Will 'Smart Drugs' Really Make Us Smarter, or Just Ruin Our Lives?

By Alex Horne

Image by Alex Horne

It’s not exactly news that people do drugs in college. But in recent years there’s been a flurry of reports from both the UK and here in the US that suggest students are increasingly getting high to help them do their work, rather than to block out its existence until the day it's due.

The majority of media attention awarded to these “smart drugs” so far has been directed at their misuse, given that some of the most popular substances—like Ritalin, Adderall, and modafinil—were originally developed to combat specific disorders, such as ADHD or narcolepsy. But there’s also been a steady rise in the use of supplements designed to improve brainpower in healthy adults over extended periods of time, as opposed to the brief but efficient effect you’ll get from using any of the time-tested prescription drugs.

These supplements are known as nootropics and range from the mundane (ginseng) to the unpronounceable (phenylalanine). As with the prescription drugs, little is known about their long-term side effects.

It’s difficult to draw any clear distinctions between nootropics and other brain-boosting drugs, but if you, like many others, share the views of John Harris—professor of bioethics at Manchester University in England—there’s very little need to draw those distinctions in the first place. “I’m interested in cognitive-enhancing drugs," he said. "How you define nootropics doesn’t interest me.”

Of course, not everyone agrees. Corneliu E Giurgea, a Romanian psychologist and chemist, synthesized piracetam—the first nootropic—in 1964 and established an exact set of criteria in doing so. For Giurgea, nootropics must enhance learning acquisition, increase the coupling of the brain’s hemispheres, and improve executive processing (that last one involves tasks such as planning, paying attention, and spatial awareness). Importantly, these drugs must also be non-toxic and non-addictive.

Due to the wide variety of supplements classed as nootropics, there’s no single way of explaining how they work. Broadly speaking, however, nootropics achieve their effects by altering the supply of neurochemicals, enzymes, or hormones in the brain. Giurgea’s piracetam, for example, can improve the memory of users by altering the levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which, in turn, affects the plasticity of synapses in the brain (the extent to which entire brain structures, and the brain itself, can change from experiences). We understand our memories to be composed of complex matrices of synapses, and our ability to access them is related to how well they can link. Improved plasticity makes it easier for synapses to hook up.

Three of the most popular British vendors (Nootropics.co.uk, Intellimeds.co.uk, and SmartNootropics.co.uk) have all appeared in the last two years, so it’s clear that there’s been a recent surge in the popularity of nootropics. However, the benefits of some of the substances used to make the supplements have been known for years. We all know the productivity perks of caffeine, for instance, and the brain-boosting power of fish oil has been touted for as long as any of us can remember (with or without the help of nootropics). For those reasons, caffeine and fish oil form the base of many nootropic “stacks”—super-effective nootropic combinations.

Image by Jonny Mellor

Sean Duke is an American neuropharmacologist who specializes in devising stacks. He refers to those who take nootropics as “noonauts” and claims that they "are the mental equivalent of bodybuilders." On the nootropics Subreddit—and a number of other online message boards—noonauts from all corners of society come together to obsess over drug regimens and optimizing doses and boast about how many books they can mentally bench-press.

Duke’s steroids allegory also works on a legal level. As with all drugs, the government’s method for legislating cognitive enhancers is scattershot at best. Modafinil—a substance created to treat narcolepsy—cannot be sold legally without a prescription in the UK, but it is legal to import for personal use. The same goes for piracetam. This creates a pretty illogical situation in which UK suppliers can sell experimental nootropics unimpeded but cannot legally sell piracetam—a substance that has been thoroughly proven as safe for more than 40 years.

Duke says of humans, “We are all nootnauts; some of us just try harder.” And it’s a sentiment that’s been true throughout our history. Great advances in our evolution have been precipitated by adjustments to our diets. Our brains swelled when we began eating meat 2.3 million years ago. Then, a million years later, our ability to cook food gave rise to Homo erectus, our closest ancestor, who developed a digestive system 20 percent smaller and a brain 20 percent larger than his predecessors.

In the 1950s, Britain and America experimented with mind-altering technology for military gain. One of the CIA’s most cartoonishly evil projects, MKUltra, investigated the effects of psychotropic drugs, shock therapy, and hypnosis on participants, some willing and some not. Scientists attempted to make their subjects better at dealing with torture or more likely to tell the truth, and worked to “increase the efficiency of mentation and perception.” However, the science backfired, and the agency’s attempts to control the human mind had remarkably counterproductive results.

