Playing your PS4 Pro or Xbox One isn't just fun, but research has shown that regular play of a Mario game improves the brain's visual, navigation, and fine motor control abilities - and actually grows these areas of the brain.
It's up to you to decide which is more remarkable: the fact that video games are good for you, or that your brain can grow simply by doing fun tasks. But the idea of turbo-charging your mind's abilities is, as Kathryn Lawrence discovers, a tempting - and surprisingly achievable - ambition...
We all know this feeling: you already have so much to do, but you know you have the potential to do more, and while the tasks in front of you are absolutely doable, you just can't seem to get it all done.
Maybe it hits you at 3 PM at work, or the night before a big deadline, but no matter when it strikes, it's the most inconvenient time.
Most of us have found our own ways to cope with this feeling: healthy methods include taking a walk, doing some light stretching, or just relaxing until you can turn your mind back to the task you should be focused on.
Less healthy methods include beating your head against your wall, desk, or keyboard, until you actually get around to doing the damn thing.
Now what if I told you that you didn't have to experience this feeling, that you could take a pill and be able to harness the power of your own mind at its maximum potential?
Welcome to the world of nootropics.
Change Your Mind
The word "nootropic" was coined by Romanian psychologist and chemist Corneliu E. Giurgea, from the Greek word for mind (nous) and the verb to turn or change (tropikos). It's used to describe a category of drugs called cognitive enhancers, also known as smart drugs, which include stimulants (like the amphetamines found in Adderall, the #1 study buddy), cholinergic drugs (which act on chemical reactions between neurotransmitters), and a host of other natural and unnatural dietary supplements (such as ginseng and ginkgo biloba).
There is a pervasive myth about the human brain that we only use 10% of it, which has been soundly debunked by modern brain imaging technology, but serves as a great jumping off point for science fiction and fantasies of what we could do with increased brainpower.
Image via Geek Nation
The nootropic market got a big boost after the release of the 2011 thriller "Limitless," in which a writer played by Bradley Cooper starts taking a mysterious nootropic substance called "NZT-48" which supposedly unlocks the remaining 90% of his brain functions and allows him to become fantastically wealthy off of the stock market. The film ends (spoilers!) with the implication that he has figured out how to retain his superhuman intelligence without the drug (after much drama involved in acquiring and synthesizing it to maintain a supply) and that he will become president of the United States. If only being superintelligent were actually a prerequisite for that position...
Image via Wikipedia
"Lucy," a very similar film from 2014, finds a drug mule played by Scarlett Johannson accidentally absorbing a large quantity of a nootropic with the same purported ability to unlock the unused parts of the brain, and she ends up (spoilers again!) transforming and transcending human form to become a space-and-time-defying supercomputer. And this isn't the first time Scarlett Johannson has been featured in a transhumanist narrative ...is there something we don't know about ScarJo?
While most people are simply entertained by the hyperbolic nature of these outcomes, others may have walked out of the theater thinking "Where can I get my hands on some of this stuff?"
Get Limitless Here
Enter "Limitless Life," found at literally "get limitless here" dot com. They sell "experience enhancing supplements," including Katy: "a brand NEW, legal, all-natural, organically grown, plant-based nootropic supplement that will bliss you out." Marketed towards both health-conscious ravers and performance-enhancement-seeking biohackers, it's supposed to make you feel good while it makes you smarter, but it seems that most people who would try this instead of your average festival drugs are already pretty smart.
Supplement-peddling startups like Nootrobox (now known as "HVMN") market directly to the Silicon Valley crowd claiming to increase energy, focus, and creativity.
"The human drive to self-improve is timeless, but modern technologies now allow us to enhance in precise and measurable ways like never before."
Different supplement blends like RISE, SPRINT, and YAWN are optimized for different parts of your day. These mixtures of nootropics are commonly called "stacks."
Stacking supplements is where some of the actual biochemistry comes in. We know that choline is important for helping neurotransmitters work, so a choline supplement will usually form the base of the stack along with a "racetam," like piracetam. The mechanism that makes racetams grease your thinking gears isn't really understood, but they can sometimes act as stimulants as well. And speaking of stimulants, there's almost always a nice big dose of caffeine in a nootropic stack so you can really feel the brain juices flowing.
But Do They Really Work?
Everyone knows drinking a cup of coffee or smoking a cigarette (even though it seems relaxing, nicotine is a stimulant!) can help you reset your mindframe and get into work mode. But all those other fancy chemicals, do they actually do anything?
Because of the increasing popularity of nootropics, anecdotal evidence for their effectiveness continues to spread – check out /r/nootropics if you want to read stories from hundreds of willing guinea pigs-turned-amateur-neuroscientists, but their use as performance enhancers in healthy adults has yet to be scientifically proven. Most nootropics have been shown to be effective in treating memory disorders such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and Huntington's diseases. The majority of research into memory-increasing drugs and chemical supplements is geared towards people who are losing their memories, not towards healthy brains that wish they could be better.
It could be that the simple distraction of taking that coffee or smoke break is what actually works, and not the stimulants themselves (though most likely it's both). The same goes with taking the time to optimize your health with supplements – if you have time to performance enhance, then you probably have time to give your brain a natural boost through exercise, relaxation, or other proven ways.
Or it could be the effect of another well-documented neurobiological phenomenon.
According to research from the journal Thinking and Reasoning, summarized by The Science of Us, there is a real neurological phenomenon happening where most people find that they are most creative, or able to come up with unorthodox solutions to problems, when their mind is wandering in the shower.
So while there's nothing that really exists to give you that "Limitless" effect, everyone is at their best after getting squeaky clean, and there's no reason not to take vitamins if you want to. Between pills and powders, placebos and showers, anything is better than applying your head directly to your keyboard.