On my desk sit four containers of brain pills. Though they are made by four separate companies, they are similar enough in appearance and content to be almost interchangeable. The ingredients mention green tea extract and bacopa, B vitamins and black pepper extract. The names of the formulae—Alpha Brain, Gorilla Mind Smooth, Brain Force Plus, Dawn to Dusk—are displayed in clean, futuristic fonts. Three of the bottles are tinted the tone of limousine windows. All sport the cartoon iconography that signifies increased brainpower: firing synapses, lightning bolts, glowing bulbs. The pills’ most important similarity, however, is not represented on the labeling: Each can boast the endorsement of a prominent right-of-center media commentator.
Onnit Alpha Brain claims to support “memory and focus,” and when the podcaster and comedian Joe Rogan began taking it daily, he insisted that his ability to form sentences “seemed smoother.” The best-named pill, Gorilla Mind Smooth, was formulated by the alt-lite author Mike Cernovich (with the help of researchers). Its capsules are half-red and half-black, and when Cernovich first took a prototype version, he tweeted that he could feel neurons regrowing in his sleep. Brain Force Plus is a best-seller on the Infowars Store, where it helps fund Alex Jones’s war for your mind. Ben Shapiro endorses Dawn to Dusk, distributed by BrickHouse Nutrition. Unlike the others, this supplement is moderately caffeinated, and, whether by design or accident, its effects seem to encourage Shapiro’s rapid-fire, small-caliber mode of speaking.
These substances are variously called nootropics, neurotropics, or nutraceuticals, none of which are very accurate names. Nootropics, the term used most frequently, literally means “mind-bending,” but the products are intended to heighten focus rather than cause a psychedelic reorientation of perception. The medical community is skeptical of nootropics, and discourages their use. In most studies, the pills tend to do no better than a placebo. Their side effects and dose dependency are not well understood, and because they are listed as supplements, not drugs, they remain unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration. (In the 1990s, the lobbying effort to prevent supplement regulation produced an ad, starring Mel Gibson, wherein a man’s house was raided by a swat team in search of illicit Vitamin C.)
The most pronounced side effects I suffered began before the pills were delivered. Even ordering them provoked a mild sensation of unreality; before checkout, there were options to pay via cryptocurrency or make a donation to a psychedelic research center that treats PTSD. Afterward, a payment to Free Speech Systems appeared on my credit card. Endless congratulations for my recent purchase piled into my in-box. Alex Jones wanted to talk almost daily, and has since contacted me 55 times, once with an invitation to “Eliminate Unwanted Invaders.” “Hereeeeeeee’s BrickHouse!” began an email subject line from BrickHouse Nutrition, more Jack Torrance than Ed McMahon, before acknowledging my purchase with a “Mic Drop” and a “Standing Ovation.”
Considering the aggressive marketing and questionable efficacy of these substances, it is easy to group them with other dubious products promoted by conservative media: reverse mortgages, gold bullion, drug-free arthritis relief, secret stock-market strategies. When the Infowars host “Prison” Paul Joseph Watson plugged Brain Force Plus—he said he takes two pills for a “sustainable burst of energy” before shooting his videos—left-wingers accepted the invitation to ridicule. (He was “widely mocked” for the brain pills ad, the U.K. web site Indy100 observed.) It’s been suggested that nootropics are contaminated or perhaps dangerous, an heir to the traveling medicine show tradition of “brain tonics.” The likelier truth is also the more mundane: They aren’t potent enough to be toxic.
I took the pills for three weeks altogether, alternating brands, and the average result was comparable to an espresso, with a little more sustain. (The common ingredient L-theanine, found in green tea, works synergistically with caffeine.) My sentences didn’t become smoother, but against baseline changes in fatigue and motivation, the pills sometimes seemed to freshen and brighten whatever question was at hand. This might have been placebo, and gauged against the rush of an energy drink or a venti-size cup of Starbucks coffee, the effects were wanting. Apart from Dawn to Dusk, the formulas avoid triggering either the jitters or the crash of caffeine by dispensing with the kick as well.
The muted effects are not diminishing demand. Market analysts predict nearly 20 percent annual growth in “brain health” supplements between now and 2024, the result in part of a general hunger for stimulation. The average American adult’s caffeine consumption in 1999 was 120 mg per day; by 2017, it had increased to 190 mg per day. The University of New Hampshire found that since 1995, Starbucks alone has created a 700 percent increase in American coffee consumption. Monster Beverage, the company that makes Monster energy drinks, has been described by Business Insider as “this century’s best-performing U.S. stock.” It has returned an unparalleled 60,000 percent since its initial public offering in 2003 and has a higher average share price than Coca-Cola. The demand for uppers extends internationally, and to more potent pharmaceutical enhancers like amphetamines and antinarcoleptics. The narcolepsy medication modafinil is among the most common medications in the United States to be consumed off-label.
