The all-too-understandable urge to buy a better brain

The all-too-understandable urge to buy a better brain
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I used to be able to memorize the order of a deck of cards. This was when I worked at the mall food court. I learned because a mean older boy on whom I had a big, destructive crush bought me a copy of Joshua Foer’s pop-science memoir Moonwalking With Einstein, which is about memorizing stuff.

In the world of memory competitions, the athletes train their minds with daily practice. The primary tactic they employ is the building of mental “memory palaces” — turning pieces of information into objects and placing them in sequence around a physical space that can be walked through in the mind. So, to memorize a deck of cards, I would assign each card in a traditional deck to someone important in my life. The jack of spades is my uncle Ken. The ace of clubs is my sister Sophie, and so on. I’d flip over three cards at a time, and those three people would be placed together somewhere in my parents’ house, starting with the garage. Once the house was full of 52 oddly-grouped guest stars in my life, I’d go back and convert them into the correct order of the cards in the deck, recite it aloud, and everyone would be impressed. Kind of.

(Actual competitive memorizers can do dozens of decks of cards, not just one. And they can do it very fast.)

Training my memory was a fun way to get rid of excess mental energy, itchy and bored as I was during this summer in suburbia, tortured as I was by this doomed crush. I wanted to impress a genius. I did not yet own a smartphone! I needed a better brain and I had the downtime to pursue it. What better way to do this than to work at it? What better end to put my energies than flexing a muscle over and over?

Now, I have less of that downtime, less of a specific understanding of what it would even mean for my brain to be better, and a lot more sympathy for the people trying to buy their way to clarity and memory and focus and control. I also have more expendable income.

My brain today is so far gone — spinning out on the usual circular thoughts of sex, death, and Twitter, fuzzy and foggy from staring at two computer screens all day — I assume it needs an intervention only the consumer marketplace can provide. So that’s how I ended up accepting an invitation to try a drinkable product called BrainGear, which promises “a clearer brain today” and “a stronger brain tomorrow,” and realizing that I am far from alone.

On January 1, 1990, President George H.W. Bush announced the start of “the decade of the brain.” What he meant was that the federal government would lend significant financial support to neuroscience and mental health research, which it did. What he probably did not anticipate was ushering in an era of mass brain fascination, bordering on obsession. And that 30 years later, we’d be trying to put genius in a bottle and then swallow it.

Arguably the first major consumer product of this era was Nintendo’s Brain Age game, based on Ryuta Kawashima’s Train Your Brain: 60 Days to a Better Brain, which sold over a million copies in Japan in the early 2000s. The game — which was a series of puzzles and logic tests used to assess a “brain age,” with the best possible score being 20 — was massively popular in the United States, selling 120,000 copies in its first three weeks of availability in 2006. (It was advertised with the slogan “Getting the most out of your prefrontal cortex.”) Lumosity, which offered a suite of memory, attention, and problem-solving browser games, launched in 2007. (Reuters called brain fitness the “hot industry of the future” in 2008.) The site had 70 million registered members at its peak, before it was sued by the Federal Trade Commission to pay out $2 million in redress to customers bamboozled by false advertising. (“Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline.”)

BrainGear promises brain-function results after four or five days.

In 2012, Felix Hasler, a senior postdoctoral fellow at the Berlin School of Mind and Brain at Humboldt University, reflected on the rise in brain research and brain-training consumer products, writing a spicy pamphlet called “Neuromythology: A Treatise Against the Interpretational Power of Brain Research.” In it, he chastised scientists for affixing “neuro” to dozens of fields of study in an effort to make them sound both sexier and more serious, as well as legitimate neuroscientists for contributing to “neuro-euphoria” by overstating the import of their own studies.

Most of all, he criticized the media. “Hardly a week goes by without the media releasing a sensational report about the relevance of neuroscience results for not only medicine, but for our life in the most general sense,” Hasler wrote. And this fervor, he argued, had given rise to popular belief in the importance of “a kind of cerebral ‘self-discipline,’ aimed at maximizing brain performance.” To illustrate how ludicrous he found it, he described people buying into brain fitness programs that help them do “neurobics in virtual brain gyms” and “swallow ‘neuroceuticals’ for the perfect brain.”

Unfortunately, he was too late, and also unfortunately, Bradley Cooper is partly to blame for the boom of the edible brain-improvement industry.

In 2011, he starred in Limitless, a movie about a man who takes a special pill and becomes smarter and more capable than anyone else on Earth. I’m joking about the cultural significance of this movie, but I’m also not. It was a wild card and an unexpected hit, and it mainstreamed an idea that had already been taking hold among Silicon Valley biohackers and human optimization zealots. (TechCrunch called the prescription-only narcolepsy medication Modafinil “the entrepreneur’s drug of choice” in 2008.)

