Cognitive enhancers, ‘smart drugs’, or, nootropics as they are known in science, have recently been getting a considerable amount of attention in the media. Whether it’s about tech-guys having LSD with breakfast in Silicon Valley or about some top university students cramming through finals in a stimulated frenzy of Modafinil or Adderall, it feels like most articles have an agenda either for or against these drugs. The thing is that the practice of nootropics isn’t really that black and white, and that’s why I felt compelled to make a genuine attempt to stick to the facts and offer you an honest introduction into the world of drugs that (presumably) make you think better.
Furthermore, it’s good to know that the taxonomy of nootropics is really quite vast. The media has largely focused on just a few, like the ones already mentioned, while these represent only the tip of the iceberg. It would be well beyond the scope of this (or probably any) article to cover all of them. However, what we can do is sketch out the basics of the likely explanations why nootropics can help with how our brains think, and provide a roundup of a simple (and safe to use) ‘stack’, or diet of cognitive enhancers which are evidenced to be effective. We’ll then join the media bandwagon and cover microdosing with some more detail, because let’s be honest, it’s a really, really intriguing concept.
That section will be coupled with an interview we had with Marvin Liao, partner at Silicon Valley-based micro VC fund 500 Startup and a firm believer in nootropics-assisted biohacking, or the ‘science’ of gaining control over the body’s biology in the name of optimised performance.
Okay, to kick things off: it turns out, and I apologise if this ruins the excitement for you, that cognitive enhancers don’t literally make you any smarter than what you already are. So if nootropics make you think of Bradley Cooper, NZT-48 and a pill-induced onset of superhuman genius, then let’s just say that you’ve been slightly misled. However, nootropics can essentially ‘enhance’ your brain – although to be precise it’s more of a case of optimisation. The basic idea here is that while the brain does use all its available mental resources, mood- and neurobiology-dependent states can sort of ‘clog’ certain aspects of cognitive functioning.
Nootropics, in very broad terms, re-adjust those state-caused blockages. So nootropics do not make you smarter in the sense that your brain’s overall resources have increased, it’s just that an internal efficiency has been (temporarily) improved. In other words, if you don’t have the intelligence to comprehend some complicated mathematical theorem, taking a drug won’t change that. However, when it comes to maths that you do theoretically have the faculties to grasp, taking a drug might make you faster at doing so. Does that equal to increased intelligence? Up to you to decide.
That being said, nootropics are definitely not a modern phenomenon. After all, a sixth of the world’s adult population uses nootropics every day in the form of – you probably guessed it – coffee. So the definition of nootropics is admittedly quite flexible, encompassing any chemical compound which enhances cognitive functioning. Asides from coffee some common nootropics include stuff like vitamin D (improves memory and prevents Alzheimer’s), Magnesium (good for learning), Nicotine (quick-release, but also short-lived focus enhancer), and believe it or not, Alcohol (improves some forms emotional memory). But before you pop open a bottle of booze in the name of emotional recall training, know that the cognition-enhancing effects of the just listed supplements/compounds are extremely subtle and are mostly good for health benefits (asides from the booze and cigarettes, which I really shouldn’t even have to point out).
To really tweak some noticeable cognitive enhancements into effect, you’ll need biohacking. Biohacking isn’t all just about taking chemicals. Anything that alters the biology to improve your performance qualifies as a ‘hack’, so that would entail stuff like yoga and meditation. However, modern pharmacology and neuroscience offers valuable new insights into the way our brain works, and how drugs can influence its functions. In the context of biohacking, nootropics begin to take more of the modern swing they’ve been associated with, and in comes the herbal medicines, stimulants and psychedelic drugs.
