The resurgent popularity of nootropics — an umbrella term for supplements that purport to boost creativity, memory, and cognitive ability — has more than a little to do with the recent Silicon Valley-induced obsession with disrupting literally everything, up to and including our own brains. But most of the appeal of smart drugs lies in the simplicity of their age-old premise: Take the right pill and you can become a better, smarter, as-yet-unrealised version of yourself — a person that you know exists, if only the less capable you could get out of your own way.
Federal law classifies most nootropics as dietary supplements, which means that the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate manufacturers’ statements about their benefits (as the giant “This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease” disclaimer on the label indicates). And the types of claims that the feds do allow supplement companies to make are often vague and/or supported by less-than-compelling scientific evidence. “If you find a study that says that an ingredient caused neurons to fire on rat brain cells in a petri dish,” says Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, “you can probably get away with saying that it ‘enhances memory’ or ‘promotes brain health.’”
Since dietary supplements do not require double-blind, placebo-controlled, pharmaceutical-style human studies before going to market, there is little incentive for companies to really prove that something does what they say it does. This means that, in practice, nootropics may not live up to all the grandiose, exuberant promises advertised on the bottle in which they come. The flip side, though? There’s no need to procure a prescription in order to try them out. Good news for aspiring biohackers — and for people who have no aspirations to become biohackers, but still want to be Bradley Cooper in Limitless (me).
After consulting Reddit’s (predictably) excessive guide for beginners — it features 270 footnotes! — I began fiddling with “stacking”: the practice of taking different amounts of varying nootropic substances, which users are encouraged to refine for as long as it takes to achieve Peak Cooper.
First was a combination of L-theanine and aniracetam, a synthetic compound prescribed in Europe to treat degenerative neurological diseases. I tested it by downing the recommended dosages and then tinkering with a story I had finished a few days earlier, back when caffeine was my only performance-enhancing drug. I zoomed through the document with renewed vigor, striking some sentences wholesale and rearranging others to make them tighter and punchier.
It was a productive hour, sure. But it also bore a remarkable resemblance to the normal editing process. I had imagined that the magical elixir coursing through my bloodstream would create towering storm clouds in my brain which, upon bursting, would rain cinematic adjectives onto the page as fast my fingers could type them. Unfortunately, the only thing that rained down were Google searches that began with the words "synonym for" — my usual creative process.
The next morning, four giant pills’ worth of the popular piracetam-and-choline stack made me… a smidge more alert, maybe? (Or maybe that was just the fact that I had slept pretty well the night before. It was hard to tell.) Modafinil, which many militaries use as their “fatigue management” pill of choice, boasts glowing reviews from satisfied users. But in the United States, civilians need a prescription to get it; without one, they are stuck using adrafinil, a precursor substance that the body metabolises into modafinil after ingestion. Taking adrafinil in lieu of coffee just made me keenly aware that I hadn’t had coffee.
After my rudimentary stacking efforts flamed out in unspectacular fashion, I tried a few ready-made stacks—brand-name nootropic cocktails that offer to eliminate the guesswork for newbies. They were just as useful. And a lot more expensive. Goop’s Braindust turned water into tea-flavored chalk. But it did make my face feel hot for 45 minutes. Then there were the two pills of Brain Force Plus, a supplement hawked relentlessly by Alex Jones of InfoWars infamy. The only result of those was the lingering guilt of knowing that I had willingly put $19.95 in the jorts pocket of a dipshit conspiracy theorist.
When I spoke with Jesse Lawler, who hosts the podcast Smart Drugs Smarts, about breakthroughs in brain health and neuroscience, he was unsurprised to hear of my disappointing experience. Many nootropics are supposed to take time to build up in the body before users begin to feel their impact. But even then, says Barry Gordon, a neurology professor at the Johns Hopkins Medical Center, positive results wouldn’t necessarily constitute evidence of a pharmacological benefit.
“Certain people might benefit from certain combinations of certain things,” he told me. “But across populations, there is still no conclusive proof that substances of this class improve cognitive functions.” And with no way to reliably measure the impact of a given substance on one’s mental acuity, one’s sincere beliefs about “what works” probably have a lot to do with, say, how demanding their day was, or whether they ate breakfast, or how susceptible they are to the placebo effect.
The infinite promise of stacking is why, whatever weight you attribute to the evidence of their efficacy, nootropics will never go away: With millions of potential iterations of brain-enhancing regimens out there, there is always the tantalising possibility that seekers haven’t found the elusive optimal combination of pills and powders for them — yet. Each “failure” is but another step in the process-of-elimination journey to biological self – actualisation, which may be just a few hundred dollars and a few more weeks of amateur alchemy away.
Fortunately, there are some performance-enhancing habits that have held up under rigorous scientific scrutiny. They are free, and easy to pronounce. Unfortunately, they are also the habits you were perhaps hoping to forego by using nootropics instead. “Of all the things that are supposed to be ‘good for the brain,’” says Stanford neurology professor Sharon Sha, “there is more evidence for exercise than anything else.” Next time you’re facing a long day, you could take a pill and see what happens.
You could also save your money, put your phone down, and go for a walk.