Nootropics. You might have heard of them. The “limitless pill” that keeps Billionaires rich. The ‘smart drugs’ that students are taking to help boost their hyperfocus. The cognitive enhancers that give corporate executives an advantage. All very exciting. But as always, the media are way behind the curve. Yes, for the past few decades, cognitive enhancers were largely sketchy substances that people used to grasp at a short term edge at the expense of their health and wellbeing. But the days of taking prescription pills to pull an all-nighter are so 2010. The better, safer path isn’t with these stimulants but with nootropics. Nootropics consist of supplements and substances which enhance your cognition, in particular when it comes to motivation, creativity, memory, and other executive functions.
Recent findings also suggest that taking extra vitamins could help preserve memory, especially as we age. Researchers at Australia's University of Sydney tested 117 people in a retirement home by putting them through a battery of mental tests that included remembering a string of words, listing as many words as possible that begin with a certain letter of the alphabet, and doing mental addition and subtraction. Those who regularly took vitamin C, they found, scored higher on the tests.
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.
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”).
She repeats the oft-refuted advice to drink at least 8 glasses of water a day. She claims that drinking water improves cognitive performance. Her citation for that claim is a small study in which participants were instructed to fast overnight and not eat or drink anything after 9 pm, so they were presumably somewhat dehydrated. There is no evidence that people who are not dehydrated benefit from increasing water intake.
Methylphenidate – a benzylpiperidine that had cognitive effects (e.g., working memory, episodic memory, and inhibitory control, aspects of attention, and planning latency) in healthy people. It also may improve task saliency and performance on tedious tasks. At above optimal doses, methylphenidate had off–target effects that decreased learning.