But, in order to understand these compounds a little better, here’s (roughly) how science suggests drugs alter our brain at the grass-roots level:
There are two ways of answering that question, the simple way and the long-winded way. The basic explanation is that these compounds influence the regulation of the brain’s cellular functioning, which ultimately impacts our cognitive abilities. In a bit more detail brain-cells, or neurons, have a rather distinct anatomy from ‘regular’ cells that are found in the rest of the body. Dealing with primarily the relaying of information, neurons communicate with each other by releasing neurotransmitter chemicals across the synaptic cleft (a junction region where a neuron’s ‘tendrils’ of communication meets other neurons). Signals relayed by neurotransmitters alter the receptive neuron’s state of electrical charge, causing it to spike a jolt of electricity further down the line – or preventing it from doing so. Overall, whether a neuron is spiking jolts or not can be thought of as binary code. 1 is ‘on’, 0 is ‘off’. This organic code, when simultaneously produced by billions of neurons at different rates in response to environmental simulacra, is computed into the effervescent perception we have of the world, including our thoughts.
Here’s the kicker: cognitive enhancers cause a snowball effect on our thinking by forcing small changes in the availability of neurotransmitter chemicals, or by affecting the metabolic functions or oxygen absorption by the neuron-cells, among many other things. If a molecule (such as adenosine) partially down-regulates the concentration of neurotransmitters which convey the state of ‘alertness’, then a compound which prevents that molecule from doing so (such as caffeine) will by extension promote alertness. By and large, similar principles govern the way all nootropics work on the brain. So far so good.
Memory, focus and mood. These are the mental functions most people would like to improve in the daily life (myself included) and you’ll be pleased to find out that all of these can be quite safely enhanced using a regiment of four basic nootropics (coupled with some lifestyle recommendations): Caffeine/L-theanine, Creatine, Bacopa Monnieri and Ashwaganda.
The first on the list (AKA coffee and tea) are probably not the novel stimulants you were expecting, but I guess that goes to show that sometimes the best stuff is right under your nose. Both of these compounds have been consistently shown to improve attention.
There are, however, plenty of alternatives, such as amphetamine-derivates modafinil and Adderall. These will produce more explosive effects and indeed are a popular study drug used by university students around the world. However, their cognitive benefits are debated and amphetamines, prescription ones or not, have associated addiction and health risks such as liver dysfunction. Furthermore, some research suggests that amphetamines can, in fact, impair one’s cognitive abilities if they are at baseline a high performer. So better to ditch the speed and just stick to the tried and tested morning brews. One to two cups a day of standard strength coffee, or double that in tea, is the recommended daily intake.
Next up is Creatine, which seems to have benefits outside just body-building regiments. Creatine is used by the body as a building block for ATP, which in the universe of cellular function is a currency of intracellular energy transfer. Neurons are no exception, and as such, Creatine has been found to increase cerebral ATP availability, and thus boost efficiency during high demand thinking that relies on IQ – such as tasks requiring problem-solving. Creatine also helps with higher cognitive functioning such as planning and organising when sleep deprived, and the effectiveness of this compound is likely further improved by a vegetarian diet. Some 3-5 grams/day should get you started.
Lastly, Bacopa Monnieri and Ashawanga may sound like ingredients for a shamanic brew – and that’s not far from the truth. Both are ingredients which have seen centuries of use in traditional medicine and are effective nootropics corroborated by research.
Bacopa Monnieri is a memory enhancer which slightly affects cerebral concentrations of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and acetylcholine. It is also an anti-oxidant and improves blood flow in the brain. Generally speaking, Bacopa Monnieri improves neural communication, which is thought to underlie its role in assisting memory formation. A fairly important side-note is that this compound takes about 8 weeks of ingestion to work and should be taken with food (i.e. breakfast) as it may feel heavy on the stomach. Some ~300mg/day is considered standard for 50% extracts.
Ashawanga, which means ‘smell of horse’, has been used in traditional Indian medicine to ‘confer the strength and virility of a horse’. Despite the description, Ashawanga has mostly notable anxiolytic (i.e. anxiety reducing) effects. Some of the active agents in the herb have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, and has been suggested to also improve memory and general physical performance. Again, ~300mg of Ashawanga root extract/day should suffice.
To finish off this recommended regiment, I feel inclined to point out that, obvious as it may sound, amongst the safest, easiest and most effective performance improvers are regular cardio-vascular exercise such as jogging, a good sleeping pattern and sunlight. Combining these lifestyle activities with any or all of the nootropics discussed above is sure to bring about the best results. Further still, I won’t be listing out comnercial sources for any of these nootropics, as this article isn’t really about promoting any specific products. A quick online search should help you find suitable suppliers.
