The effect? 3 or 4 weeks later, I’m not sure. When I began putting all of my nootropic powders into pill-form, I put half a lithium pill in each, and nevertheless ran out of lithium fairly quickly (3kg of piracetam makes for >4000 OO-size pills); those capsules were buried at the bottom of the bucket under lithium-less pills. So I suddenly went cold-turkey on lithium. Reflecting on the past 2 weeks, I seem to have been less optimistic and productive, with items now lingering on my To-Do list which I didn’t expect to. An effect? Possibly.
The difference in standard deviations is not, from a theoretical perspective, all that strange a phenomenon: at the very beginning of this page, I covered some basic principles of nootropics and mentioned how many stimulants or supplements follow a inverted U-curve where too much or too little lead to poorer performance (ironically, one of the examples in Kruschke 2012 was a smart drug which did not affect means but increased standard deviations).
But there’s a surprising lack of skepticism in the room. That’s because this is a weekly meetup of amateur biohackers. In fact, positivity is one of their ground rules. Members share experiences with ketogenic diets, biofeedback apps, sensory-deprivation tanks, and, lately, a class of smart drugs known as “nootropics.” Their primary obsession is brain enhancement.
Alpha GPC + AC-11 + Bacopa Monniera + Huperzine: This combination is found in the supplement Alpha Brain, created by the company Onnit. According to a clinical trial that was conducted by the Boston Center for Memory, this combination has demonstrated a notable increase in cognitive performance for healthy individuals and shows particular potential to boost the memory and learning capacity of users. AC-11 is derived from a rainforest herb, and studies have found that it may be able to help people in a variety of ways such as slowing the growth of cancer due to its DNA repairing antioxidant properties. This stack seems to work best if you take it daily for at about two weeks. After that, effects become more pronounced over time, so, similar to the Gingko, Bacopa, Lion’s Mane stack above you need to allow this blend to build up in your system before you judge its overall effectiveness.
One fairly powerful nootropic substance that, appropriately, has fallen out of favor is nicotine. It’s the chemical that gives tobacco products their stimulating kick. It isn’t what makes them so deadly, but it does make smoking very addictive. When Europeans learned about tobacco’s use from indigenous tribes they encountered in the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries, they got hooked on its mood-altering effects right away and even believed it could cure joint pain, epilepsy, and the plague. Recently, researchers have been testing the effects of nicotine that’s been removed from tobacco, and they believe that it might help treat neurological disorders including Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia; it may also improve attention and focus. But, please, don’t start smoking or vaping. Check out these 14 weird brain exercises that make you smarter.

Phillips told me that, much as he believes in neuroenhancers, he did not want to be "the poster boy for smart-in-a-pill". At one point, he said: "We really don't know the possible implications for long-term use of these things." (He recently stopped taking Provigil every day, replacing it with another prescription stimulant.) Nor does he think we need to be turning up the crank another notch on how hard we work. "But," he said, "the baseline competitive level is going to reorientate around what these drugs make possible, and you can choose to compete or not."
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.
Piracetam (known also by the name Nootropil) is one of the best known Nootropics and makes up part of the Racetam family along with Aniracetam, Phenylpiracetam, Pramiracetam, Oxiracetam, Nefiracetam, Coluracetam and Nebracetam. These are all synthetic compounds that have been created in the lab, but there are also a number of effective herbal and natural nootropic supplements.
One idea I’ve been musing about is the connections between IQ, Conscientiousness, and testosterone. IQ and Conscientiousness do not correlate to a remarkable degree - even though one would expect IQ to at least somewhat enable a long-term perspective, self-discipline, metacognition, etc! There are indications in studies of gifted youth that they have lower testosterone levels. The studies I’ve read on testosterone indicate no improvements to raw ability. So, could there be a self-sabotaging aspect to human intelligence whereby greater intelligence depends on lack of testosterone, but this same lack also holds back Conscientiousness (despite one’s expectation that intelligence would produce greater self-discipline and planning), undermining the utility of greater intelligence? Could cases of high IQ types who suddenly stop slacking and accomplish great things sometimes be due to changes in testosterone? Studies on the correlations between IQ, testosterone, Conscientiousness, and various measures of accomplishment are confusing and don’t always support this theory, but it’s an idea to keep in mind.

