Category: Smart Drugs

Chemical supplements aimed at boosting brain performance.

On November 28th, 2012, I published the very first episode of Smart Drug Smarts, interviewing Dr. Ward Dean — a doctor who had literally written the original book on Smart Drugs. I figured then — and looking back, I can’t really fault my logic — that as a computer programmer with no particular medical background, if I was going to do a podcast about smart drugs, I’d better have some unimpeachable guests come on as experts.

In the time since then, over two-and-a-half years, I’ve been lucky enough to conduct over 80 interviews with some of the world’s top experts on some of the world’s coolest stuff.

And sometime in the past year — I never really stopped to notice when it happened, but by now it’s definitely true — Smart Drug Smarts has become the longest-running single project I’ve ever worked on, period.

I’ve got to say, I’m very proud of that… and I have every intention to continue building from here.

One question I’ve gotten asked a lot is…

“So why did you start the podcast?”

I feel like people expect one overriding answer, but it was more a smorgasbord of semi-related upsides…

  1. I love media production and was looking for a creative outlet.
  2. I’ll take any excuse to talk with smart folks.
  3. I’ve had a lifelong interest in brains, physical health, and psychology.
  4. This felt like a way for me to participate in science fiction.

Smart Drug Smarts has ticked all of these boxes for me.

And of course: I was, and I am, a fan of cognitive enhancers.

More broadly, I’m a fan of cognition.

That’s either an obvious or a profound statement, depending on how charitable you’re feeling.  But I’ve personally found that the moments in my life I’ve enjoyed the most — contrary to what we’re taught to expect — weren’t often moments of public praise or physical pleasure…

They were instead moments of intellectual insight.

  • Wow, is that really true?
  • I think I figured it out!
  • Wait, this changes everything…

I wrote about this in my post The Physical Sensation of Epiphany — and these types of internal thrills are still the primary carrots I find myself chasing.

It’s funny, because I’d pay good money for a moment of new insight.  But what actually happens is — when I have a moment of insight, that’s often something people pay me for.  Talk about having your cake and eating it too.

For me, smart drugs are a booster rocket along that course.

They’re a multiplier on my odds-of-insight on a given day.

There are those who will tell you that such-and-such chemical will triple your IQ, allow you to see through walls, or rewire your hippocampus with a direct feed to Google while you sleep. I’m not that guy.  And I haven’t yet seen, or taken, such a drug.

What I have experienced are a variety of chemicals that allow me to fine-tune my state of mind… to consistently direct myself into ways of thinking, seeing, feeling, and behaving in line with what I’m trying to accomplish.  Sometimes that is enhanced focus.  Sometimes it’s expanded creativity.  Sometimes it’s a solid night’s sleep.

Smart Drug Smarts has become the longest-running single project I’ve ever worked on, period.

I have learned so much since starting the podcast.

Rubbing shoulders and sharing conversations with an amazing group of bright, curious, and deep-thinking people, this should come as no surprise.

And here’s the fun part: I’m not just talking about the show’s guests.

I’m also talking about the listeners.

Podcasters don’t know exactly how many listeners they’ve got.  People come in from iTunes, from YouTube, from random web-searches…  Some press Play and might jet after they decide they don’t like the intro music; others go back to the first episode and listen to everything you’ve ever done to get caught up.  I never know from week to week how many people will be listening, and whether those people are first-timers or long-timers…

But what I do know, is that of the people I’ve been lucky enough to meet — on email, on Twitter, and in a few dozen cases, in person — the level of amazing-ness among the people who have elected to become part of the Smart Drug Smarts community is truly phenomenal.

It’s a group I feel privileged to be part of…

  • Neuroscientists
  • Biochemists
  • Academic researchers
  • Man-machine interface do-it-yourselfers
  • Highly competitive business professionals
  • and a new generation of bright, vigorous university and grad students

All of us united by a deep curiosity to know where the cutting edge lies.

So What’s Next?

As our community has grown, people from the retail end of the cognitive enhancement world have taken notice, and we’ve had more than a few offers to promote products on the podcast, on the web, etc.

And as you know if you’ve been listening for a while, we’ve demurred on those offers.  Some seemed overtly sketchy.  Some probably weren’t sketchy, but I didn’t have the time or resources to feel 100% sure about going to bat for them.

And of course, a major concern has always been maintaining the trust the podcast has earned as an honest broker of information about cognitive enhancement: what works, what doesn’t, what’s safe, what isn’t, and what we just don’t know yet.