I’ve also deliberately left out one of the most known ‘smart drug’, Piracetam, due to mixed evidence in favour of its cognitive enhancing effects on non-clinical samples. While associated with memory and concentration benefits for patients with dementia/mild cognitive impairments, Piracetam’s effectiveness on the general population is controversial.
Okay, you’ve made it this far and I suppose you’ll want to hear about how Silicon Valley tech-entrepreneurs (and high-pressure performers from all walks of life alike) take mini-doses of LSD to become better versions of themselves. Brought to the public eye by outlets such as Bloomberg, the Financial Times and Vice, microdosing takes its place as the most intriguing nootropic regiment since its driving forces are the very same drugs that are more commonly known to grant access to all the curious and intimidating subconscious intuitions of our psyche. But unlike the recreational doses, microdosing won’t leave you gazing at your liquefied thoughts slipping through your fingers into a lake of geometric impossibilities. Instead, it refers to taking small, typically sub-threshold doses – or roughly 1/10th of a regular dose – enough to just slightly alter one’s thoughts and behavioural patterns.
In principle, if you feel intoxicated by the amount you’ve taken, you’re no longer microdosing (but macrodosing?), which can actually put you in a potentially unpleasant state of not being sober nor quite ‘tripping’ either. When done right, the effects of microdosing should be consciously nearly imperceptible, but produce improved motivation for problem-solving and a general sense of being more energised as well as subtle mood-lifts. Or in broader terms, as Ayelet Waldman puts it in her book on the subject, you can ideally expect to have ‘A Really Good Day’. Additionally, due to its stimulating nature the drug comes with a state of ‘lysergic energy’, or increased wakefulness which underlies the duration that the drug remains active – up to 12 hours. Hence, when it comes to LSD, it makes sense to microdose in the morning (or you might end up struggling to sleep even after an exhausting day at work).
But how does microdosed LSD work? The thing is, we don’t know exactly how the psychedelic effects of LSD happen altogether (asides from the drug’s mainly serotonergic affinity). But if you’ve ever tried LSD, you’ll probably agree that the drug tends to amplify the flow of thoughts in response to environmental and internal stimuli, leading to introspections. Small doses would likely mean similar effects, but in substantially reduced intensity, which could explain why it helps with productivity: it makes stuff just a tiny bit more interesting, but not so much as to prevent concentration and control over what needs to be done.
In the world of tech-startups where workdays often revolve around displays filled with lines of code, the benefits offered by microdosing have not gone unnoticed, as shown by the practice’s increasing popularity.
We were curious to see just how popular it was, so we reached out to discuss microdosing and the culture of cognitive enhancers in office use with Marvin Liao, partner at Silicon Valley-based micro VC fund 500 Startup.
‘Pretty much everyone is doing them. Modafinil, microdosing, you name it. When you work in an environment as competitive as this, you’re always on the lookout for things that give you an edge, no matter how small’, he said.
For example, the general youth of the people Liao works with underlines another source of pressure to perform. ‘I’m in my forties, you know, and many of the guys I work with are younger, twenty-something. Always full of energy. There’s that need to keep up’. And from that point of view, biohacking and nootropics make a whole lot of sense. Liao says that like many others, he’s tried microdosing. But Liao didn’t stick with it: ‘Others find it very useful, so they keep doing it. I myself prefer to drink matcha or Yerba Mate tea and do plenty of cycling’.
Liao agrees that microdosing seems to have taken a particularly steady place amongst those who work with code. The stimulating and reportedly increased problem-solving attitude can apparently substantially improve the pace at which code can be worked through, and the energy boost offered by the drug fits well with the hardworking culture where staying in late isn’t that rare.
Microdosing, however, is not limited to LSD, nor to tech-entrepreneurs. In fact, a wide range of psychedelic compounds has been reportedly used with a similar modus operandi by an equally surprising range of individuals in top competitive fields. Other microdosed psychedelics include Psilocybin, which is the compound that produces the hallucinatory effects in magic mushrooms, as well as Mescaline and Ketamine; and asides from university students, microdosing seems to have its use amongst athletes in extreme sports.
