In the months before a recent trip to Colombia, off to visit an expat friend living there, I had been hearing about nootropics. Or “smart drugs,” as they’re referred to. Brain enhancers. Mental magic.
Depending on which site you’ve read that’s proclaimed them the new “It” drug for bio-hackers of every stripe, all roads lead to the same place. Namely, there is a blossoming cottage industry of wholly non-FDA-approved pills and powders that everyone from Wall Street titans to Silicon Valley geniuses have been using to augment their lives.
The promise? They’ll increase concentration, memory, attention span, combat sleep fatigue, and—in some cases—flat out change the way our brains work. Not in a fantastical sense, like in the way the miracle pill in the film Limitless allows Bradley Cooper’s character to achieve riches and glory. More like added grease for one’s cognitive gears—a synaptic lubricant that normally healthy people are taking to operate at optimal levels of clarity, stamina, and focus.
It’s Ritalin without the jitters.
Which isn’t to say, ironically, nootropics are not a bit confusing to the average person, Flintstone vitamin popper, or even general fan of recreational drugs. Some are legal, some aren’t. Some are made from food substances and purified compounds (and are vegan). Others are a classified as Schedule IV drugs that require you to be a DEA agent to bring across the border. And some research and data is based on rodent studies. So there’s that, too.
In 2013, the U.S. National Library of Medicine concluded that Modafinil—the popular, legal stuff—can reliably "enhanced task enjoyment and performance on several cognitive tests of planning and working memory, but did not improve paired associates learning" in healthy volunteers.
That doesn't account for some of the knockoff drugs sold under a nootropics label from unreliable sources all throughout the web. In March, for example, eBay quietly put out a blanket ban on all U.S. listings for Phenibut, an unapproved central nervous system depressant. And last month, the FDA put out a warning when it discovered DMBA, a powerful, unapproved stimulant, is an ingredient in a dozen nootropics-marketed products. “The possibility to cause harm is real. It’s a close cousin of DMAA, which is currently being investigated as the cause of bleeding strokes, heart failure and sudden death,” Dr. Pieter Cohen, an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, told the Harvard Public Health Review.
Still, after reading about them I was intrigued. I wanted in. And considering I was making my virginal flight to South America, where nootropics of any kind—DEA be damned—are easily obtained over the counter as well as by prescription, that I could stroll into a drugstore with my expat compatriot and his longtime Colombian girlfriend and score a batch sounded like a plum experiment to spice up the trip. My friend had been touting their benefits for at least a year when we would speak online, and he had even turned his sister on to them. She visited a few weeks before me and now swears by them.
If that wasn’t enough—and it was—Silicon Valley investor, speaker, and The 4-Hour Workweek author Tim Ferriss has admitted to considering himself a “human guinea pig” for such matters. As he once told CNN, “Just like an Olympic athlete who’s willing to do almost anything, even if it shortens your life by five years, to get a gold medal, you’re going to think about what pills and potions you can take.”
I woke up in our Airbnb-rented apartment the morning after arriving in Bogotá with my girlfriend, and popped my nootropic cherry with a standard 200mg prescription-strength Modafinil, reportedly the “smart drug” of choice for the wolves of Wall Street. Developed to treat sleeping disorders like narcolepsy, it enhances cognitive abilities, memory, and clarity of thought in the well-rested.
Mine was bright orange, the size of a peanut M&M. When I originally told my girlfriend what I planned to do while on the trip, our first vacation together, there was a slight unease. This was fair. After all, we were headed to the land of El Padrino himself, Pablo Escobar. Casually proclaiming that I would be getting my hands on some rogue Colombian drugs while in-country for the first time surely conjures up horror stories—or just images of being swallowed by vice, lost in a sea of late-night ragers with hookers and cocaine and weapons. (This is also known as your average night out with the U.S. Secret Service in Cartagena.)
Within about 20 minutes, and after a cup of coffee, I could feel it. A coursing through my veins, like my blood was pumping at full blast, but being kept under control by some external monitoring force. Throughout the day, I found myself picking up conversational cues in the Spanish being spoken around me—I speak very little of it—and sort of felt like my eyesight had gotten one of those rear-view mirror side extenders you see in cabs and on the Buicks of the elderly. Nothing overwhelming, just... there. In every way.
I’ve taken my fair share of ADHD drugs in my time—all unprescribed—so I know when I get that pop of synthetic clarity. This was akin to that, but more calm and natural—something like a cross between a blast of fresh oxygen to my brain and a deep-focus cinema camera movement. And it lasted for roughly six hours from start to finish.
In that time there were journeys up Montserrate mountain, street festivals where carts of fruit rolled by, a Colombian Pink Floyd cover band performing with gusto, some impressive employment of the mother tongue by me, and a long dinner. By the time the day was out, so was the juice from the pill. I fell asleep, no problem.
I did notice odd muscle spasms in my legs while lying on my stomach reading that “already high performers may be less likely to benefit cognitively from Modafinil” from one of the various nootropic info sites and SubReddits that abound. Considering I did feel it pretty strongly, I just chalked it up to being two miles above sea level in the mountains. Or I’m just a “low performer.” Whatever that means.
I continued on my regimen of a pill a day for the duration of the trip for the next 10 days, popping one before noon. The constants were that I would always feel a slight pumping in my veins—an effect that was not all unpleasant, but not unnoticable either—and a general state of being hyper-alert and hyper-cognizant. I considered that perhaps the effect was so pronounced because of the excitement and adrenaline stirred up from being in a foreign place, not on deadline, and not required to do complex math or even deal with the daily flood of emails. I was just absorbing everything with no requirements of output afterward. And a week of galloping around the country has been seared more vibrantly in the attic of my mind than usual.
The roadside chorizo cooked in a puebla overlooking a waterfall in the northern Amazon is still right there for the sniffing. The psychotic cliffside bus ride back from there, which found me as close to being a God-fearing man as I may ever be, is much more available for a total recall upon command than I would want it to be.
If the claims are right—that nootropics strengthen neuroplasticity and thus the mind’s ability to process and remember sensory information—that could be why. Or it was the placebo effect of knowingly taking a drug that’s intended to impart such cognitive enhancements on the user. Maybe both.
I was curious about that last part, though. Before writing this article, I called up my expat friend’s sister—the one who visited a few weeks before me and had also tried her hand at nootropics—to see what she thought. Once home, she said, she secured a legitimate prescription for Provigil, the U.S. equivalent of Modafinil, but just kept taking the same bright orange version that she brought home from her trip. She told me in the two months of taking the nootropics from Colombia, her boss noticed, saying she had gone from a 5 percent monthly error rate (considered to be respectable) to an astounding 1 percent at the health-care provider she works for as a claims processor.
“I’ve been doing this job for 15 years, and I can count on one hand the number of months I’ve gotten an accuracy rate that good,” she said. “It’s rare.”
It might kill us all, but if it’s a placebo effect, it’s a good one.
Dan McCarthy is the editor of the Boston alt-weekly newspaper DigBoston and a freelance writer. He lives in Dorchester, Massachusetts.