Nootropics: Can a Smart Pill Increase Your Focus and Intelligence? Let's Find Out

I'm spending the next 30 days on smart drugs. Is it possible a pill a day for a month will make me smarter and more efficient? Let's find out.

November 5, 2015

Drugs? Enhanced cognitive ability? Legal? I was intrigued from the get-go. A few weeks back, a friend told me about the growing world of “nootropics” – a.k.a. vitamins for the brain.

Described as “smart drugs,” these pills claim to be a steroid shot for our biological make-up. They do this by combining stimulants such as caffeine, vitamins B6 and B12, fish oil and more, in order to give a cognitive booster. Nootropics are hugely popular in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, as startup founders try to find ways to gain an edge over the competition – and push themselves to their full potential.

While I’m just a guy living the simple life in the woods, I found myself fascinated by the prospect of adding a little kick to my neural pathways. So I ordered a 30-day supply.

There are a bunch of different nootropics out there, but I chose Nootrobox, a startup based out of San Francisco, as I liked its simple approach. They have three products: Rise, Sprint, and Yawn. Rise is a daily nootropic to take every morning. Sprint is for a short-term but highly-concentrated lock-ins (taking a test, writing your thesis, playing Mario Kart), and Yawn is… well, take your best guess.

I’m using different cognitive testing websites to track my mental agility over this time period. They’re all similar in nature, asking me to remember words and patterns, type a color instead of the word, and other tests that require you to mentally dial in. I’ll keep you updated with my progress.

My first box of Rise arrived last week (along with a few bonus tablets of Sprint). I’m a little over a week in.

Here’s how it has been so far:

Day 1

I started my day with two Rise tablets. At first I was taken aback by the size, as they’re easily the largest pills I’ve ever swallowed. But they went down easily with a glass of water. BOOM! Instantly, colors started fluctuating, the ground was shaking, and I saw hallucinations in my backyard.

I wish.

Of course, nothing crazy happened instantly — or at all, for that matter. Today was a hard day to notice any effects as it was insanely busy. I shot a couple live music videos, which required some on-the-spot thinking.

I did feel locked-in today. But I didn’t notice any major cognitive changes.

Day 2

A similar schedule to yesterday. Shot two more music videos. But I did snag four hours at Starbucks to work on editing. I found myself really focused for those rare sacred hours. And it’s hard to stay focused at Starbucks. I only checked my fantasy football lineup a couple times. Big deal.

Day 3

I finally had the chance to sit down and do some work at home. I started the day with my two pills, after eating yogurt and granola for breakfast. Nootrobox recommend eating a meal with fat in it, so the pills absorb better.

Today my work is editing a wedding film at home. But, as any self-employed person knows, it’s a struggle to avoid distraction.

Checking emails, Facebook, fantasy football, finances, re-checking Facebook, then more fantasy football research. I don’t usually feel very efficient.

Today felt different. I opened Final Cut Pro and found myself spending a significantly longer time editing, without being distracted. I love my work, but on a normal weekday I find myself “needing” regular distractions.

But today, I got a solid hour where I was completely dialed in. Not just focused, but genuinely happy and eager to hack away at my workload.

Day 5

Last night, I saw one of my all-time favorite bands, Caspian, play in Nashville. It was an exhilarating, even spiritual, experience. Their music does that, but I wondered if the drugs I was taking played into my epic feelings.

I returned home around 1 a.m., and woke up at 5 a.m. I was scheduled to run a 5k this morning. The plan was to pop the pills, pick up my friend Dave, and head to the race.

But no cognitive enhancement could have spared me from the effect of exhaustion. I took the wrong interstate for 30 miles.

I showed up to the start line just as the announcer said, “Thirty seconds to go!”

I pinned my bib, and off we went. And I didn’t do too badly. Later that day I coached a high school cross country team.

Overall, I had a lot of activity today, but had an excessive amount of energy and focus.

Day 7

Today I was feeling the effects of the pills as I had an antsy, eager desire to plow through my work. I always want to give my very best, but today I felt excited about working on my projects. And I felt like this all day.

I appreciated the music I was listening to (Caspian), and I appreciated the video I was working on (I tend to be skeptical when I watch my work). Things seemed more beautiful today. It’s also a beautiful fall day.

Thoughts from week one

I’ve been trying to measure any changes in cognition by using a number of online tests.

Before starting Nootrobox, I tried Quantified Mind, a free web tool, recommended by Reddit brain hackers. It says it “reliably, and comprehensively measures your basic cognitive abilities.” I scored 545.658 in Verbal Learning with Replacement. This test essentially requires you to recall a series of words.

My score dipped to 515.358 on day three (I was tired), but by day seven, I was up at 560.328, a great improvement. Likewise, the color-word test landed me at 550.601 before starting the experiment, and by day seven I was at 588.459!

I definitely noticed an increase in my memory recall and focusing abilities.

I’ve also been using the Human Benchmark test. Their Reaction Time test is simple, but interesting. The objective is to click the mouse when the screen changes from red to green. Before I started the drugs, I averaged 367ms over five tries. On day three, I already had the time down to 325ms. However, it was back up to 377ms the next day. Five attempts isn’t a great deal of information to draw from though.

And finally, I’ve been using a brain training iPhone app called Peak. They provide the least amount of data regarding progress, but their Pro version gives me a chart where I can see if I’ve been progressing or regressing. Overall, my brain score went from 354 to 382 in the first week.

But it’s early days and I’ll have a lot more data to draw on soon.

Check back here for updates on my results. I’m keeping a diary for four weeks, part 2 coming soon.

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