26 March 2012

Short-cuts to sharper thinking?

Filed under: bias, futurist, intelligence, nootropics — David Wood @ 11:15 pm

What are the best methods to get our minds working well? Are there ways to significantly improve our powers of concentration, memory, analysis, and insight?

Some methods for cognitive enhancement are well known:

  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Avoid distracting environments
  • Practice concentration, to build up mental stamina
  • Augment our physical memories with external memories, whether in physical or electronic format, that we can consult again afterwards
  • Beware the sway of emotion – “when your heart’s on fire, smoke gets in your eyes”
  • Learn about cognitive fallacies and biases – and how to avoid them
  • Share our thinking with trusted friends and colleagues, who can provide constructive criticism
  • Listen to music which has the power both to soothe the mind and to stimulate it
  • Practice selected yoga techniques, which can provide a surge of mental energy
  • Get in touch with our “inner why”, that rekindles our motivation and focus.

Then there are lots of ideas about food and drink to partake, or to avoid. Caffeine provides at least a transient boost to concentration. Alcohol encourages creativity but weakens accurate discernment. Sugar can provide a short-term buzz, though (perhaps) at the cost of longer-term sluggishness. Claims have been made for ginseng, ginkgo biloba, ginger, dark chocolate, Red Bull, and many other foods and supplements.

But potentially the most dramatic effects could result from new compounds – compounds that are being specially engineered in the light of recent findings about the operation of the brain. The phrase “smart drugs” refers to something that could dramatically boost our mental powers.

Think of the character Eddie in the film Limitless, and of the mental superpowers he acquired from NZT, a designer pharmaceutical.

If a real-world version of NZT were offered to you, would you take it?

(Note: NZT has its own real-world website – which is a leftover part of a sophisticated marketing campaign for Limitless.)

I foresee four kinds of answer:

  1. No such drug could be created. This is just fiction.
  2. If such a drug existed, there would be risks of horrible side-effects (as indeed – spoiler alert! – happened in Limitless). It would be foolish to experiment.
  3. If such a drug existed, it would be immoral and/or inappropriate to take it. It’s unfair to short-circuit the effort required to actually make ourselves mentally sharper.
  4. Sure, bring it to me! – especially for mission-critical situations like major exams, job interviews, client bid preparation, project delivery deadlines, and for those social occasions when it’s particularly important to make a good impression.

My own answer: even though nothing as remarkable as NZT exists today, drugs with notable mental effects are going to become increasingly available over the next decade or so.  As well as being more widely available, the quality and reliability will increase too.

So we’re likely to be hearing more and more of the phrases “cognitive enhancers”, “smart drugs”, and “nootropics“.  We’ll all going to have to come to terms with weighing up the pros and cons of taking these enhancers.  And we’ll probably need to appreciate many variations and special cases.

Yes, there will be risks of side effects.  But it’s the same with other drugs and dietary supplements.  We need to collect and sift evidence, as it is most likely to apply to us.

For example: on the advice of my doctors, I take a small dose of aspirin every evening, and a statin.  These drugs are known to have side-effects in some cases.  So my GP ensured that I had a blood test after I’d been taking the statins for a while, to check there were no signs of the most prevalent side-effect.  In due course, genomic sequences might identify which people are more susceptible to particular side-effects.

Similarly with nootropics: the best effects are likely to arise from tailoring doses to the special circumstances of individual people, and to monitoring for unusual side effects.

There’s already lots of information online about various nootropics.  For example, see this Nootropics FAQ.  That’s a lot to take in!

Personally, for the next few years, I expect to continue to focus my own cognitive enhancement project on the methods I listed at the start of this article.  But I want to keep myself closely informed about developments in nootropics.  If the evidence of substantive beneficial effect becomes clearer, I’ll be ready to take full advantage.

Hmm, the likelihood is that I’m going to need to become smarter, in order to figure out when it’s wise to try to make myself smarter again by taking one or more nootropics.  But that first-stage mental enhancement can happen by immersing myself in a bunch of other smart people…

That’s one reason I’m looking forward to the London Futurist Meetup on the subject of nootropics that is taking place this Thursday (29th March), from 7pm, in the Lord Wargrave pub at 42 Brendon Street, London W1H 5HE.  It’s going to be a semi-informal discussion, with attendees being encouraged to talk about their own experiences, expectations, hopes, and fears about nootropics.  Hopefully, the outcome will be improved collective wisdom!


  1. When I was a Psion we had a little joke: if a neophyte programmer asked how to speed up a program we would sometimes quip: “That’s easy, just find the variable for speed and double its value”. The joke being, of course, that there was no variable for speed, and that speeding up a program was a skilled and complicated activity. Sometimes there were easy gains to be made, but the more a program had been worked on, the more difficult it was to find further optimisations. Normally, if the speed of a program was critical, all the easy optimisations had already been made and further optimisation was a complex task that often involved making trade-offs: increased memory use, or larger program size, for example.

    I think it is also so with the human mind: evolution has already found all the easy optimisations and further improvements will be difficult to find and will probably involve trade-offs. If it was as simple as producing a bit more of a particular chemical, or producing a new chemical, then evolution would have already have made that improvement.