Where pharmaceutical-grade amphetamines can be manufactured or bought with relative ease, they’ve also surged in popularity. In Southeast Asia, an amphetamine called “ya ba” has found widespread use, and for a long time was favored professionally rather than recreationally, taken by the precariat—day laborers, taxi drivers, sex workers, cleaners—to help them work harder and earn more money. Its name, which means “crazy drug” in Thai, is a corruption of “ya ma,” or “horse drug”; the compound was originally given to workhorses carrying heavy loads. In the globalized economy, people are treating their own bodies as the beasts of burden to be spurred on.
Less powerful but allegedly more beneficial, nonprescription nootropics purport to do something different from amphetamines—to supplement rather than to drug. No one can pretend that speed is healthy (nor, in most cases, is it legal), but the hope remains that the right combination of chemicals, administered the right way, can make the mind more limber and able while still avoiding any ill effects. The lure of a biochemically upgraded human consciousness found a natural home in Silicon Valley. On Reddit, an active nootropics community shares tips and research, and its members have watched the mainstreaming of their interest with ambivalence and intrigue. The enthusiasts I spoke with took great care with their “stacks,” as they call them—the “personalized cocktail” of chemicals, some experimental, that they use to produce a bespoke mental experience. These people tend to disdain branded nootropics, considering them overpriced and crudely devised.
What explains the right-wing commentariat’s special attraction to the substances? Their only prominent liberalish proponent is Gwyneth Paltrow, whose web site, Goop, sells Nerd Alert, a signature stack that promises to banish brain fog. Given the wealth of formulas promising increased attention and efficiency, the political similarities among many of their endorsers may just be happenstance. After all, gas stations sell a potent over-the-counter stimulant—5-Hour Energy—but that doesn’t mean all suppliers of petrol share an ideological program. Yet there is something more at play than coincidence when all of BrickHouse Nutrition’s media partners are right-wing radio and TV hosts. A member of a Reddit nootropics thread who goes by the name of FluoridePsychosis told me it was related to the conservative view of labor. People generally use nootropics to increase their productivity, and leftists—who, as he put it, “take a more critical view of work and their relationship to their employers”—are perhaps less likely to praise a substance aimed primarily at making you a better employee.
This is what it says on a bottle of Dawn to Dusk:
It’s been two hours since your last cup of coffee and like clockwork you’re beginning to crash. When the gears of time don’t wait for you to get your next cup, you need something that can keep you going. Dawn to Dusk stimulates your body, brain, and cells so your gears can turn a maximum efficiency for up to 10 hours, letting your clock work harder and longer.
Clean energy. Zero crash.
Beneath the upbeat tone and staccato sentences is a picture very like the old-fashioned Marxist vision of man under capitalism: an appendage of the machine. Taking Dawn to Dusk will make you computerlike, complete with “gears” and an internal clock—except in this version, dehumanization is offered as a release instead of a threat. In the fantasy propagated by these products, people don’t resist being deformed by work, they embrace it.
Marketing copy for the pills tends to use terms like productivity, efficiency, and potential interchangeably. The undeniable suggestion is that the purest and best version of oneself is the most efficient market actor—“homo economicus,” as economists say. Yet stimulation and efficiency were not always viewed as synonymous. When more potent stimulants were more widely available—for example, when inhalers containing Benzedrine, the first pharmaceutical amphetamine, were so common they were listed on the Pan Am in-flight menu alongside “Beverages and Diversions”—their marketed purpose was fulfilled personhood, not enhanced productivity.
Benzedrine tablets were advertised in the Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin to break the “vicious circle of anhedonia” and to halt “digestion by distressing thought.” This promotional strategy, with its emphasis on mood, also stressed a welcome side effect—appetite suppression—that was targeted at women and their doctors. By the 1960s, 85 percent of patients taking prescribed amphetamines were female, and unscrupulous physicians did good business cultivating addictions. An increased workload, where it was mentioned at all, tended to be in the context of housework.
The exception was the promotion of creativity. What W.H. Auden called “the chemical life” was one of the prime movers behind the literature of the mid-twentieth century. (Amphetamines also influenced other fields, especially mathematics, where Paul Erdös and Norbert Wiener were among the drug-assisted notables: Wiener said he “tried to work against time” while high.) Uppers left their mark on existentialism, objectivism, and the Beats, and there can be found in all of these movements an ideal of selfhood, really a form of selfishness, that is readily chemically defined: experiential, remorseless, unmoored, and interior.
The work of Ayn Rand bears the residue of amphetamines thickest. Both Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead appeared at peaks in a 30-year Benzedrine habit, and Rand’s paranoid prolixity shows its chemical origins. Though the prolific novelist’s writing is often maligned, she peerlessly—if unintentionally—renders the feeling of being on uppers. In Atlas Shrugged, when Dagny Taggart looks up at a skyscraper, “her consciousness surrendered to a single sight and a single, wordless emotion—but she had always known that an emotion was a sum totaled by an adding machine of the mind, and what she now felt was the instantaneous total of the thoughts she did not have to name.” Today’s conservative boosters of nootropics promise similar access to rational clarity and unitary purpose. Facts don’t care about your feelings—let the endocrine system take orders from the mind.