Though their product includes several vitamins including Bacopa, it seems to be missing the remaining four of the essential ingredients: DHA Omega 3, Huperzine A, Phosphatidylserine and N-Acetyl L-Tyrosine. It missed too many of our key criteria and so we could not endorse this product of theirs. Simply, if you don’t mind an insufficient amount of essential ingredients for improved brain and memory function and an inclusion of unwanted ingredients – then this could be a good fit for you.

The soft gels are very small; one needs to be a bit careful - Vitamin D is fat-soluble and overdose starts in the range of 70,000 IU36, so it would take at least 14 pills, and it’s unclear where problems start with chronic use. Vitamin D, like many supplements, follows a U-shaped response curve (see also Melamed et al 2008 and Durup et al 2012) - too much can be quite as bad as too little. Too little, though, is likely very bad. The previously cited studies with high acute doses worked out to <1,000 IU a day, so they may reassure us about the risks of a large acute dose but not tell us much about smaller chronic doses; the mortality increases due to too-high blood levels begin at ~140nmol/l and reading anecdotes online suggest that 5k IU daily doses tend to put people well below that (around 70-100nmol/l). I probably should get a blood test to be sure, but I have something of a needle phobia.


The team behind Brain Pill strongly believes in fair win-win scenarios. That’s why every customer has an opportunity to try this product for the full two months. There’s nothing to worry about during this period because you are covered by the no-questions-asked money-back guarantee. Some people begin experiencing the first obvious results in less than a month. On the other hand, some users require up to 60 days to see Brain Pill at work full scale. It’s an individual thing. If you aren’t absolutely thrilled by Brain Pill’s results after two months of use, you are free to ask for the full refund. It’s that simple and fair. In addition, you get an extra week after the initial period of 60 days expired to send back the bottles you haven’t used. You will either get all the benefits or get the full refund. So, this risk-free opportunity just can’t get any better, can it?

Somewhat ironically given the stereotypes, while I was in college I dabbled very little in nootropics, sticking to melatonin and tea. Since then I have come to find nootropics useful, and intellectually interesting: they shed light on issues in philosophy of biology & evolution, argue against naive psychological dualism and for materialism, offer cases in point on the history of technology & civilization or recent psychology theories about addiction & willpower, challenge our understanding of the validity of statistics and psychology - where they don’t offer nifty little problems in statistics and economics themselves, and are excellent fodder for the young Quantified Self movement4; modafinil itself demonstrates the little-known fact that sleep has no accepted evolutionary explanation. (The hard drugs also have more ramifications than one might expect: how can one understand the history of Southeast Asia and the Vietnamese War without reference to heroin, or more contemporaneously, how can one understand the lasting appeal of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the unpopularity & corruption of the central government without reference to the Taliban’s frequent anti-drug campaigns or the drug-funded warlords of the Northern Alliance?)
It’s not clear that there is much of an effect at all. This makes it hard to design a self-experiment - how big an effect on, say, dual n-back should I be expecting? Do I need an arduous long trial or an easy short one? This would principally determine the value of information too; chocolate seems like a net benefit even if it does not affect the mind, but it’s also fairly costly, especially if one likes (as I do) dark chocolate. Given the mixed research, I don’t think cocoa powder is worth investigating further as a nootropic.

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 before you go lock yourself in a dark, quiet room in order to prevent this overburden on your brain, you should know that there are scientifically researched compounds designed to amplify cognitive function and help your brain deal with this excess load, or simply get you through a period of sleep deprivation, increased creativity or work demands, the need to pull an all-nighter or an intense bout of work or study.
But when aficionados talk about nootropics, they usually refer to substances that have supposedly few side effects and low toxicity. Most often they mean piracetam, which Giurgea first synthesized in 1964 and which is approved for therapeutic use in dozens of countries for use in adults and the elderly. Not so in the United States, however, where officially it can be sold only for research purposes.

