Before it all went wrong, Bradley Cooper in the movie Limitless made us believe that harnessing all of your brain’s potential energy was not only within reach, but also the key to unbridled success and fortune. Take one — or several — magic pills a day, and you could turn into the world’s best financial trader, beat henchmen trying to kill you, and learn a foreign language in minutes. All in a day’s work. Of course fictional plot lines don’t carry over into reality in many cases, but there’s a string of new drugs being advertised as the modern-day (hopefully henchmen-free) superdrugs that will make you more productive — not just at work, but in every facet of your life.
They’re called nootropics, and have technically been around since the 1970s in varying stages of popularity. They’re enjoying fifteen minutes of fame right now in areas like Silicon Valley, where productivity is the difference between a startup’s IPO or failure in a basement somewhere. Nootropics aren’t drugs you get from a pharmacy. They’re supplements, and at their most basic can be as simple as ingredients like caffeine and other elements found in coffee and tea.
A better brain
At their most complex, however, the nootropics are said to enhance brain function, improve memory, and provide other benefits that would help almost anyone perform their job more effectively. Michael Brandt, cofounder of one producer Nootrobox, told Gizmodo that nootropics won’t work like Limitless drugs. Instead, they’ll improve the brain in smaller intervals that compound over time. “The right analogy is compound interest. You’re not going to make a million dollars in a day,” he said. “If you can be 10 percent more productive over the course of your 20s, the amount of throughput you can achieve is phenomenal.”
Another company, TruBrain, conducted studies with its supplement on Wall Street traders to see if their decisions were more focused and accurate while taking TruBrain compared to a placebo. TruBrain’s concoction doesn’t rely on stimulants like caffeine, but instead incorporates a kind of nootropic called piracetam that’s supposed to boost mental function. TruBrain’s formula was developed by two neuroscientists, Andrew Hill of UCLA and Christoph Michel from the University of Geneva, Bloomberg reports.
The jury is still out on whether supplements like this are truly scientific, or if they’re a pseudoscience that’s capitalizing on the fact that young people are driven to make an impact on a tight labor market, often with big dreams of fortune from the app or software they just developed. These supplements are often compared to drugs like Adderall and modafinil, but without nasty side effects. If a seemingly harmless pill is the difference between success and failure, why not give it a shot?
The issue is that for the most part, these types of drugs don’t have much third-party oversight. That’s because supplements are regulated differently than medicines monitored by the Food and Drug Administration, and the only testing that might be done is voluntary checking by the companies themselves. Reddit has an incredibly active subreddit where participants self-test many nootropic offerings, but this crowd-sourcing testing might be best saved for the lab.
But whether it’s the placebo effect or not, many people report an increase in focus and productivity while taking some form of nootropic. What’s more, people are willing to give them a shot. Geoffrey Woo, founder of Nootrobox, told Fusion the company has been selling “five figures” worth of their products per month. At $29 per bottle of 30 pills, that’s a decent amount sales. “What people are mainly looking for is clearing brain fog, getting clarity so they can zero in on tasks at hand,” Woo explained. In many cases, users describe the experience like drinking a cup of coffee or two, but without feeling as jittery.
The bottom line is that you have to be comfortable taking a supplement that hasn’t been fully vetted by the FDA to stand up to the claims its company makes. For what it’s worth, many other supplements like vitamins and minerals are in that same boat. If it’s worth it to you to try a pill or nootropic-based energy drink to chase those 3 p.m. blues away, you’re not alone. But if you’re worried at all about it, try an afternoon cup of coffee or tea. It might just do the same thing, without the fancy packaging.
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