While the broad objectives of microdosing remain the same for all of these drugs, namely to enhance one’s cognitive functioning in one way or another, the specific effects can be as varied as their differences in recreational doses. For example, Psilocybin, having far fewer (if none) of the stimulating effects of LSD, and having roughly half the active duration, one can expect more anxiolytic effects and an enhanced sense of bodily comfort. Ketamine, on the other hand, is showing much potential as an effective anti-depressant and stress-reducer, although due to its powerful anesthetic effects it is unlikely to make a big break-through in office use.
What makes microdosing psychedelics even more alluring is their low associated physical health risks. On the flipside the mental health risks involved have not been mapped (and presumably do exist). However, psychological disturbances caused by psychedelics typically point towards (particularly regular) consumption of larger doses, previous history of mental illness or adverse contents of the psychedelic experience. As such, it would make sense that microdoses well below the psychedelic threshold should entail diminished risks.
A few additional drawbacks come with microdosing. Firstly, the drugs in question are nearly universally considered illegal, and the process of acquiring any of these substances can expose one to a wide range of potential trouble. With no consumer security provided by legal health departments, it goes without saying that street-drugs aren’t always what they are being sold as, nor is their purity a given. What’s more, since microdoses are considerably smaller than the recreational units, measurement accuracy remains a very real practical challenge (especially when dealing with micrograms, such as in the case of LSD).
Pre-measured doses of LSD and Psilocybin for microdosing purposes are being sold in many of the active markets found on the dark-web, but this is not a very accessible option for the average individual who isn’t willing to dive into the somewhat tedious process of how drugs are bought illegally online. Furthermore, research on the cognitive benefits of microdosing is scarce, and published papers on the topic that do exist are often animal studies on rats or do not test for combinations with other compounds (although some research aims to change this). Without dipping into the neuroscience debate about how appropriate it is to translate animal brain-models to the human brain, it should be made clear to any future biohackers out there that lack of research equals to gaps in understanding the full ramifications of how these compounds work. So a risk-free experience cannot be guaranteed.
But then again, is anything completely risk-free?
Ultimately, the reason nootropics ever made it to the bigger news speaks of a shift in the requirements emphasised for modern workers: to be the best at what you do and to constantly achieve success in order to be relevant. Whether that’s right or wrong is not for this article to comment upon, however, in an ever more globalised economy where businesses constantly face enormous competition from one another, the reality is that outperforming others does seal the big deals. Biohacking and the nootropics that come with the practice certainly seems like a natural step to take when productivity needs to be pushed to its limits.
When asked if biohacking will have a place in the future, Liao goes on to say that ‘in the future, biohacking will be more the norm than the exception’.
So whether it’s in the form of coffee or LSD, you’ll probably be hearing much more from nootropics in the years to come. Whether that’s something you’ll fit into your life, however, is your choice…But if you do, make sure to stay safe and informed!
This article turned out to be far longer than what I had anticipated, not least due to realising as I did my research how broad the topic of nootropics truly was. We do not by any means wish to encourage the use of illicit drugs, neither for fun nor for productivity, but simply wanted to offer some more in depth access-level information into the world of cognitive enhancers. When used with due caution, a respectful and sober-minded attitude (no pun intended), cognitive enhancers can probably offer some positive uses to most people. However, all individuals react differently, and if a nootropic does not do it for you, then why force yourself to continue? Also, as obvious (or not) as it may sound, amongst the safest, easiest and most effective performance improvers are regular cardio-vascular exercise such as jogging, a good sleeping pattern and sunlight. Below you can find links to a few useful resources if you wish to learn more, as well as a few conferences where speakers far more qualified than myself can provide more details into how you can hack your mind into working better.
The top four images are a courtesy of Dr. Greg Dunn and his colleague Dr. Brian Edwards. Please consider visiting their website for more stunning neuroscience art.
 Bruce, K. R., & Pihl, R. O. (1997). Forget” drinking to forget”: enhanced consolidation of emotionally charged memory by alcohol. Experimental and clinical psychopharmacology, 5(3), 242.