not sure that this was due to the modafinil inasmuch as once a week or so I tend to sleep in that long, as I did a few days later without any influence from the modafinil); assuming the worse, the nap and extra sleep cost me 2 hours for a net profit of ~7 hours. While it’s not clear how modafinil affects recovery sleep (see the footnote in the essay), it’s still interesting to ponder the benefits of merely being able to delay sleep19.
“We didn’t see significant long-term effects from the dosage used,” said Wen-Jun Gao, a professor of neurobiology at the Drexel University College of Medicine, and one of the authors of the study. He added that the brain doesn’t fully stop developing until age 25 or 30, making cognitive enhancement potentially risky even for users who are well into adulthood.
But, thanks to the efforts of a number of remarkable scientists, researchers and plain-old neurohackers, we are beginning to put together a “whole systems” model of how all the different parts of the human brain work together and how they mesh with the complex regulatory structures of the body. It’s going to take a lot more data and collaboration to dial this model in, but already we are empowered to design stacks that can meaningfully deliver on the promise of nootropics “to enhance the quality of subjective experience and promote cognitive health, while having extremely low toxicity and possessing very few side effects.” It’s a type of brain hacking that is intended to produce noticeable cognitive benefits.