Nootropics: The Human Brain and How to Improve It

Squishy Thinking Machines

Transhumanists are united by the view that we should use advances in technology to improve the human condition; to overcome the genetic baggage of our Darwinian origins. Natural selection got us here, but we’re going to need to thoughtfully redesign ourselves from here on out. Like recursively self-improving AI, we use the smartest minds available to us to pinpoint what improvements can best be made, and then seek to implement those changes. But progress here massively depends on the limits of our cognitive abilities.

The jump in intelligence between chimpanzees and humans is – on the universal scale – pretty minor, but it is born out in practice as the difference between chimpanzee civilization and human civilization. Imagine a step up of the same magnitude between humans and AI, or humans and our post-human descendants, and their culture will surpass ours just as we surpass chimpanzees. For us, developing as a species entails developing our intelligence.

So — how can we increase our intelligence? The traditional view is to go to classes and study hard, but we mean more than that, so answering the question needs a definition we can satisfy. A 2007 survey on definitions of intelligence presents a convergence on this one: “Intelligence measures an agent’s ability to achieve goals in a wide range of environments.” And this applies to decision-making engines of all kinds, from machine-learning algorithms to human brains. For us, understanding the mechanisms of thought allows us insights into how we can make advances in our cognitive faculties.

The Cognitive Approach to Intelligence Enhancement

Nobel prize recipient Daniel Kahneman outlined his celebrated thesis in Thinking: Fast and Slow. In summary, there are two broad systems of thought, System 1 and System 2. Instinctive responses and immediate reactions are the domain of System 1, which is emotional and agile, but ultimately pretty short-sighted. We can however reflect upon our instinctive responses by utilising System 2, which is responsible for our deliberate and conscious processing. Updates to our System 2 allow System 1 to receive new directions, resulting in an agent-wide update, whether this involves lessons learned, biases overcome, or new insights gathered. And whether explicit or not, we do this throughout our lives (though, irrational as we sometimes are, updates are not always for the better!).

Overcoming biases is another valuable process towards improved decision-making, and tribute is due to the rationality community at LessWrong (named so because, where it’s not possible to be right, you can at least be less wrong.) Transhumanists who take overcoming bias and irrationality extremely seriously may also wish to attend workshops held by the Center for Applied Rationality who turn the cutting edge of cognitive neuroscience into a set of best practices for living and thinking.

Each of these represents a way that we can turn the spotlight of our attention inwards, and shine a light on the methods by which we decide to do the things we do. But in a sense, the brain is fairly inaccessible to thought: emphasising the power of positive thinking does little for an acute depressive for whom the root cause is brain chemistry. SSRIs and other antidepressants were developed as a result of this recognition. And so it’s reasonable for the budding futurist to ask: can we improve our intelligence at the biological level?

Nootropics and the Chemistry of Thought

Under the definition of intelligence as goal-achieving capability, the answer is yes, our cognitive capabilities can indeed be biologically improved. Nootropics are a class of synthetic compounds that in healthy individuals show clinical evidence of improving cognitive functioning. That is, they have shown to provide better focus, stronger motivation and improved recall, amongst a range of other improvements. It’s not surprising that NASA provides nootropics to the International Space Station, or that some have wondered whether in exams they should be treated as “a form of cheating that should be banned.”

And beyond intelligence, nootropics allow us to — in a small but substantial regard — unshackle ourselves from the chemical commands of our genes. And the scope is extraordinary, from reduced anxiety and stress to increased social capabilities, from improved sleep quality, to better mood and higher energy. For most of history, our mental and cognitive states have largely been a result of genetic factors over which we have no control. Nootropics represent a first tentative step in taking control of our cognitive abilities and emotional states at the chemical level.

Some fellow transhumanists and I are fully convinced by the ability of nootropics to improve the world, and we’re taking it seriously. We’ve launched a store on nootropics.com in order to make them more accessible, to supply them to those with shared values, and to spread our perception of nootropics as legitimate, dependable and valuable.

But nootropics, like antidepressants, are not magical cures. Our current best treatment for depression is medication to treat the faulty biology, combined with therapy and life-improvement to treat the faulty habits. In the same way, nootropics won’t transform you into a productivity-monster, but if it’s productivity you need, then whatever motivation you have will be bolstered and boosted. If it’s concentration you need, nootropics can help block out the distracting mental background noise. Nootropics won’t make all your goals come true, but they can help you become the kind of person who can achieve them.
Finally, we must ask: what goals ought we have? And this is a question that has been debated by philosophers for ages. In a skeptical, scientific age, there are at least some reasonable answers: to be capable of discovering the truths of the world, to be more like the ideal versions of ourselves, and to be increasingly capable of steering humanity – and all conscious beings – in the direction of progress. As transhumanists, if we wish to bring our vision to fruition, we are going to need the best possible versions of ourselves to get there. Over the past 40 years, we as a species have developed the ability to improve our cognition at the neurochemical level for the first time in history. And although nootropics cannot change who we are, they represent a powerful first step.