The same year that Limitless hit theaters, the up-and-coming Pennsylvania-based pharmaceutical company Cephalon was acquired by Israeli giant Teva Pharmaceutical Industries for $6 billion. Cephalon had very few interesting assets at the time. In fact, there were only two that made it worth the price: Modafinil (which it sold under the brand name Provigil and marketed as a cure for drowsiness and brain fog to the professionally sleep-deprived, including long-haul truckers and fighter pilots), and Nuvigil, a similar drug it developed in 2007 (called “Waklert” in India, known for absurd side effects like psychosis and heart failure).

In 2011, just over 650,000 people in the US had Modafinil prescriptions. By 2012, that number had risen to 1.9 million. At the same time, herbal supplements were on a steady upward climb toward their pinnacle today as a $49 billion-a-year industry. And at the same time, half of Silicon Valley was just waiting for a moment to take their human optimization philosophies mainstream.

Bradley Cooper in Limitless.
Bradley Cooper in Limitless, after he becomes limitless.

“I Spent a Week on Nuvigil, the Drug From Limitless,” a Vice editor wrote in the summer of 2014. The following year, a different Vice writer spent a week on Modafinil. About a month later, there was a huge spike in search traffic for “real Limitless pill,” as nightly news shows and more traditional outlets started writing up trend pieces about college kids, programmers, and young bankers taking “smart drugs” to stay focused and productive.

It helped too that, as vague as the term “smart” is, “nootropics” is equally broad. It was coined by Romanian scientist Corneliu E. Giurgea in 1972 when he created a drug he believed enhanced memory and learning. (Silicon Valley types often cite his tagline: “Man will not wait passively for millions of years before evolution offers him a better brain.”) But today it’s an umbrella term that includes everything from prescription drugs, to dietary supplements on sliding scales of safety and effectiveness, to commonplace stimulants like caffeine — anything a person might use in an effort to enhance cognitive function, whatever that might mean to them. Obviously, not everyone wants to take a risky sleep medication.

For those people, there’s Whole Foods bottles of Omega-3 and B vitamins. In 2013, the American Psychological Association estimated that grocery store “brain booster” supplements and other cognitive enhancement products were already a $1 billion-a-year industry. In 2014, analysts projected “brain fitness” becoming an $8 billion industry by 2015. And of course, supplements — unlike medications that require prescriptions — are barely regulated, making them a nearly limitless market.

“Is the Limitless pill real?” bloggers asked, before providing lists of the “best nootropics to sharpen your mental activity.”

The first I heard about BrainGear was in an email from BrainGear. “BrainGear is a mind wellness drink,” a BrainGear spokesperson explained. “Our drink contains 13 nutrients that help lift brain fog, improve clarity, and balance mood without giving you the jitters (no caffeine). It’s like a green juice for your neurons!” This company is based in San Francisco.

BrainGear offered to send me a week’s worth of BrainGear — two three-packs, each retailing for $9.99 — as a sample, to “nourish” my mind, and I agreed. What did I have to lose?

The BrainGear label said to drink an entire bottle every day, first thing in the morning, on an empty stomach, and also that it “tastes best cold,” which we all know is code for “tastes awful no matter what.”

I’d been reading about the unregulated horror of the nootropics boom, so I had reason to be cautious: In 2016, the Atlantic profiled Eric Matzner, founder of the Silicon Valley nootropics brand Nootroo. In his “Gold” and “Silver” pills, Matzner offered noopept, a synthetic memory-aid drug developed in Russia in the 1990s, and phenylpiracetam, a stimulant developed in 1983 by the Soviet space program and available in Russia only by prescription. Matzner’s company came up alongside the similarly named Nootrobox, which received major investments from Marissa Mayer and Andreessen Horowitz in 2015, was popular enough to sell in 7-Eleven locations around San Francisco by 2016, and was forced to change its name after its first clinical trial in 2017 found that its supplements were less neurologically stimulating than a cup of coffee.

(Now called HVMN, the company is still successful.)

But the ingredients list on the back of the BrainGear bottle looked mostly innocuous: the zero-calorie, GMO-free juice contained a handful of common vitamins, if in fairly absurd amounts (taking 8,333 percent of your daily recommended intake of Vitamin B12 is unnecessary, though probably not dangerous), and run-of-the mill stuff like green tea extract, a handful of acetylated amino acids used to dubious effect in most nootropic supplements available at your local grocery store, and choline bitartrate, which a 2016 study found to have no positive effect on the memory of young, healthy adults but did not find to be harmful. At the bottom of the list: 75 mg of DMAE bitartrate, which is a common ingredient in anti-aging skincare products. Okay, sure. Also, 5mg of a trademarked substance called “BioPQQ” which is — somehow — a name-brand version of PQQ, an antioxidant found in kiwifruit and papayas.

