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:
- No such drug could be created. This is just fiction.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!