B vitamins are also sold with claims of enhancing memory, usually rationalized by their reduction of homocysteine, a chemical in the blood that may affect circulation in the brain. No benefits from B vitamin intake have been demonstrated when it comes to memory or cognitive function except in the case of people who have high homocysteine levels due to a diet that is very low in B vitamins. There is some concern that folic acid, one of the B vitamins, may spur the growth of polyps in the colon at doses greater than 800 micrograms a day. Phosphatidyl serine is a natural component of nerve cell membranes and its promoters argue that a deficiency leads to impaired communication between nerve cells which in turn impairs cognitive function. Sounds reasonable, except that proper controlled trials have come up empty. The same goes for vinpocetine, a compound originally isolated from the lesser periwinkle plant by Hungarian chemist Csaba Szantay in 1975. It is widely used in Europe to treat strokes and memory problems with claims of increased circulation to the brain. It does indeed increase circulation, much like ginkgo, but there is no compelling evidence for memory improvement.

Both nootropics startups provide me with samples to try. In the case of Nootrobox, it is capsules called Sprint designed for a short boost of cognitive enhancement. They contain caffeine – the equivalent of about a cup of coffee, and L-theanine – about 10 times what is in a cup of green tea, in a ratio that is supposed to have a synergistic effect (all the ingredients Nootrobox uses are either regulated as supplements or have a “generally regarded as safe” designation by US authorities)


Forums including reddit.com/r/Nootropics/ have more than 140,000 subscribers discussing products with names like Orange Brainwash and GodMode. Nootropics are blends of ingredients touted as a low-risk way to enhance learning, memory, motivation, and even serenity. These ingredients range from herbs such as water hyssop (Bacopa monnieri) and arctic root to chemicals such as vinpocetine.
Not long ago I met Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania, in his office at the labyrinthine Penn hospital complex. Chatterjee's main research interests are in subjects like the neurological basis of spatial understanding, but in the past few years, as he has heard more about students taking cognitive enhancers, he has begun writing about the ethical implications of such behaviour. In 2004 he coined the term "cosmetic neurology" to describe the practice of using drugs developed for recognised medical conditions to strengthen ordinary cognition. Chatterjee worries about cosmetic neurology, but he thinks that it will eventually become as acceptable as cosmetic surgery; in fact with neuroenhancement it's harder to argue that it's frivolous. As he notes in a 2007 paper: "Many sectors of society have winner-take-all conditions in which small advantages produce disproportionate rewards." At school and at work, the usefulness of being "smarter", needing less sleep and learning more quickly is "abundantly clear". In the near future, he predicts, some neurologists will refashion themselves as "quality-of-life consultants" whose role will be "to provide information while abrogating final responsibility for these decisions to patients". The demand is certainly there: from an ageing population that won't put up with memory loss; from overwrought parents bent on giving their children every possible edge; from anxious employees in an efficiency-obsessed, BlackBerry-equipped office culture where work never really ends.
Maca root has been used by indigenous people groups in South America for thousands of years. It’s part of the mustard family found primarily in Andean regions and some of its primary uses include improving sexual function, memory and learning as well as reducing the effects of osteoporosis. The standard effective dose ranges from 1,500 to 3,000 mg.
Finally, it’s not clear that caffeine results in performance gains after long-term use; homeostasis/tolerance is a concern for all stimulants, but especially for caffeine. It is plausible that all caffeine consumption does for the long-term chronic user is restore performance to baseline. (Imagine someone waking up and drinking coffee, and their performance improves - well, so would the performance of a non-addict who is also slowly waking up!) See for example, James & Rogers 2005, Sigmon et al 2009, and Rogers et al 2010. A cross-section of thousands of participants in the Cambridge brain-training study found caffeine intake showed negligible effect sizes for mean and component scores (participants were not told to use caffeine, but the training was recreational & difficult, so one expects some difference).
One of the most popular legal stimulants in the world, nicotine is often conflated with the harmful effects of tobacco; considered on its own, it has performance & possibly health benefits. Nicotine is widely available at moderate prices as long-acting nicotine patches, gums, lozenges, and suspended in water for vaping. While intended for smoking cessation, there is no reason one cannot use a nicotine patch or nicotine gum for its stimulant effects.
Jump up ^ Sattler, Sebastian; Forlini, Cynthia; Racine, Éric; Sauer, Carsten (August 5, 2013). "Impact of Contextual Factors and Substance Characteristics on Perspectives toward Cognitive Enhancement". PLOS ONE. PLOS. 8 (8): e71452. Bibcode:2013PLoSO...871452S. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0071452. ISSN 1932-6203. LCCN 2006214532. OCLC 228234657. PMC 3733969. PMID 23940757. Retrieved April 5, 2014.
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