The literature that came with the bottles of BrainGear contained multiple promises. “Clinically proven to optimize cognitive function,” is one. “One big meal for your brain,” is another. “Your neurons are what they eat,” was one I found extremely confusing and ultimately a little disturbing, having never pictured my neurons with mouths. BrainGear swore my brain could be “healthier and happier,” so long as I took the time to douse it in nutrients — making the process of tending my brain sound not unlike the process of tending a Tamigotchi.

For a week, I drank the BrainGear, referring to it as my brain juice. Each day, my editors asked me if I was a genius yet. And each day, I attempted to measure the progress of my brain — which was supposed to be seeing near-immediate results, according to the BrainGear packaging — by timing how long it took me to complete a sudoku puzzle in the Brain Games “Relax and Solve” Sudoku book I ordered specifically for this purpose. This was not rigorous science, but I only cared if the product worked for me anyway.

  • Control day: 11 minutes, 9 seconds
  • Day 1: 7 minutes, 7 seconds
  • Day 2: Failed.
  • Day 3: 7 minutes, 4 seconds
  • Day 4: 15 minutes, 16 seconds
  • Day 5: 14 minutes, 42 seconds
  • Day 6: 10 minutes, 8 seconds

The results of my experiment were wildly inconclusive.

The brain supplements industry is still expanding. A recent report by Grand View Research estimated it could reach $10.7 billion annually by 2025, growing steadily at about 8 percent per year. “Growing health concerns over depression, anxiety, anti-aging, and sleep recovery issues” will contribute to the continued rise, the report states. Over a quarter of this business is expected to come specifically from “memory enhancing” products.

This year, nootropics have gone thoroughly mainstream by intersecting with other powerful consumer trends. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop recently launched an anti “brain fog” supplement called Nerd Alert (it’s just caffeine and the same L-theanine you’d get from a cup of tea), at a price point of $1 per chewable. Luxury wellness and beauty brand The Nue Co. introduced its latest supplement Nootro-Focus in April, which you can buy on Net-a-Porter. New York City’s newest ultra-hip acupuncture and yoga startup WTHN is selling a nootropic. There are, seriously, nootropics mixed with CBD.

Once I started with edible brain-bettering products, it was hard to stop. I couldn’t actually get myself to eat any more of them — you pass that point after your first cursory Google about their effectiveness — but I was endlessly curious. A pitch email came in for Hanah One Daily Superfood, “formulated to support long-term health and improve focus, mental clarity, endurance and digestion,” and I accepted a sample jar (not realizing that it was worth $50.) But it smelled too much like grass blended into molasses for me to actually go through with the recommendation of mixing into “warm (not hot) water, coffee, or tea” every morning. There were about three dozen ingredients, mostly plants, but the primary one was ashwagandha — currently the most popular adaptogen on the market, and not scientifically proven to do much of anything specific.

I solicited a sample of Qualia Mind, a daily supplement made by a San Diego-based company called Neurohacker Collective. The recommended dose of Qualia Mind is seven sawdust-scented Mike & Ike-sized capsules at once, five days a week, before breakfast, and it is designed to “lift brain fog, amplify willpower, upgrade energy, heighten creativity, fuel focus and concentration, boost brain nutrition, promote mental clarity, decrease procrastination.” It contains “the rare Ayurvedic nootropic herb known as ‘intellect tree,’ Celastrus paniculatus.”

The warning label said not to take Qualia Mind if I am on any psychiatric medicines, or sensitive to caffeine, or if I have the amino acid metabolism disorder Phenylketonuria, or if I drink alcohol. So I didn’t take it.

Nor did I take Alpha Brain, “clinically studied to help healthy individuals support memory, focus, and processing speed,” officially endorsed by podcast host Joe Rogan, who said it seems to “fire up” his brain to a “higher RPM.” Alpha Brain is manufactured by Onnit Labs, an Austin-based company founded by a man who calls his health philosophy “Total Human Optimization.”

“Competition is unavoidable. No matter how altruistic your intentions, you are competing,” the website reads. “If you are in the corporate structure, you are competing for a promotion. If you are in the stock market, you are competing against other investors. If you are dating, you are competing against other suitors.” Alpha Brain contains several proprietary blends of supplements, including the Onnit Fuel Blend, which is made up of pterostilbene (the main antioxidant component of blueberries), l-leucine (an amino acid), and Vinpocetine — a synthetic derivative of an extract from periwinkle plants, which is associated with miscarriage when used during pregnancy and which is forbidden by the Food and Drug Administration from inclusion in dietary supplements.