By late 2014, I’d decided a few things:

  • I loved the podcast.  I loved doing it.  And I wanted to put even more time and focus into doing it.
  • Doing that was going to incur more hard costs, in addition to my own time, and I ought to find a way to make Smart Drug Smarts profitable.
  • I didn’t want to be like a TV channel with 300 commercials for 300 different products, some of which might be great, but many of which are crap.

I decided that I wanted Smart Drug Smarts to create products of its own — things that I wanted, I would use, I would trust, and I could fully endorse — both from the standpoint of sound science, and also of safe, rigorously-tested manufacturing processes.

I also knew there was a lot that I didn’t know.

I knew the effects I was hungry for, and I knew chemicals I was interested in, but I didn’t know a whole lot about supplement manufacturing, pill-pressing, shipping and fulfillment, or the logistics and legwork involved in setting up a nutraceutical business.  It sounded like then — and I can confirm now, it is — a lot of work.

So I did the same thing I’d done back when I created the podcast and needed my first interview guests…  I began chasing down experts.

On Episode #21, I interviewed Roy Krebs and Abelard Lindsay.  Abelard did most of the talking, and this was appropriate; he was the citizen-scientist of the two, the biohacker and self-experimentalist who had devised and refined the two-compound cognitive enhancer now known as CILTEP.

But it was Roy — the quiet one, who didn’t really talk much during the episode — whom I realized late last year was another kind of expert I’d soon be needing.  Because what Roy had done, in the time following Episode #21, was turn CILTEP from a mix-it-in-your-kitchen recipe for do-it-yourselfers into the flagship product of a successful company.  One with manufacturing, purity-testing, bottling, shipping, and customer service running like clockwork.

I knew Roy and his partner Ben Hebert.  I knew that they knew their stuff in the running of a supplement company.  They know how to get things done, and how to keep customers happy and supported.

And also — I knew they were a little bit hamstrung.

Their company’s name is Natural Stacks, and they take the “Natural” seriously.  Products under their brand don’t contain any man-made ingredients.

And as you might have guessed, this restriction cuts out a lot of “the good stuff.”

Axon Labs is born.

Early this year, Roy and Ben and I began talking about forming a new company based around cognitive enhancement.  A “house brand” for Smart Drug Smarts — one where man-made compounds are A-okay, but where we would hold ourselves to the standards that matter: science-backed efficacy in our products, safety and purity-testing, and a great customer experience.

And once again, we reached out to Abelard Lindsay — whose enthusiasm for diving into the medical literature and looking for compounds with unrecognized complementary benefits was undiminished.  We told him now the handcuffs were off – man-made chemicals were on the table.

By the time you hear or read this, Axon Labs will be unveiling its first products.

It’s been almost a half-year to get the first batch ready, but all of us involved would agree it’s really been much longer than that.  Cooked into the mix are two-and-a-half years of my study into cognitive enhancement through Smart Drug Smarts, almost as much time on the business-end of nutraceuticals by Roy and Ben, and nearly a decade of study and self-experimentation by Abelard.

We’re immensely proud of what we’ve put together.  It wasn’t easy.  Biochemistry, bureaucracy, multiple time zones, and very busy people.  But nothing worth doing is easy, right?

I’ll be talking all about it in an episode soon.

And yet, it’s important for me to emphasize: I don’t want the fact that Smart Drug Smarts will have a product line to impact what got people listening in the first place.  My initial goal and the show’s de facto slogan remains unchanged: To help you improve your brain, by any and all means at your disposal.

Axon Labs is just going to be one new set of means.  🙂


PS:  Now, with all that as preamble, it is my pleasure to present…

Axon Labs

The correlation between being intelligent and being correct is, unfortunately, not as strong as we’d like it to be.

If smart people were as right as they are smart, knowing what to do all the time would be a lot simpler than it actually is.  But, alas.

A case-in-point is an article entitled “The New Normal,” published recently in Georgia State University Magazine, highlighting the thinking of uncontested smart person (and Smart Drug Smarts podcast alumnus) Nicole Vincent, associate professor of philosophy and associate neuroscience faculty member at GSU.

Unfortunately, the key idea of this article is just plain wrong.

The article presages a future where society has to deal with the nasty, unintended consequences of ever-more-effective cognition-enhancing drugs.  In this hypothetical dystopia, health/safety and efficacy concerns have all been addressed; the problems presented are purely social ones.

