Chemical supplements aimed at boosting brain performance.
There’s a lot of confusion surrounding nootropics and cognitive enhancers. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but if you want to get really technical about it — and let’s face it, we do — then nootropic refers only to a narrow category of cognitive enhancing supplements.
A substance must meet five tough criteria to be considered an honest-to-goodness nootropic.
Read on for the official definition of a true nootropic, the difference between nootropics and “cognitive enhancers,” and our homegrown Smart Drug Smarts definition. (Hat-tip to Abelard Lindsay for stating this nicely in Episode #85.)
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It took me a while to realize that I was the crazy guy.
There’s a saying among poker players — I assume for good reason — that goes like this: “If you can’t spot the dumbest guy at the table… It’s you.”
I’m starting to think that this may be a special case of a broader rule that goes well beyond poker.
I was flattered to wake up yesterday to a request to join a radio show panel, the nationally-syndicated “To The Point” produced by KCRW Radio out of Los Angeles. They were doing an episode about smart drugs — specifically, “moda” — and wanted to know if I would join their expert panel, which would include three others?
The producer implied (impressively, without ever quite saying it) that I wasn’t supposed to ask who the other panelists were. The set-up would be a little like Roman gladiators at the Coliseum, not knowing in advance what would come out from behind the arena doors. This makes for a livelier show for the audience.
KCRW is the radio big-leagues; I hadn’t just heard of them, I’ve listened to them. They’re probably the only radio station in Los Angeles I can find on a dial. Plus, this subject was right up my alley; I’ve used Modafinil on-and-off for years.
So this morning I dialed in to KCRW and was put into their digital bullpen, where they keep call-in guests on hold until the producer signals “it’s time,” and then suddenly the host is addressing you with questions.
(If you’ve ever called in to a radio show and been queued to ask the deejay to play a song for your sweetheart or to win concert tickets – it’s exactly like that.)
The first panelist introduced was a health reporter for VICE News, Sydney Lupkin. KCRW broadcasts to a general audience, many of whom would never have heard of smart drugs — and Sydney, along with host Barbara Bogaev, did a great job of opening the topic and implying a simmering hotbed of controversy around the use of “moda.” (The half-clandestine use of this abbreviated term was presented almost as a counterculture nod, like calling marijuana “weed” or Barack Obama “Barry.”)
And before I knew it, I was up next, answering a question about “how Modafinil feels when you’re on it.” I said my piece and then passed the mic, unsure if I’d said too much or not enough — it’s tough in these audio-only situations with multiple parties and no eye contact. You never know if you’re blabbing too long or if the host is praying for you to fill space.
But in this case, they needed to move on to get from me to the real Smart Drugs Wild Man. Certainly, with the undertones of “Modafinil running amok on our campuses,” one of the remaining two guests was sure to be a strung-out 19-year-old with 500 milligrams of Modafinil in his veins, who hadn’t slept since Tuesday.
However, the next guest proved to be Professor James Giordano, from the Georgetown University Medical Center. His speech and manner and credentials were all impeccable, and I wiped sweat off my brow when he backed up some points I’d made in my earlier monologue: 1. Smart drugs are out there. 2. Some, like the racetams, have strong safety and efficacy records and a multi-decade pedigree. 3. Probably the major concern for would-be users is identifying good providers in a “gray market” retail landscape.
We went to a commercial break, and for about a minute the audio went dead; I had time to google my two unveiled co-panelists, and to wonder about the third. The show had such an expectant feeling to it, an undercurrent that something shocking is happening here – prepare to be shocked! I was expecting Johnny-the-University-Kid-Who-Never-Sleeps. Or maybe Otto-the-Online-Modafinil-Retailer, coming on with a digitally-garbled voice, hinting at the value of his product while slinging accusations at “The Man” for keeping his business underground.
But soon the commercial break ended. We were back.
The next voice was a familiar one: Dr. Jeremy Martinez, from the Matrix Institute on Addictions — whom I’d interviewed previously on Episode 80 of my podcast. Dr. Martinez is a leading expert on addictions and addictive behavior, practicing in Los Angeles — which is also the big leagues, if you’re a doctor specializing in addiction. Like Professor Giordano before him, Dr. Martinez was well-spoken, straight-laced, and (befitting an addiction specialist) probably a bit conservative in his approach to the modulation of human brain chemistry.