Customer reviews on Onnit’s website vary widely, from, “You ever see that fictional documentary Limitless with Bradley Cooper starring? Alpha Brain is as close to that as you can get,” to, “All I seem to be experiencing is increased dream activity.” (In the nootropics subreddit — 186,000 members — some people talk about taking Alpha Brain solely in the pursuit of bonkers lucid dreams.) For whatever reason, Alpha Brain was also tested by the US military to see if it might improve soldiers’ marksmanship (it did not). While I purchased a jar of 14 capsules (recommended dose: two capsules per day) for $18 so that I could look at Alpha Brain, I ultimately threw them in the trash. I was already having absolutely crazy dreams because of the steroids I was on for tonsillitis. Plus, I do not like breaking the law.

Alex Jones sells a nootropic called The Real Red Pill for $40 a bottle in the InfoWars Shop. Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich sells a whole line of them called Gorilla Mind. I did not try these or pay money for them.

In 2011, Penn State Alzheimer’s researcher Daniel R. George and Case Western University neurologist Peter J. Whitehouse co-authored a veritable diatribe against brain improvement products.

The doctors nimbly situate “brain fetishization” in its cultural context, writing that “whereas pre-capitalist philosophy emphasized wholeness and completeness of communities, neoliberal political systems flourishing in capitalist countries of the 21st century foster the concept of the atomistic individual within the marketplace who makes himself whole.”

Early nootropics startup Nootrobox changed its named to HVMN after a study showed it didn’t really work.

All of the products I looked at had different marketing language, but the connecting thread between them was the insistence that being smarter and more productive was imminently possible through the purchase of just a few gulps or pills to get you started. Nobody was ever too specific about what intelligence is, or what focus is for, or why clarity is something you constantly need, likely because they don’t need to be. It’s the same reason Spotify doesn’t offer lengthy explanations for its “Brain Food” or “Perfect Concentration” playlists, which are self-evidently useful in a culture pathologically obsessed with individual productivity.

Nobody is taking these things for no reason. They’re pushing themselves for what seems to them like very good reasons, and turning themselves into crash test dummies.

Hedy Kober, an associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at Yale, shown a short list of the active ingredients in the nootropic samples I received, says, “there are no data suggesting that healthy people would benefit from taking these,” and singles out l-DOPA, one of the ingredients in Qualia Mind. “L-DOPA, for example, is a precursor to catecholamines including dopamine, which is an important neurotransmitter. [It’s] very useful as a treatment for individuals with Parkinson’s, and [has] no known benefit for healthy adults. In fact, l-DOPA is associated with some potentially severe side effects so taking it without medical advice can be dangerous.”

A 2015 review of the effects of various dietary supplements and vitamins found that many of the most common choices — Omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and vitamin E — had no effect on the cognitive skills of “non-demented middle-aged and older adults.” Green tea extract was slightly useful. So was Concord grape juice. But neither green tea nor grape juice can be sold as magical elixirs at a price-point of several dollars per ounce.

The consumption of “neurostimulation” products is a sedentary, solitary activity, George and Whitehouse point out; we are sitting alone, throwing money at the task of improving ourselves via our brains. “But humans are not merely de-contextualized brains; in fact, brains are embedded among many other vital organs in the bodies of individual persons who are interdependent members of families, neighborhoods, local communities, national constituencies, and natural ecosystems.”

“Are we our brains?” Felix Hasler asked. I think I hover above mine, frustrated with it as often as not. It seems mysterious and magical until it doesn’t do what I want, and then it reveals itself as a piece of flesh. So it’s easy for me to understand why someone might buy into these disgusting elixirs, with their promises of alleviating the mental burden of everyday life, providing the illusion of a clearer picture. Or of sharpening a slight competitive edge in a society where the individual is increasingly made to feel that ceding any possible advantage or passing up any opportunity for profit is irresponsible, maybe immoral. Or of pushing off the signs of aging, which are so often a precursor to feeling even more alone. Of “unlocking our full potential,” which is an example of the code we use when we want something embarrassingly simple, like happiness.

The last product I considered is the line of supplements offered by The Genius Brand, yet another nootropic created by a man in a black v-neck t-shirt, promising, “We have been lied to. Despite what society reminds us on a daily basis, you were not born just to pay your bills and die. We believe that everyone is born a Genius, but with the way the world works, it’s no wonder so many individuals fail to realize their full potential.” A jar of watermelon-flavored “Genius Consciousness” sells for $37.99, while a jar of “Genius Joy” is priced at $59.99, but is currently sold out.

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