Do Brain Enhancement Drugs Make You More Creative?
I took some to find out.
Image: Donald Iain Smith / Getty
Nootropics (a.k.a. "smart drugs" or cognitive enhancers) are basically the opposite of recreational drugs. You take recreational drugs to have more and better fun. You take smart drugs to do more and better work. In a culture already obsessed with productivity, you don't need me to point out that higher productivity through chemistry is, perhaps, not only unnecessary, it's profoundly un-fun.
Which is exactly how I felt about nootropics every time they popped up in my newsfeed. Like they were another stupid scam aimed at making stressed out stockbrokers more productive—or just another bogus nutritional supplement that none of us need.
But then I wondered: And what if they don't just work for stockbrokers? What if they can make people like me—creative types who write and do yoga and make art—more focused and productive? What if they could help people who are dedicated to evolving human consciousness evolve faster? My mind began to fill with visions of Bernie Sanders and Noam Chomsky amplified.
So I decided to try them.
The first nootropic I tried was AlternaScript's combo, OptiMind and RestUp. Each of these formulations contains a cocktail of nootropic substances, and you can probably guess which is the upper and which is the downer. The packaging came with oodles of information and dosage recommendations. Easy peasy productivity, here I come.
My first day on OptiMind, I was jet-lagged and slightly hungover. I was hoping that something in the package ominously marked, "Welcome to the New You" would ease my symptoms. It did not. About an hour after taking the pill, I felt unpleasantly over-caffeinated. Also, I could not stop pooping. I got things done, but mostly without finesse.
The next two days went much the same way. I woke. I popped the pill. I pooped. I did stuff, perhaps more quickly than usual, but with no more focus than usual. I did not want to write. I did not want to do creative things. I procrastinated doing anything that wasn't completely rote. I don't know whether the RestUp was actually working or not, but I slept just fine. I always sleep fine, though, so that's neither here nor there.
By the fourth day on OptiMind, I noticed some changes. I did feel more focused. I tore through to-do lists of shit that I have been meaning to do for weeks. I did six loads of laundry and rearranged my kitchen cabinets by carbohydrate content. I was thinking in really organized bullet points. Both my yoga practice and my yoga teaching became almost absurdly structured.
I was extremely attentive to my students. After I led a two-hour class on Ayurvedic habits, my wife fist-bumped me and said, "That was amazing. You stayed totally on point all night." That's not always the case for me. Usually, I start fading after about 90 minutes of lecture and Q&A, especially after 9 pm. The shit was working.
It continued to "work." Only, the creative aspect I was hoping for eluded me. But it's hard to be a literary genius when your brain reduces all thoughts into tasks and steps towards end goals. I could be "in the moment," but only if I knew that the moment was a necessary step in a progress narrative.
Basically, I spent a week being a very organized, very productive automaton. I felt like I was on Adderall, minus the body aches and emotional reactivity. I kind of loved it, but I missed the sweeter details of my life: the relaxed pace of my mornings, the grain of my yoga practice, the pull of creative impulsivity.
The next nootropic combo I experimented with is from Nootropics.com. Unlike the package from AlternaScript, the Nootropics.com package came with no instructions, only five bottles of white pills. After doing some research on their site, I still had no idea which or how many pills to take.
I felt kind of weird pestering people who gave me free drugs, but since my job was to write about them, I contacted their customer service department twice and finally got an email back. The email suggested I read their website and then gave me a bunch of possible combinations of pills to take.
But they also told me that I should try each pill one at a time. But they also said that the pills worked best in combination. But they also said that each person's body chemistry is different. Basically, they covered their asses legally and pointed me vaguely in a direction.
I decided to try Adrafinil, which is recommended for focus and alertness and is taken every other day, and L-Theanine, which is recommended for relaxation, and can be taken daily.
Adrafinil is no joke. I thought that nootropics would be like taking vitamins, potentially good for you but with no real observable effects. No. This shit is speed. Unlike OptiMind, which felt only kind of like taking drugs, Adrafinil felt like unpleasant overstimulation that I had no power to turn off. I took it the first time at 9 am and didn't fall asleep until well past midnight. That may not sound strange to you, but usually the only thing that will keep me up past ten is Mardi Gras.
It kicked in as I was visiting my preschool teacher wife at work. It was a beautiful day. The four-year-olds were in fine form. And I could not pay attention because I was way fidgety and impatient. I was way way too AWAKE to play "Cucumber Slug Goes to the Garden Party" (a game I love, by the way).
So did I spend all that awake time busily crafting the make America great again novel? No, man, no. No writing. Writing is for people with interesting ideas, who have the patience to synthesize them into something that other people understand.
"I am not surprised by your experience," Ilene Ruhoy, neurologist at the Center for Healing Neurology said, when I inquired about my reactions. "One of the metabolites of Adrafinil is Modafinil which we use for narcolepsy treatment."
Um, okay, so you can buy drugs to treat narcolepsy online without a doctor's prescription? That seems safe.
"All nootropics should be used in the context of at least a consultation with a physician," Ruhoy said. "The use of multiple supplements should be monitored as several have toxicity profiles and can interact not only with medications but with each other. I just want the public to be safe."
So what I'm telling you is that I am on speed right now. And it is the same speed that a doctor will give you if you randomly and inappropriately fall asleep. And I am not being monitored by a doctor. And the people who sold it to me know zip about me, didn't ask, and were super vague in their answers to my questions.
And it is not making me write good.
Essentially, the people who sell nootropics are drug dealers. Don't get me wrong. I like drugs and I have nothing against drug dealers. But some drug dealers are better than others. Some want you to have the best possible experience (so that you will continue to be a loyal customer), some want you to get hooked (so you have no choice but to come back), and some will sell you a tootsie roll as hash (true story) to make a quick fifty bucks.
I'm not saying don't use smart drugs. I'm saying choose your dealer carefully.