One of the remaining guests was a strung-out 19-year-old with 500 milligrams of Modafinil in his veins, who hadn’t slept since Tuesday.
But wait a minute… Were we at four panelists already?
Had I gotten it wrong? Had the producer whom I’d spoken with said it would be me with four other panelists?
I was pretty sure the answer was no, but it hardly made sense to have a panel-discussion where everyone on the panel seemed to be in such agreement. “To The Point” isn’t Family Feud or some faux-news fight-bait show… But still, this is American mass media; there are rules that must be obeyed.
And then I felt a sinking feeling, as the verbal baton was passed back to me for another question…
Just like the poker player realizing there’s no one dumber at the table…
I was Johnny-the-University-Kid-Who-Never-Sleeps. I was Otto-the-Online-Modafinil-Retailer.
I was the Cognitive-Enhancement Wild Man, the one whom the conservative members of the KCRW audience were giving dirty looks through their radios, while I waved my pom-poms for these so-called smart drugs.
But I was the weirdest guy they could find?
I was the far edge of the lunatic fringe, pro-cognitive-enhancement spectrum?
I was — dare I put it so bluntly? — the cautionary warning of what your college kid might turn into?
I consoled myself with the thought that maybe there’d been an accident, and that Johnny-the-Non-Sleeper was unavailable on account of pan-hemispheric cognitive over-stimulation. I readied myself for the task. If someone needed to hold the line for the pro-enhancement crowd, I would do my part.
Luckily, the next question posed to me was one that’s always seemed as trivial to answer as it is amazing that it gets asked in the first place…
Should we be “worried” about the use of smart drugs?
Is it like “cheating in sports, with steroids”?
If there is one question where I am willing to let my freak flag fly high, this is it. I came out of the gates swinging. I probably frothed at the mouth a bit. (Mouth-froth-concealment is one great upside of both radio and podcasting over television.) My answer — constrained for the radio — was necessarily bite-sized, but I’d like to riff on it at greater length here, because this is the question that won’t die.
I was the cautionary warning of what your college kid might turn into.
It seems to me so absurdly mis-applied, and yet it’s an entrenched part of the public discussion. “Are smart drugs like steroids?” With the implications: “Is using them ‘unfair’ to the other ‘competitors,’ irrespective of the risks to the user himself?”
But to pretend that this analogy holds is to pretend that we live in society where muscles are more than a mating display or where intelligence is only a nifty parlor trick, essentially no big deal.
This could not be further from the truth.
If a Barry Bonds type takes steroids and balloons his athletic ability, maybe he hits a few more home runs. Records are broken; next year’s baseball cards and tonight’s ESPN highlight reel will look slightly different. But real effects on people’s lives? Zilch. Nada. With all due respect to physical performance, we no longer live in a world of blacksmiths and rickshaw operators. Physical musculature is of great use to the individual, but none to society.
Now let’s look at the corresponding situation in intelligence. If the intellectual equivalent of Barry Bonds — maybe this is Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, or Ray Kurzweil (pick your favorite genius) — if he or she is able to boost his cognitive performance by the equivalent of “a few home runs,” this translates into a greater chance of a Unified Theory of Physics, or of colonizing Mars sooner, or of getting closer to mind-uploading. This isn’t about baseball cards; these are outcomes that fundamentally alter the trajectory of our entire species and its possibilities in the universe.
To equate this with “cheating, like steroids” is not in the same ideological ballpark.
It’s not in the same league.
It’s not even the same sport.
No, we should categorically not question the ethics of people voluntarily using cognitive enhancement to “get ahead.”
Not any more than we should question the ethics of a woman who uses perfume to smell better, or a man who squints on the golf course so he can see a little better. We all use the best tools available to us, constantly — and for good reason.
Life is not a zero-sum game, and the first people to adopt an effective new tool may indeed gain an advantage that later adopters resent… But in the end, the leaders in a field push the whole field forward. Barry Bonds, like it or not, made baseball better. He pushed the envelope, and even if it was cheating, he established new horizons.
But as I said: The horizons of baseball, they don’t matter that much.
The horizons of human cognition, though… They matter as much as anything we know about, or could even conceive of. From our current vantage point as the sole thinking species on the only known inhabited planet in the universe, the horizons of human cognition are literally insurmountable in importance.
So yeah, okay…
Maybe I am the Lunatic Fringe.