Peter Brietbart Written by:

5 Comments

  1. Solomon Kleinsmith
    08/06/2016
    Reply

    If the above is actually true, then why does it appear that you have basically just taken products already on the market for between 20% to over 50% less and just put them in different packaging?

    It seem like if that was actually your goal, you’d just create a site pointing people toward the best deals on quality sources of nootropics, not mark up the same stuff you can buy all over the internet already.

    • The product is more than the raw materials. The current state of the nootropics space is that early adopters who are internet-savvy can figure out which products work, ad which vendors are reliable. But would you tell your grandma “Yeah just Google it”?

      What we’re trying to create is a place where you can go, get all the information you need about safety, guidelines, expected results, and also simply some guidance in how to find what you might want. There’s a lot of competition in price in the nootropics space already, but nootropics are notoriously hard to get into for new people. We aim to change that.

      And yeah, that costs extra. While we could create a site that has just the research, and points people towards the best sources, who would pay us to spend a full time job improving things? Yes, it’s cost that doesn’t get you more raw product, but it gets you peace of mind, guidance, and good information. And that has value.

      (As an added boon, while sachets with capsules might contain the product you’re looking for, it’s not as nice to give as a gift to people you’d like to introduce to nootropics.)

      That all being said, I don’t mind if you buy from other vendors. We aim to have good relations with the other vendors anyway — at least the ones with a focus on safety and quality. If you’re already familiar with the lay of the land, know exactly what you want, know exactly where to get it safely, and know exactly how to best take it, then do that! It’s what I would do. But there’s enough space for different styles of business, especially given that there’s a growing market. Even if you feel that the price isn’t worth it, we’d still like to be known as safe, reliable, and a good source of information. I hope we can make good on that — and if you see something that’s off, please let us know!

  2. Solomon Kleinsmith
    08/10/2016
    Reply

    It almost seems like you’re going out of your way to seem like one of those political hacks you see on cable news “debate” shows… rather than answering the question, you toss out a quick red herring straw man (“The product is more than the raw materials.”) and pivot to this ridiculous false dichotomy:

    “The current state of the nootropics space is that early adopters who are internet-savvy can figure out which products work, ad which vendors are reliable. But would you tell your grandma “Yeah just Google it”?”

    Sites that do this already exist, offer the same products you offer, have more information and cost less, just spending a few hours adding some content to your website isn’t an excuse for marking it up so much and there are several websites I’ve found that provide great information on these sorts of things – this nonsense false dichotomy where you make it out to being a choice between your site and just telling people to Google it is obviously you attempting to distract people from your lack of an actual substantive response.

    Nothing special is happening here – you’re just another e-commerce website, marking up the same products people can buy elsewhere for less, and hoping you convince people to buy from you anyway with different packaging and marketing nonsense like this.

    “Yes, it’s cost that doesn’t get you more raw product, but it gets you peace of mind, guidance, and good information.”

    ….which can be found on a number of websites already, that have more information than your site, are established brands with track records and are cheaper.

    “…and if you see something that’s off, please let us know!”

    Tossing your dishonest sales nonsense would be a good start.

  3. To some degree you’re right. The available information has definitely gotten better lately, compared to a few years ago when I first started out with nootropics, so the dichotomy is less back and white than I painted it. In my experience though, and from people I’ve talked to, it’s far from ideal. It seems from your reply that your experience is different — which is actually a good sign.

    This is gonna sound like marketing speak, but I personally feel like nootropics can help a lot of people get better tools to choose their state of mind. Better guidance, and also an increase in “normality” in the public perception, would imo help everyone, both users and vendors. This is something we’re trying to build and increase — and yes, we’re an ecommerce site so this is what we’re trying to sell, but that doesn’t mean that there is no objective value in increasing accessibility.

    I anticipate you’re mostly going to disagree with this though, and see it as marketing nonsense. *shrugs* In the end time will tell. In the meantime I’m going continue focusing on creating a good user experience, for underlying values, and yes, also for generating revenue.

  4. Solomon Kleinsmith
    08/10/2016
    Reply

    Nope. Just sounds like someone with high hopes for a project they’re working on.

    The only thing off base is you seem to have read some disagreement with a profit motive between the lines of what I said – I neither said anything like that, nor do I believe it. I own a business that gets most of it’s client base from online too, and do that sort of thing for others – I just see a pretty big disconnect between some of what you’re saying, reality and what you’re doing.

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