pile of medicinal drugs

Nootropics: Drugs that Increase the Power of the Brain

What is a Nootropic?

Nootropics, also known as smart drugs, refer to both artificial and natural substances that are used by biohackers to enhance cognitive function. In layman terms, nootropics are pills used to make you smarter. Sound nice, right?

But nootropics are not like NZT-48 depicted in the movie Limitless.

If anything, nootropics can give you an edge in your cognitive tasks. But they won’t completely change your life.

You should also know that nootropics are not all the same. Many people vouch for the use of stimulants to make you smarter. And some stimulants do improve your ability to think for a short period of time. However, this is what I like to call a silver bullet, like the rare cup of coffee that a caffeine abstainer takes.

coffee crema in a cup brown mocha color
coffee is my favorite stimulant… mmm….

In other words, stimulants don’t tend to be truly nootropic (although coffee can be an exception). That’s because stimulants like Adderall work for the short term, but not for the long term when it comes to improving brain function.

So what counts as a nootropic? What should be able to do? Well, let’s say that the the scope of what a nootropic should be able to do for short and/or long term is:

  • Improve focus & attention
  • Improve mood
  • Improve memory
  • Improve Brain Function
  • Improve Brain Structure

How do Nootropics Work?

Nootropics can work by improving the firing & function of neurons, the availability of neurotransmitters, the oxygenation of the brain cells, the levels of circulating neurotrophic factors, and other biological processes. Of course, each nootropic may act upon a different mechanism for improving the function of the brain.

Note that simple things like exercise, diet, and sleep have a big influence on biological processes. You’ll find that if you get these 3 things right, your cognition will improve drastically more than taking many of the nootropics that are out there.

ergonomic correct posture, then slouching posture, then back dangerously bent backward posture
Ergonomics can make or break your productivity… Or you back…

There is also the matter of working/learning/studying in the right environment, with the right tools. For example, I can work very well on a laptop, but I find that my productivity drops substantially when I try to use a desktop PC. For some reason, it is a lot more easy to zone into my work with a laptop. Whereas I can’t seem to zone in when working on my desktop PC. It could be something to do with form factor and visual cues; for example, I can comfortably push my face closer to the screen of a laptop than a desktop PC. This simple change may account for the boost in productivity- given that distractions are more likely the less I am zoned into my task.

Yerkes-Dodson law for Stimulants, Sedatives, and Relaxants

You should know that many substances are dichotomized into being stimulating or sedating. Well, how do you what is better for your cognition? Stimulants all the way? Some people equate stimulants to mean more energy for the brain to utilize, and therefore more stimulants means better cognitive function. Well, it isn’t as simple as that.

I bet you’ve noticed that when you are too “stimulated” that it is hard to think clearly. When you are stressed out at work. When you drink too many espresso shots. Well, the impairment of thinking due to over-stimulation may have something to do with the Yerkes-Dodson Law.

The Yerkes-Dodson law states that there is an empirical relationship between arousal and performance. Specifically, performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a certain point. After that point, further arousal reverses the gains in performance.

Hebbian's Version of Yerkes-Dodson Law
Hebbian version of the Yerkes–Dodson law (this version leaves out that hyperarousal does not adversely impact simple tasks). This version is the most common version and often incorrectly cited in text books.

So with the Yerkes-Dodson law in mind, you can find that substances that is sedating or more preferably relaxing to actually improve your cognition when you are too aroused. This may also be a reason why Green Tea is such a popular option for improving cognition. You have the caffeine to act as the stimulant. and the L-Theanine in the green tea to act as the relaxant to smooth out the caffeine buzz.

Nootropics List

This is a list of substances that have caught my eye because they may be of Nootropic or at least Cognitive Enhancing value:

  • Caffeine: Green Tea > Coffee because Green tea has L-Theanine. L-Theanine promotes Alpha Brain wave activity [Source]
    • Low dose > high dose of caffeine. We want stimulation, not a jittering mess.
    • Also, high dose of caffeine builds such a high tolerance such that caffeine becomes ineffective
  • Choline
  • Coconut oil – MCT is high octane fuel for brain.
  • Ginger
  • Huperzine A
  • Racetams
  • Progesterone

Additionally, you’ll find many herbs and plants to have significant benefits to brain function:

  • Maca Root – I’m mainly interest in Maca because it boosts the libido. You find them on Amazon, but you need to be careful not to take the root “raw”. It’s a vegetable, your supposed to cook it.

Anti-Nootropics List

  • Soy beans, soy bean oil, and it’s derivatives. Why?
    • PUFA (Poly Unsaturated Fatty Acid) in Soybean oil lowers metabolism and eats up anti-oxidants
    • Phyto-Estrogens in Soybeans lower metabolism
  • Alcohol
  • Melatonin? It’s supposed to lower metabolism as it tells the body to get ready for slumber. I’m personally not against its use; just don’t over do it.

The Truth about Nootropics

Question: Why can’t we make a pill that makes us much smarter?

Because we are necessarily depending on the “normal” or “regular” functioning of the brain and body. When a drug augments some aspect of brain function, it is likely to interfere with some other brain function or brain-support system. It is rare that a drug does not do this. The “therapeutic index” of a drug is a measure of what is does positively versus what is does negatively. 10:1 is considered good. 100:1 is phenomenal. Even if the drug does not sabotage some essential system directly, simply unbalancing any brain system that is regulated by a homeostatic process is likely to backfire by indirect means.

For example, you’ll notice that your first cup of coffee gets you significantly boosted and ready for work. But if you keep drinking coffee day after day, you’ll notice that the same amount of coffee has less of an effect on you. This the body maintaining homeostasis- building up a tolerance to the drug caffeine as a protective measure. The body’s ability to adapt like this is pretty useful if you keep getting bit by the same type of poisonous snake, but perhaps undesirable if you want to get the cognitive high from caffeine.

Another example is with cholinergic smart-drug formulas; they don’t work because they only temporarily up-regulate cholinergic systems, which then down-regulate within a 1-3 week timeframe because the body tries to maintain homeostasis.

There are a few smart drugs that can used on a sustained basis, but I would not refer to the gains as “much” smarter. Slightly smarter is more honest.

The best shot at making us “much” smarter has to do with a norm of sub-optimal mental performance. We can become much smarter if our baseline mental function is way below our genetic (or metabolic) birthright. Then, the question becomes about “a pill that makes our brains work to their normal, healthy standard.”

But to have a pill do this, versus a diet, supplements, exercise, clean air and water, a sufficiency of superoxide, a decrease in any insulin resistance or mitochondrial incapacity, deep sleep (stage 3 and stage 4), quality sleep (no high-frequency intrusions), happiness (now there’s a can of neuroendocrine worms), etc?

This may not be particularly helpful, but it does explain why being superhuman is fundamentally difficult. At least with pills.[1]

Related Links

Books about Enhancing Brain Function


  1. Why can’t we create a pill that makes us much smarter? – By Steven Fowkes [Quora]

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