The title – “The New Normal” – refers to the social expectation that everyone will be using these drugs, for fear of underperforming and not keeping up with the cognitively-enhanced Joneses.

Citing high-responsibility professions like surgeons and airline pilots, Vincent warns of creeping public pressure for individuals to use the best-available cognitive enhancers to maximize their performance.  “You’re performing a job that many people’s lives depend on,” she says.  “If you mess up and people die when you could have just taken this [performance-enhancing] pill, people will see that as negligence.”

Why yes, I daresay they would.

Let me step back for a moment and say that I agree with most of the premises that the article’s “doomsday scenario” of changing cultural norms is based on.

  • I agree that cognitive enhancement technologies (including, but not limited to, “smart drugs”) will continue to improve.
  • I agree that early-adopters and more competitive members of society will use these things, and change our collective expectations — first of what is “acceptable,” next of what is “normal,” and finally what is “required” (either legally, or by overwhelming social pressure).
  • I agree that we’ll release these technologies into our society without having a clear understanding of their eventual consequences.*

* Humans have a bad track record when it comes to keeping genies in bottles.  If there are any technological genies that haven’t been un-bottled, I can’t think of them.  (Of course, this could be because their inventors kept them so darned secret we just don’t know such genies have been invented — and if so, kudos to those inventors.)  But as a rule — from atomic weapons to boy bands — if we invent things, we tend to use them and only afterwards consider what we’ve wrought on ourselves.

So if I agree with almost every premise presented by Vincent, what is she wrong about, exactly?

Her thesis fails the So-What Test.

Cognitive Enhancement will become the new normal.  So what.

As these technologies move from the Early Adopters to the Early Majority and eventually to everyone else, even the kicking, screaming Laggards will be pressured along (see the Diffusion of Innovations for this fun, cocktail-party terminology).

But… so what?

Let me provide some examples of other ideas that have failed the So-What Test:

  • “If access to basic education continues to expand… people will have to be literate to effectively participate in society.”
  • “If air travel becomes commonplace… businesses may expect workers to travel for hours at a time, at extreme heights, with absolutely nothing underneath of them.”
  • “If medicine further reduces infant mortality… manufacturers of child coffins will be put out of business — or else suffer the ignominy of re-marketing their products for small household pets.”

So freaking what, in all cases.

I could come up with more examples — a lot more.  All these if-thens are 100% correct.  And all are absurd in a way that is self-evident to pretty much everyone except… philosophers.

I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth (or over-speculate about someone else’s writing), but Vincent’s stance seems to be “we haven’t figured out all the ramifications of these technologies yet, so we should maintain the status quo until we do.”

But we can’t.  

And I don’t just mean we shouldn’t, I mean we can’t.

With apologies to Nostradamus and Madame Cleo, most of our track-records for predicting the future are just plain rotten.  And that includes really smart people — even professional think-tanks full of really smart people.

Accurately predicting the future requires access to enormous data sets, solid estimates of rates-of-change, an inherently counterintuitive understanding of exponential growth, and effective models of how various simultaneously-moving metrics interact with each other.

In fact, I’m just speculating that this recipe — if it could be pulled off — could accurately predict the future.  We don’t know.  But I find it hard to imagine that any of these tent-pole prerequisites wouldn’t be necessary.

Vincent’s stance seems to be “we haven’t figured out all the ramifications of these technologies yet, so we should maintain the status quo until we do.”

It was Abraham Lincoln who said: “The best way to predict your future is to create it.”  I’ve been reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and one thing is easy for us to forget now, 150 years later, but was an enormous hurdle for Lincoln and other slavery-abolitionists:

There were many of Lincoln’s contemporaries — even those who morally opposed slavery — who thought that the Law of Unintended Consequences, when applied to a societal change as massive as the 13th Amendment (which made slaves’ wartime emancipation permanent), was just too risky.  What righteous babies might be thrown out with the slavery-colored bathwater?  Heck, what about the disaster inflicted on the federal government’s Strategic Mule Supply, if each of the freed slaves really got “40 acres and a mule”?

(Please refer back to the So-What Test, mentioned above.)

Rhetorical Bag of Dirty Tricks #47 and #48:  If you want to sound good, align your ideas with those of Abraham Lincoln.  To demonize your opposition, reference their ideas alongside Hitler’s.  I do both, although I’m leaving Hitler out of this post.