Ken Kesey and Robert Hunter were two volunteers for the MKUltra experiment at Menlo Park Veterans Hospital, a mental health facility in California. Kesey spent time talking to the patients there and decided that they were socially marginalized rather than insane. His experiences inspired him to write the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoos' Nest. Hunter would go on to join The Grateful Dead, and it is said that he was under the influence of the MKUltra experiments when he wrote the words to “China Cat Sunflower.”

Both figures played a seminal role in arguably the biggest cultural movement of the 20th Century—one that endorsed the use of psychedelics for their ability to broaden horizons and produce a new kind of society. 

Image by Jonny Mellor

Timothy Leary, a close friend of Kesey's, took a scientific approach to expanding consciousness. In 1964, he published The Psychedelic Experience, which laid out a practical framework for experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs. In Romania, in the same year, Giurgea published The Fundamentals to the Pharmacology of the Mind, in which he stated: “Man is not going to wait passively for millions of years before evolution offers him a better brain.”

In the eyes of the scientific community, Leary’s passion for his subject transformed him from detached researcher to evangelist—the pervasive memory of him is of a guy who dropped acid with Allen Ginsberg and John Lennon; no one really remembers any meaningful data concerning the effects psychoactive drugs have on someone’s brain. Giurgea’s work, however, became a field of serious research.

Studies have repeatedly shown the practical benefits of nootropics, but their impact on society has been less explosive than Leary’s work. This is, in part, because the effectiveness of nootropics is dependent on an individual’s neurochemistry, which is closely tied to weight, sleep patterns, and even mood, meaning the results of their use can vary hugely.

As Leary got older, his focus moved from drugs to technology. He proclaimed that “the PC is the LSD of the 90s” and began what came to be known as the cyberpunk movement. Many adherents of the subculture went on to work in Silicon Valley, and it was from here that the Information Age unfolded.

In 2010, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said: “There were five exabytes of information created between the dawn of civilization through 2003, but that much information is now created every two days.” The exact details of what he said were quickly proven to be incorrect, but we exist in a world of overwhelming information nevertheless. We are now expected to deal with an exorbitant amount of data endlessly streaming to us from every corner of our lives, and our natural response to this has been inadequate; we have no time to question fictions if they suit our worldview—the first paragraph of a Wikipedia page is as much knowledge as we need to get by. 

Image by Alex Horne

Despite our natural ineptitude at managing this volume of data, we are increasingly treated like information processors in many aspects of life. Performance targets, efficiency ratings, and calculated margins of error have become the parameters we work within. In education, even the most abstract and non-prescriptive subjects are being reduced to an exercise in memorizing facts. And in attempts to plan and organize society, we are treated as predictable machines. Instead of Leary’s vision that computers would liberate us, we are becoming the computers ourselves.

Wearable technology like Google Glass is the logical extension of this concept, minimizing the distinction between our devices and us. It keeps us fed with information and ensures we are never offline. But can we adapt to such an existence? Maybe nootropics can help us come full circle.

Smart drugs could be seen as the key to unlocking our full potential within the narrow confines of a society reliant on technology. In a Daily Mail piece, for example, a “James,” a Cambridge student, said that, when taking modafinil, “Your brain worked more like a computer as it processed information.” And although the government still doesn’t quite know what to do with nootropics, John Harris thinks they could be fundamental to the future of education: “They may even be provided to all students as a matter of course,” he said.

The fact remains, however, that we are not information processors, and the human brain cannot be fully understood in terms of chemistry. Duke said: “If we were just chemicals, how can one explain free will? Free will ignores the energy-defined constraints of chemistry.” Ultimately, free will is more powerful than our chemical makeup. The brain plasticity that piracetam aids is consciously guided whenever we make a decision to learn a new language or to play an instrument.

So while smart drugs can provide an edge in a world where processing power is paramount, viewing them as a universal cure risks reducing humans to automatons. Duke says: “The jury is still out on these drugs being evolutionary as opposed to de-evolutionary. How much are we guiding our brain to make connections that cannot be re-visited without the aid of the nootropics? We certainly don't know now, and I'm not sure if we ever will.” What he’s saying is that if we start providing cognitive enhancers to children, we may be narrowing their future capabilities, prioritizing their functionality over their creativity and individuality.

William Gibson, another famous cyberpunk, once said: "Technologies are morally neutral until we apply them.” Many noonauts are currently enhancing their lives with brain-boosting supplements, but if cognitive enhancers become normalized, which is more likely: that we become a society filled with intellectual experts, or that our increased capacity for work results in a larger workload?

Smartphones mean the office is always in our pocket. Smart drugs could mean the office is always in our minds. Which sounds like a really shitty place to end up.

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