Since 2015 the market for “cognitive-enhancers” has well surpassed the $1 billion mark, proving that boosting memory, focus and overall cognition is something most people are looking for in their lives.
Like any market that proves itself to be profitable it often becomes flooded with suppliers touting new products that promise to deliver even better results than before. The nootropic market is no exception to this rule, since the inception of the original nootropic “piracetam” around the mid 1960’s this class of substances remained relatively obscure, confined to perhaps only some small sub-cultures of silicon valley programmer and other tech gurus.
Within the past decade “nootropics” have almost become a household name, this surge in popularity can no doubt be at least somewhat attributed to their conceptual use in Hollywood movies such as “Limitless” and “Lucy”, podcasters such as Tim Ferris, Joe Rogan and Aubrey Marcus have also helped bring these products into the mainstream arena.
The burning question many people who have yet to dip their toes into the water are asking is no doubt… do they actually work? The simple yet ambiguous answer to that question is “maybe”.
From personal experience and usage their are a handful of very common “nootropics” that provide a tangible boost to alertness and focus. These include the obvious likes of caffeine, nicotine and adderal (amphetamine salts). All these substances have a noticeable effect on energy levels, however none provide a state of cognitive performance that isn’t achievable naturally for someone willing to get some proper sleep and work on their fluid intelligence through training exercises such as the N-Back Test (strongly recommend this).
If you’re looking to enter a superhuman state of omniscient intelligence then I’m sorry to say you’re mostly out of luck, nootropics may give you a slight edge (this could be placebo) however like most substances out there the adage of “what goes up, must come down” does certainly apply and when the drugs wear off you may feel just a little bit worse off than you did before taking them in the first place.
What I’m going to put forward is purely anecdotal accounts of strategies that I’ve implemented into my daily routine that I can personally testify to having improved cognition on a day to day basis (when I do them).
2. Adequate Sleep (Quality AND Quantity)
You’re rolling your eyes because it’s so bleedingly obvious, a good night sleep is going to do for your focus and mental capacity what no drug can. It’ll give you a clean sense of clarity and energy that lasts all day, plus there’s no crash from getting an awesome nights sleep.
What might not be so obvious is ways you can drastically improve not only the quantity but more importantly the quality of sleep you’re getting.
Reduce blue light exposure at least 2–3hrs prior to your bedtime.
No I’m not asking you to wear some funky blue lens glasses that make you look like an 80’s villain. Instead I’ve opted for a himalayan salt lamp light in my bedroom (super warm orange/red light), If I am going to be on my phone or laptop leading up to bedtime (excluding all screens an hour before bed is optimal but not always possible) I’ll make sure that a free app like Flux is installed on all my devices to cut out the blue light my screen is emitting. In laymens terms when exposed to blue light our brain thinks the sun is out and secretes hormones that promote wakefulness such as Adrenalin (making it really hard to sleep), in an absence of this light our pineal gland will secrete the hormone melatonin helping us fall into a deep restful slumber.
Keep your last meal at least 2hrs before bed.
Going to bed on a full stomach can sometimes arguably makes it easier to fall asleep, however from personal experience it does not result in quality sleep, instead it leaves you feeling a little sluggish upon waking (most likely due to all our blood and energy being directed to our GI tract for digestion instead of circulating around the body for cellular repair through processes such as autophagy)
Supplementing with Magnesium prior to sleep.
At slightly higher than prescribed doses, Magnesium has a pleasantly relaxing effect on the muscles and mind. If you’re finding it difficult to enter into sleep I’d recommend ditching the sleeping pills for a quality magnesium supplement around the dosage of 400–600mg 30 minutes prior to bed
Practice yoga and other mindfulness techniques prior to bed.
This is last on the list not because it’s the least efficient, In fact this is my most pivotal sleep practice. For the most part our minds are in productivity mode throughout the day, even at nighttime I’ll find myself tied to my laptop simply because I’m enjoying getting shit done. Although productivity mode feels great it has it’s time and place, and bedtime is not one of them.
For me night time yoga has been a metaphorical “pumping of the brakes” on my mental steam train, I’ll shut my laptop and phone off at least 30 minutes before bed and do some simple ashtanga yoga flows deliberately designed for relaxation (a simple youtube search will give you a plethora to choose from). The important part of this is to ACTUALLY be mindful of the practice, not just to go through the motions so you can check it off your to-do list, if you can cultivate some presence before bed you’ll find your sleep is almost a conscious process and dreams become a lot more vivid and meaningful (super interesting book on lucid dreaming I just finished).
2. What the hell are you eating?
This one is too complex to get into right here so I’ll skim through the basics. It blows my mind how many people are taking performance enhancing supplements (of any kind, be it physical or cognitive) yet are stuffing their bodies with processed garbage that they were convinced was food. You truly are what you eat, and from my personal experience (zero preach when I say this) my mental clarity and physical energy has never felt so good since going purely plant-based wholefoods about 4 years ago.
Take it for what it’s worth but if the majority of your diet is coming from things in a wrapper or box with an ingredients list longer than the deceleration of independence than you may want to reevaluate how wholesome and nourishing your nutrition plan really is.
3. Your brain is a muscle, how often do you train it?
For anyone out there that has been diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit disorder etc.) you may get offended. As someone that often struggled with staying focused in the academic world of school, the same person who didn’t finish reading an entire book until he was 19, I think ADHD as a “medical condition” is BS. Okay okay, I’ll admit that some people may be starting from a lower natural ability to focus than others (the world ain’t fair kid) but I truly believe that this isn’t something you cannot compensate and even overcompensate for through implementing a variety of activities designed to stretch your attention and cognitive ability.
Read, read and then read some more
Fun fact: The average American CEO reads around 60 books per year, that’s more than a book a week. Although I’d love to say I hit those numbers, I definitely don’t, and the truth is you don’t have to either to see significant improvements in your attention span and fluid intelligence. Wherever I go I’ll carry a book with me and make it a tradition to knock-over a couple pages whenever I get a free moment throughout the day (you would be surprised how fast this stacks up)
The Dual N-Back Test
If you’re of the competitive nature like me you’re going to love this. The N-Back test was a “game” or exercise software designed to increased a very specific aspect of our cognition, our “fluid intelligence”. I won’t get into the nitty gritty but basically we have our “crystallized intelligence” and our “fluid intelligence” our fluid intelligence is our ability to hold several pieces of information in our mind at a single moment.
Sounds abstract but once you start sitting on the idea a little you realize this is a massive aspect of conversational skills, brainstorming and the creative process. You can access and download the N-Back Test for free here.
Try something you’re shit at
Learning a new skill literally feels like I’m pouring “miracle-grow” onto my brain. It’s difficult, awkward at first and requires a lot of patience not to throw in the towel. These are all the factors that make it such an effective means of improving focus and cognition. One of the largest challenges for me is mustering up the shear perseverance to be bad at something for a length of time.
Once you swallow your pride and accept that perhaps Mozart was shit at playing the piano or Van Gough couldn’t even paint by numbers when they first tried it makes it easier to see the bigger picture and push through the awkward portion of learning something new. Just remember there are two variables that can conquer anything in this world, time and effort, luckily you have the ability to control both.
As far as the activities go it’s literally only limited by your imagination and frankly it all helps. Whether it be salsa dancing, chess, graphic design, sculpting, computer programming or yoga. As a human being living in the 21st century you have a cornucopia of incredible things to partake in, go forward and find your passion and make it your vocation.
For now that’s all I’m going to cover but I’ll be writing some more articles on cognitive enhancement and daily routine hacks to improve your productivity and more importantly your overall enjoyment and appreciation of this experience we call life.
Until next time.