Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Thoughts on Nootropics and "Brain Doping"

Margaret Talbot’s article in the New Yorker comes on 4-20, but it brings up a topic that’s been around for years: Nootropics.

Margaret’s article brings up several points, beyond legality and ethicality of use in an academic and work environment.  

Nootropics have been around for a while. The idea of being able to enhance performance is not a new thing, and students have been popping pills to keep awake for about as long as they discovered that coffee and cigarettes have their limits.

In the 90s, the Clinton Administration helped the burgeoning nootropic market with loosening FDA regulation for experimental purposes. This created a sometimes shady but quasi-legal market for Piracetam and Vassopressin, DMAE, and a whole slew of other drugs that were meant for treatment of Alzheimers and other disorders.

Because of the quasi-legal nature, and the lack of real FDA regulation, you can get a great many nootropics through the mail–often of questionable quality, and often without any sort of instruction for use. But, now in 2009, you can get a great many prescription strength and much better quality drugs–though, often for entirely different purposes than their intended use.

In the spirit of disclosure, in the 90s, I was certainly on board. Faster. Smarter. More focused. It was a very seductive thing. Who doesn’t want to be a little smarter?  Piracetam certainly delivered. Vassopressin did as well, and sex right after a charge…well, it certainly didn’t hurt. Yes, your nasal passages got a little raw, but gottverdammt

The thing is, they all had their side effects. Yes, you were a little faster, memory was improved, and cognitive function was expanded with Piracetam–but likewise, there was a down side, beyond the sometimes gastro-intestinal distress, in that the “bullshit tolerance” tends to narrow, if not disappear.  I simply didn’t have time to waste on anyone who was slower or meandered.

Talbot’s article boils down to the use of nootropics as less of a way of enhancing and expanding the mind, but their eventual reliance to perform in an increasingly competitive market. That we are perhaps looking at a whole market that can shackle folks just as much as a reliance on steroids for performance, as opposed to opening up horizons of thought.

The question comes down to, as writers, we consume coffee with wild abandon–I live with that coffee pot and ashtray, and have a hard time even parsing thought without one or the other– and most of us are hardly above the occasional Redbull or cup of tea, or shoving down pills full of fish oil, or sucking down a smoothie chock full of the latest goo that’s supposed to grease the mental wheels, but is there a line where “doping” the brain crosses some ethical line? The military provides drugs for pilots and line troops to help their performance. Employers regularly provide coffee, we can expect breaks for cigarettes even. Can we expect our employers to not just condone the use of nootropics, but actively encourage it, especially in times of increasing competition?  As writers, can we ignore that our colleagues are using drugs to aid their focus and cognition, and are we throwing ourselves onto the pyre of experimentation for Dame Market?

Do we need disclosure of their use?  For ethics purposes, or is it none of anyone’s damn business? I’m curious how folks see the issue, considering that so many are in fields where the use of this class “enhancements” is hardly regulated, but you can see the effects in academics and in the workplace.


  1. ….an Appendix to Stephen Pinkers The Blank Slate, if my only-caffeine-enhanced brain recalls correctly, that every society ever known, through archaeology or anthropology, deploys some kind of pscyhoactive drug, often in a ritualistic form.

    With our very recently developed, glucose guggling and often buggy big brains, humans are clearly pushing neuronal networking to the limit. Our great adaptive advantage is an ability to learn, and though we’re by no means a blank slate, I think of our brains more like the white page you get on Word – thousands of lines of code whirring underneath to keep that clean white page, and all the options.

    For some reason, psychoactive drugs have become part of most societies because they allow us to reboot and refresh. Of course, like any reboot, you have to shut down all the programmes and save all your data. It’s best done when there’s going to be little demand on your processing power, and probably when there are some friends around to help you find the power switch and remember your passwords.

    In other words, instead of the banal polarities of drugs ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ we should look at how we chemically enhance our minds – know the effects and side effects – and deploy these chemicals responsibly.

    BTW – having experimented with psychoactive substances myself, this is the way I’ve talked about things with my teenage kids: trying to give them information, and warning them of the social context. I also repeated a very useful bit of information. Our brains are still very plastic until the age of about 26 (they never cease making new connections and stem cell neurons keep growing) and so argued that they should refrain from any major psychoactive drugs till 26.

    Good alibi hey?

  2. but have read others on this topic. Andrew Sullivan  has touched on it briefly too. In fact, I seem to remember that he tried some to gauge the effect.

    Aren’t most of these used by college students cramming for exams? The same people who are gulping down Red Bull and drinks like it?

    All drugs have negative side effects. I’m afraid the side effects for these haven’t been completely documented yet and may prove worse than expected. They almost always do as time goes on.

    The similarities to steroids is striking. The idea that a student will have to take these to stay competitive is starting to catch on among college age students. Let’s hope the yet to be discovered negative effects aren’t some long term hidden effect like a greater possibility of developing Alzheimer in your 40’s.

    Sugar is a little bit different than most drugs. Evolution favored a fondness for sweets. That’s why they taste good to us. They are an excellent source of energy so our ancestors, going back far beyond the first proto-humans, gained an advantage if they found sweet foods pleasurable. Daniel Dennett touches on this in his book “Breaking the Spell”.  

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