Here Come the Smart Drugs: Biohacking, Nootropics and the Urge to Excel

Personal Health

If you haven't heard of the term "biohacking", you may already be being outcompeted by those who have. A biohacker has generally been defined as someone who aims to gain control over their own biology. Many biohackers are now choosing to take brain enhancing substances -- or "nootropics" -- that supposedly allow you to tailor your brain to fit your needs, rather than letting your brain control you. In fact, so many tech gurus and entrepreneurs swear by smart drugs that it prompted CNN to run the story "Are Smart Drugs Driving Silicon Valley?

Some of us with an unrelenting hunger for success have tried cognitive-enhancing prescription stimulants, such as Adderall and Ritalin, in order to pull work-filled all-nighters while the competition sleeps. While these drugs undoubtedly boost focus for long stretches of hours, this state is always and without a doubt followed by a crash -- a down period characterized by mental sluggishness, anxiety, mild depression, and a general feeling of being cracked out.

Due to this crash, along with some scary side effects and the strong potential for addiction, many have chosen to opt for natural cognitive-enhancing alternatives. Natural nootropics are brain supplements that contain organic ingredients that allegedly elevate mental function by improving attention, memory, mood, and motivation through increasing neurotransmitter levels. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that allow the brain's neurons to communicate with each other through electrical signals, and the optimal balance of transmitters is required for healthy brain function. Nootropics are thought to restore and maintain this balance without the harmful side effects, and they are already causing a feeding-frenzy amongst investors who are looking to start companies before the wave crests.

One such company is the Silicon Valley-based startup known as Nootrobox, which offers a subscription service that will deliver brain supplements to your door each month. With two distinct nootropic formulas, Nootrobox offers options that are said to allow you to customize your brain states to suit particular tasks. This is a progression from the one-size-fits-all approach taken by many nootropics companies in the past, and it is likely that we will continue to see more products that target very specific cognitive functions. While some would be quick to point out that nootropic users could merely be experiencing placebo effects, well-established ingredients like caffeine, and L-theanine -- an amino acid that research has shown to increase levels of serotonin and dopamine -- make it hard to argue the efficacy of Nootrobox's nootropics. But it is definitely important to approach nootropic products with a skeptical eye, as many ingredients that are being used today have hardly any empirical evidence from credible peer-reviewed journals to support their effectiveness.

Nootrobox recently ran a successful Indiegogo campaign named "Declaring War On Adderall" to raise money for their new "Sprint" formula, which is supposed to be a safe, cheap, and legal alternative to one of the most abused drugs on Ivy League campuses. It will certainly be interesting to see whether nootropics will ever become mainstream enough to cause a measurable decline in the use of illegal uppers at these competitive schools.

Of course, if we believed that a pill really could enhance mental performance, we would expect there to be some really successful pill-popping people out there. Although these smart drugs have yet to blow up in general society, some noteworthy public advocates of nootropics who use them religiously are:

• Tim Ferris - entrepreneur, author, and public speaker
• Dave Asprey - entrepreneur, board chairman of the Silicon Valley Health Institute
• Joe Rogan - popular podcast host, comedian, and mixed martial artist 
• Ray Kurzweil - scientist, inventor, and Google's Director of Engineering

Ray Kurzweil uses nootropics not just to enhance cognition, but also to protect and preserve the health of his brain. With 20 honorary PhDs, a host of game-changing inventions, and five national best-selling books, he is arguably the most productive man in the world. The "ultimate thinking machine" and "the restless genius", as described by Forbes and The Wall Street Journal, takes a daily regimen of over 100 supplements -- a good portion that are devoted to cognitive enhancement and brain health. The fact that a scientist of his caliber is an open advocate for nootropics lends to their credibility.

Podcast host Joe Rogan, an avid nootropic enthusiast, says he's often experienced super vivid and trippy lucid dreams when taking them before bed. While this may not be the first goal for someone looking to optimize their mental performance, being able to explore exotic states of consciousness would be a pretty awesome bonus.

Hacking your biology and brain by tracking its activity -- through things like wristbands and smartphone apps -- and using that information to devise an appropriate nootropic routine could soon be commonplace for entrepreneurs, computer programmers, college students, and competitive athletes seeking the highest success. And why wouldn't it? Being able to focus longer, access memory more easily, speak more fluently, and execute daily tasks with ease are qualities that virtually everyone could benefit from.

The folks at Nootrobox say they believe that nootropics will be "widely available in 7-11s, classrooms, and workplaces within a few years". If they do prove to have the same cognitive enhancing effects as stimulants but without all the negatives, then I sure hope they are right.

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