The philosophies underpinning incel culture, men’s rights activists, pickup artists, Alex Jones-variant libertarianism, the intellectual dark web, evolutionary psychology, and prosperity-gospel evangelism all have in common a model of individualism defined by hierarchical struggle. The linking ideology could be called Market Social Darwinism, and its practice focuses on competition and domination. Like any form of market activity, it has been changed by technology. Previously, individuals under its sway might have been conscious of their marginal price point in a pickup bar or on payday, or when comparing cars with their neighbor. Now the market never closes. All of life asks you to day-trade the self. If the mind revolts against this process, then the mind must be changed. Become one with “the gears of time.” There is a “mitochondrial enhancer” by Bulletproof that goes by the name Unfair Advantage. Why seek advantage, after all, when you can just take it?
A major factor in the resurgence of nootropics was a book-turned-film-turned-CBS show.* Limitless, the movie, which came out in 2011 and stars Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro, follows a feckless would-be writer who begins taking a mysterious substance that immediately unlocks his dormant potential. In the novel the movie is based on, The Dark Fields, by Irish writer Alan Glynn, the protagonist is suicidal and riven with guilt by the end: He has recalled murdering an innocent woman while on his nootropics bender. Glynn called his book a “pharmaceutical Faust,” and it is a classic tragedy of hubris to hamartia. “I wasn’t stupid,” another character says, her life in ruins. “I knew no one could maintain that level of mental activity for very long and survive.”
In the film, Bradley Cooper’s character gets no comeuppance; the cautionary part of the cautionary tale has been dropped. The story ends with the man as a sitting senator instead of on the brink of death. He is unrepentant about the murder and almost omnipotent, able to foresee a car crash or an imminent coronary. He is also clean: The smart drug has remolded his synapses such that they can perform unassisted. The nootropic enhances him, and in turn he enhances the nootropic, reformulating it so that it is no longer lethal. At the film’s end, he is in a fancy restaurant, ordering in Mandarin as his partner rolls her eyes, like a scene from American Psycho minus the satire.
What kind of moral is this? And what kind of era embraces it, as both a box-office hit and the template for real-life experimentation? In a 2009 essay on nootropics in The New Yorker, Margaret Talbot wrote that “neuroenhancers don’t offer freedom”: “Rather, they facilitate a pinched, unromantic, grindingly efficient form of productivity.” But efficiency is a kind of symmetry, and in this grind some observers have found a beauty and truth. In each telling of the tale—film, novel, and series—the protagonist is a failed creative who, once medicated, instantaneously succeeds at a chosen art form (writing or music), then discards it, turning attention to the “real world”: to power, money, force, policing.
These realms, the narrative suggests—not music, writing, or art—offer a more profound experience of creativity. “Artistic content was dead, something to be decided by committee,” the protagonist of The Dark Fields realizes. “True content now resided in the numbers—and numbers, large numbers, were everywhere.” Pricing out private jets, settling lawsuits, securing leveraged buyouts—these are the real art forms. On the drug, he beats the stock market by understanding it as a consciousness itself, “a collective nervous system, a global brain,” and making his own mind into a fractal that synchronizes with the whole.
Much of the right believes unironically in the transcendent power of the market. The market determines value, and what it values is high testosterone and a high IQ, ideally working in concert. The familiar myth that we only use a small percentage of our brains appears early in Limitless, but ad copy for nootropics hesitates to quantify the latent power of the cerebrum. (Hard numbers, after all, may attract the attention of regulators.) The mind is untapped, leashed, or dormant. Nootropics assure near-instantaneous clarity, and with it the freedom to see things as they are. Common sense is viewed as intrinsic, something to be liberated rather than learned.
Nootropics also promise to act as an antidote. When Alex Jones says “there is a war for your mind,” he conceives of the battle not least as chemical warfare. The mind is kept captive not only by laziness or circumstance, but by external enemies who have already biochemically insinuated themselves. In what might be Jones’s most famous viral video, he rants about chemicals “turning frogs gay,” referring to endocrine changes in amphibians that are caused by a class of chemical called atrazine. In the Jones cosmology, atrazine’s harmful effects on frogs are not the by-product of lax industrial regulation; they are evidence of a willful program to chemically castrate an unruly citizenry before subjugating them.
Chemtrails, fluoride, vaccines, antidepressants: In the politics of conspiracy, these poisons are what turn people into sheeple. The governments and industries responsible for crimes are not to be resisted en masse, but instead fought mano a mano through supplemented self-reliance. One of the most impressive interviewees in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s massive sociological study of the regional American mind, Strangers in Their Own Land, is a man named Lee Sherman. Sherman is an environmentalist who formerly worked illegally dumping toxic chemicals. He is passionate about protecting the marshland he once helped contaminate. He is also unshakable in the belief that government has no role to play in his newfound mission. Regulating toxic waste, he seems to feel, would be somehow effeminate.
When collective action, regulation, and the countervailing force of the state have been counted out, there is only the self to stand against the might of these adversaries. No wonder it must be assisted. Changing the system would be a sacrilege. Instead, finally, it must be gamed.
* A previous version of this article referred to the TV series Limitless as a Netflix show. It originally aired on CBS.