A guide to nootropics, the shortcut to a smarter-er you
“Man is not going to wait passively for millions of years before evolution offers him a better brain.”
- Cornelius Giurgea, The Fundamentals to the Pharmacology of the Mind
Damn, Giurgea, it’s a sin to start an article with a quote, but we couldn't have said it better ourselves. Despite the literary upset, the man has a point: Our brains, in their current state of evolutionary development, can't seem to keep up with the demands of daily life. A new class of drugs promises to improve our brains — but are they ethical? And which ones will make us understand the difference between tuna and Chicken of the Sea?
Increasingly, we're expected to process a truly gross amount of data that endlessly bombards us from every angle of our ever-connected society. Performance targets, efficiency ratings, and calculated margins of error have become the parameters we work within. In education, even the most abstract and non-prescriptive subjects are being reduced to an exercise in memorizing facts. And in attempts to plan and organize society, we are treated as predictable machines. We are expected to act as human computers if we want to keep food in our stomachs and money in our chain wallets.
To keep up with these standards, we need chemical assistance. We need caffeine. We need nicotine. We need Adderall. We need nootropics.
And that brings us back to Giurgea. Old Cornelius didn’t just drop pearls of wisdom in vintage textbooks; he invented nootropics, a relatively new class of drugs that shortcuts the millennia of evolution between you and a much-needed cerebral update. Nootropics, at their core, allow us to be the information-processing robots society asks that we be.
Nootropics as a drug class has been a thing since the 1950s, when there was a push within the international neuroscience community to advance pharmaceuticals that could improve our focus, memory, alertness, and general cognitive abilities. But, way before that, ancient societies all around the world utilized herbs to improve brain function. In Ayurvedic medicine, herbs were utilized as cognitive enhancers as early as 5000 BC, and caffeine was even used in China to defibrillate zonked brains as far back as 1500 BC. So the concept of nootropics, while intriguing, is hardly new. What is new, however, are the compounds we're using today — and the controversies around them.
But the world of nootropics is vast. The word “nootropics” itself is just a fun-sounding blanket term to describe any substance that positively improves mental functioning. In fact, in order to simplify the expanse that makes up the category, nootropics are often categorized by the effects they have.
Generally speaking, a nootropic has one of five effects: improved memory, sharpened focus, enhanced mood, boosted energy, and improved reasoning and creativity. The most common nootropics are substances you find in your everyday life, like caffeine and nicotine. But beyond that, they can be pharmaceuticals that require a doctor's prescription, supplements, nutraceuticals, or a stored component of the hot dog you hold treasured in your hands.
Caffeine in particular, especially when combined with the amino acid L-theanine in supplement form, is probably the easiest and safest nootropic to take. Multiple studies tout the benefits of that combination, including one from Janet Bryan in Nutrition Reviews that found the pair maintained alertness and focused attention. Another study in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition discovered the combo improved alpha brain waves, reduced heart rate, blood pressure, and anxiety, which are all signs of relaxation despite the energy boost it substances give you. And when you’re relaxed and focused, you’re a machine.
In the herbal spectrum, nootropics like Rhodiola Rosea and ginseng can enhance mood, focus attention, improve reasoning and improve memory. Generally, you have to take them every day for a while for the effect to occur, but they come with little to no side effects.
And then, there are the pharmaceuticals. Modafinil, Piracetam and Adderall are all popular examples of big pharma’s nootropic bounty. Modafinil in particular has been described as “Wall Street's drug of choice,” as it’s gained huge popularity amongst high-powered business people who need to be on 24/7. Last month, Modafinil’s penetration into the culture was confirmed by the American Medical Association’s journal Internal Medicine, which published a University of California, San Francisco, study reporting that U.S. prescriptions increased almost tenfold over the past decade. Far and away, most of those were for off-label use.
Piracetam was actually the first lab-synthesized nootropic created by none other than Charles Giugea in 1972. A derivative of the neurotransmitter GABA, Piracetam increases acetylcholine uptake and utilization in regions of the brain responsible for memory formation. Early studies published in the journal Psychopharmacology showed Piracetam alone could improve memory better than a placebo, but combining the micronutrient choline with it was even more effective.
That was the most superficial surface-scratching inventory of the many types of nootropics out there; outside our word count limits, there are literally thousands of substances, each with their own benefits, that you can use to whip your brain into shape.
But as abundant and efficacious as nootropics are, they’re also controversial.
Using them as a universal cure for laziness, sloppiness and fatigue risks reducing humans to automatons. Is it really the best thing for us to increase our work output to staggering degrees so that we can mimic the computers our lives depend on? Is there not more to life than work? American neuropharmacologist Sean Duke has the same questions.
“The jury is still out on these drugs being evolutionary as opposed to de-evolutionary. How much are we guiding our brain to make connections that cannot be re-visited without the aid of the nootropics? We certainly don't know now, and I'm not sure if we ever will,” he said in an interview with VICE.
He’s got a point. If we start providing cognitive enhancers to people, we may be narrowing their future capabilities, prioritizing their functionality over their creativity and individuality.
That brings up an important questions. If cognitive enhancers become normalized, which is more likely: that we become a society filled with intellectual experts, or that our increased capacity for work results in a larger workload? Which is better? And because nootropics have varying effects on individuals ranging from memory improvement to creativity boosting, how could you tell?
Confronted with that, it becomes less of a question about whether nootropics themselves or right or wrong; instead, it’s the demands of society that are maladaptive. The fact that we’ve had to fabricate substances that would never exist naturally to deal with the ever-increasing needs of humanity speaks volumes about that.
There are also other ethical pitfalls centered around the issue of whether you can take credit for your accomplishments while you’re on brain-enhancing drugs. Is it you, or a false version of you that’s out-performing your classmates and coworkers? Is the Adderall you took the only reason why you did better on your test, or are you actually smart?
It’s a complicated question, but if you ask us? It’s still you that succeeding in whatever way the nootropic is making you succeed. Because at the end of the day, the increased mental capacity nootropics offer is yours. We ourselves are made of chemicals. We naturally produce many of the same substances in our brains that nootropics are made of, like GABA. All nootropics do is increase the concentrations and uptakes of our own naturally occurring biochemicals. You are still you, even when your blood is coursing with Modafinil as you slay a test or complete 1,000 times more tasks than needed.
It’s not nootropics that are unnatural — it’s the society we live in.