“The only constant is change.”

Trying to game out the future before it arrives, as we’ve discussed, is a fool’s errand.

And attempting to stop the future from arriving — to stop time in its tracks — is as close as history gives us to a recipe for a lost cause.  There are so many examples of losing battles fought in the name of such causes; the cultural annihilation of both the Native Americans and the samurai of Imperial Japan both come to mind.

Looking at these long-ago-settled battles from the winners’ side of history — knowing who triumphed and why, we now see the romance under the dust.  The American Indians, the samurai — both were fighting technologically superior forces in doomed, all-or-nothing conflicts.  The winners’ superior firepower, their superior numbers — both feel a lot like cheating as we look back on those conflicts now.

The “noble savages” didn’t stand a chance, but boy-oh-boy, did they have heart.

The position taken in the GSU article — against the creeping use of cognitive enhancement technologies — would try to paint baseline Homo Sapiens (circa 2015) as a noble savage race.

It’s an argument that packs emotional appeal.

You, me, and everyone we know, falls into the “us” that is under this impending, theoretical threat.  Even those of us who are using cognitive enhancers (those currently available) — we’re still a part of the “home team,” compared to those upgraded rascals from 2020, or 2030, or 2045, and whatever brain-enhancers they’re using to one-up, two-up, and eventually disenfranchise the biological “normals.”

What Part of “Progress” Don’t You Like?

I’m a sucker for historical romance.  I don’t mean boy-meets-girl kissy-kissy stuff where the girl wears a corset; I mean the broad, sweeping emotionality of individual humans struggling amidst great forces.

And the Tide of History is among the greatest of forces — less tangible but equally powerful as any natural disaster.

I watch a movie like The Last Samurai and see the doomed samurai charge, and I get misty-eyed like everyone else.  But I recognize that those noble samurai are, however unwittingly, the bad guys.

Unbeknownst to them, they were fighting against a world that cured Polio.

They were fighting against a world that explores space.

They were fighting against a world where run-of-the-mill consumer technology allows me to research samurai while listening to Icelandic music (created on synthetic instruments, and presented in Surround-Sound) as I sip African coffee and wait for a transcontinental flight that will be faster, cheaper, and safer than it used to be to travel between nearby villages.

Of course, the samurai didn’t know they were fighting against this stuff.

They just weren’t sure about this whole modernization thing, and what sort of “new normals” might emerge.

Bob Dylan was right: The times, they are a-changin’.

You won’t be forced to keep up.

Cultural tides may pull you along, but you’ll be free to swim against the current if you really want to.  There are examples of that, too.  The Amish are one.

The Amish are still here, in 2015.  So far as I know, they’re not under any particular threat.  They’re doing okay.  They decided to pull the cultural emergency-brake in 1830, or whatever, and well…

They continue to exist.  Why?  Because we live in a peaceful-enough, prosperous-enough culture that no one has decided it’s necessary to overrun, assimilate, or eradicate them and harvest their resources.  

It should be pointed out that societies like ours — this peaceful, this prosperous — are somewhat of an historical anomaly.  But the good news is:  We live in an era of unprecedented positive historical anomalies.

I recognize that those noble samurai are, however unwittingly, the bad guys.

If you want to opt out of further technological progress and rely on the goodwill of your fellow man (or, eventually, the Homo Sapiens-successors you’ll be opting out of becoming), there’s never been a safer time to do so.  We can’t predict the future, but the trend-lines do seem promising.

But for me, personally…

I don’t want to rely on the goodness of my fellow man.

That sort of reliance is something you do in a pinch, not as a general strategy.

Do you think the Amish would have made it through the Cold War without the more technologically-minded Americans picking up their cultural slack?  No sir, not at all.  Heck, they’d have been steamrolled in the Spanish-American War, generations earlier.

I didn’t start off this post intending to disparage the Amish, but dammit, now I will.  The fact is, they’re not going to read this anyway.

There is a word for people who have every opportunity to be effective, but choose not to be, and instead rely on others to be effective on their behalf.

That word is Freeloaders.

The Amish, I put it to you, are freeloaders.

GSU’s New Normal article posits a future where effective, cheap, safe, non-prescription “smart drugs” have become commonplace.

In that future, when it arrives, people who have the opportunity to use these drugs to improve themselves, and choose not to, will also be freeloaders.

I won’t be one of them.

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