[ExI] Which nootropics work best?

Anders Sandberg anders at aleph.se
Mon Mar 14 12:17:10 UTC 2011

My own list of useful cognition enhancers is topped by sugar, caffeine 
and modafinil.

Slightly elevated blood sugar levels improve memory and mental function 
(and maybe willpower, according to some studies). Maintaining a steady 
glucose level through proper diet of course has other benefits, but for 
certain mental exertions it might be useful to supplement it temporarily 
(the memory enhancement effects appear to happen at a level above the 
normal level).

Caffeine is surprisingly safe and effective if one does not overdo it 
and adapt too much to it.

Modafinil is my mainstay for having a productive day or when I really 
need to focus on complex reasoning. Definite stimulant effect, but seems 
to be good for planning functions. Safety doesn't look too bad, although 
I am a bit concerned about blood pressure. I also use it only 
intermittently rather than chronically, in order to get minimal adaptation.

The hunger-ghrelin link is interesting. I don't know whether it is 
ghrelin that makes me efficient while being peckish or just the 
motivating effects of hunger (consider the study mentioned a while ago 
about self-control and a full bladder - there are plenty of odd 
overspills in our minds). It also seems to be highly individual. This is 
of course true for all enhancers: we need to check how well they work 
for us individually and in what situations. Fine-tuning and being able 
to tell what works for what (ideally be gathering real data) is important.

Aerobic exercise does seem to be a pretty decent enhancer too, both by 
preventing health problems and by some neuromodulatory effects. Unlike 
the drugs this has an ongoing chronic effect. Getting enough sleep also 
works - we want to maximize the integral of useful moments across our 
waking lives, and that means that if sleeping a bit more improves their 
utility it might be quite worthwhile. Again, this is highly individual, 
but especially since older people sleep less it might become an issue 
over time.

Generally older brains seem to produce less neuromodulators, which might 
be a reason to tune up the levels through some enhancers (there is of 
course much more literature on them for older people than the young 
healthy adults that I have focused on collecting papers about). However, 
older brains also tend to have learned plenty of efficient strategies 
too - while the thinking might be moment-to-moment be less effective it 
can be in practice quite adaptive.

Anders Sandberg
Future of Humanity Institute
Oxford University

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