    I believe advances in technology will be used to improve the human mind, but believe that the use of drugs will at most play a minor part in that story. Indeed I regard the whole field of drug-based medicine as rather primitive. I certainly believe that in 500 years time doctors will look back on 20th and 21st century drug-based medicine with amusement, if not horror. The whole idea of flooding the body with a drug to produce a specific effect in a specific part of the body is an anathema to me. It’s a bit like doing surgery with a chainsaw.

    Although I think drugs will play a minor part in the enhancement of the human mind, I don’t dismiss their use altogether. For example, certain chemicals may not be produced by the human body because it is too costly – either their production or their use required too much energy, and so there was evolutionary pressure against them in times when food was in more limited supply. However I still believe that the effects of these drugs will be limited, since an enhanced brain will require an enhanced bodily infrastructure. Suppose you found a drug that made the brain 10% smarter. That brain would presumably need 10% more energy and 10% more oxygen, and so would need an enhanced blood capillary network to support it. Since that network would not be provided by the drug, the benefits of the drug would be limited.

    You talk about side effects of drugs. I prefer to think in terms of trade-offs. Some of the trade-offs of using drugs may be negative side effects, but others could be more subtle. For example, let’s hypothesise that short term memory requires the ability of neurons to rapidly form new connections, whereas long term memory requires neurons that make stable connections. It’s then easy to imagine a drug that improves short term memory at the cost of long term memory (or vice versa). Would you take such a drug? It’s almost impossible to make a decision.

    In your “four kinds of answer” you omitted the question of the legality of such drugs. Governments have a history of making mind altering drugs illegal. Suppose a side effect of a mind-enhancing drug is a state of mild euphoria – it’s easy to see governments wanting to make such a drug illegal. And we certainly know that poets and musicians have had their creativity enhanced by what are now illegal drugs: opium and LSD come to mind. I’ve even heard that some physicists speculate that the altered mind state that comes with LSD use could give insights into some of the deeper problems of physics: quantum gravity and string theory, for example.

    It has been said that the brain is the body’s biggest sexual organ. The internet has taught us to treat with scepticism any claims to increase the size of our other sexual organs. For the moment we need to be equally sceptical about any claims to enhance the capacity of our brains.

    Comment by Martin Budden — 27 March 2012 @ 10:23 am

    • Hi Martin – I agree with much of this – which is why I’m still mainly pursuing “traditional” methods for enhancing my cognitive powers, rather than taking any of the new nootropics.

      However, natural evolution has limits in what it can do. It can find local maxima, but a jump across the fitness landscape to a different configuration may be too hard for it. So I’m open to the idea that a different chemical, developed by human technology (“intelligent design”), may result in better overall performance. Especially if (as you suggest) there could be a way to closely target a part of the brain with that chemical.

      // dw2

      Comment by David Wood — 27 March 2012 @ 6:58 pm

    • @Martin

      I was going to post something very similar to your penultimate paragraph, on the issue of legality. It seems that the only psychoactive substances that are tolerated by law either merely produce increased alertness/concentration/mental-energy (e.g. caffeine, nicotine, taurine), or are so ingrained in our culture that they are off-limits for legislators (i.e. alcohol).

      Regarding your criticism of drug-based medicine – Isn’t this how the body itself works though? In that the blood is used as a kind of universal bus for delivery of substances (even when they are only intended for very specific locations) – take hormones for instance.

      What do you think about drugs that enhance athletic performance? It seems to me that if there is a shortcut to increased performance here, which evolution has either been unable to produce, or has rejected, then there is no reason why there shouldn’t be similar shorcuts possible with mental performance. I like your anecdote about the programmer, but a desperate system administrator could always just overclock the CPU of the machine that was running the program (although he might risk instability or component failure by doing do).


      Really interesting post. I’m not sure that the third kind of answer is likely to be taken seriously though. I mean, we don’t say that diet pills should be banned because they are unfair (in that the dieter has not put in the required effort to lose weight). I can see exceptions to this though – specifically in situation of competition where a level playing-field is required (such as a chess tournament), or the need to measure ‘base’ performance (such as an interview).

      Comment by sosh101 — 28 March 2012 @ 10:40 am

  2. The best memory/brain vitamins are definitely Nootropics! Nootropics improve the function of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine via muscarinic cholinergic (ACh) receptors which are implicated in memory processes. Furthermore, they have an effect on NMDA glutamate receptors which are involved with learning and memory processes. Nootropics influence neuronal and vascular functions and increase cognitive function, while at the same time providing a natural source of energy to keep you alert and motivated.

    Nootropics work best in a stack and can be found in variety of different over the counter smart pills and Adderall Alternatives.

    Comment by JeffV — 2 April 2012 @ 1:49 pm

  3. If you are looking for adderall alternative, try Doxiderol which is very effective. It contains all the natural ingredients like bacopa, vinpocetine etc..

    Comment by Elina — 18 March 2013 @ 1:25 pm

  4. gsv-111 and adrafinil ae two of my favorite nootropics. I also like the racetams like piracetam and pramiracetam. they are great to stack with acetylcholine sources like alpha gpc and citicoline

    Comment by peaknootropics — 13 May 2013 @ 7:28 pm

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