Can You Buy Intelligence? The Race to Overclock the Brain

This piece was written for The Twenty Mile Club.

What if you could bring the best version of yourself to every task that you tackled, by enhancing your cognitive performance? Would you do it? Well, there are numerous start-ups asking those very questions, considering the brain and body as a platform that can, and should be, optimised.

Biohacking is an umbrella term for a variation of different processes that people undertake for personal optimisation, both physically and mentally. Biohacking differentiates itself from the rest of the self-improvement sphere by taking a systems-thinking approach to biology, making tweaks to body inputs that lead to measurable changes in output. This measurability is key, as it creates a feedback loop which in turn, allows us to constantly improve and refine the process. One area in particular that people are constantly seeking to improve is that of the brain. Here, they are attempting to ‘overclock’ it.

What Is Overclocking?

People that build their own computers often ‘overclock’ their CPU’s (the brain of a computer). This has the effect of running the computer at a faster pace, for example, making programs load quicker and games run more smoothly. They do this by giving it, in effect, a little ‘boost’, by raising the voltage to increase the operating speed, and then cranking up the cooling to disperse the extra heat. This allows the computer to remain operational, but at a higher output than previously.

Overclocking The Brain

By continuing with our overclocking analogy, it should be noted that a computer forced to run at high speeds and temperatures for an extended period of time will slowly begin to break down. It increases the wear and tear of the system and thus reduces its life expectancy. It is operating outside of its original build specification. Proper management and routine can reduce or temper this effect, but it cannot be eliminated entirely.

Similar to a computer, humans are composed of memory, bandwidth and communication devices, all processing at different speeds. There is a growing field of research and products that reengineer and overclock human physiology that are promising to make bodies faster, stronger and superior in nearly magical ways.

Overclocking the brain can be done in numerous ways and with the variation in methods come different downsides and trade-offs. Listed below are just a few general categories of methods, resources and products that biohackers are using to improve their mental cognition and garner that all important edge.

  • Nootropics (smart drugs) – Using drugs (either new drugs or repurposing old, well-established drugs) to enhance mental abilities (focus, memory, learning, speed).
  • Micro-dosing – minuscule doses of psychedelics such as LSD to enhance creativity and productivity whilst reducing depression and anxiety. Many micro dose MDMA for increased social interaction and mitigation of anxiety.
  • Gadgets and software – from metrics apps to wearables, gadgets help us collect wellness data and streamline our day-to-day lives. A personal favourite: the OuraRing – a gadget to help you achieve optimal timing for sleep, meals and exercise.
  • Augmentation – blurring the line between human and machine with body modifications and implants. This can be seen in basic things such as implanted hearing aids, or more futuristic ‘Neural Lace‘ type devices, which seemingly removes the line altogether.
  • Electrotherapy – electrical stimulation of the mind and body as a treatment for various conditions, whilst also conferring numerous benefits. These gentle, barely perceptible pulses cure everything from anxiety to insomnia, depression, bipolar disorder and PTSD. Electrical stimulation is also commonly used to improve learning abilities, more information on that here.
  • Cryotherapy – cooling the entire body in a tub of nitrogen, with temperatures ranging from -120 degrees Celsius to improve sleep, reduce inflammation, fat loss, reduced cellulite, increased metabolism and increased collagen production.

How To Increase The Voltage To The Brain

For this post, we’re focusing on nootropics specifically. Nootropics are synthetic compounds that enhance brain function by modifying the supply of enzymes, hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain. There is no hard-and-fast classification of these drugs, as their effects can be tricky to pin down as the different drugs and drug combinations (known as ‘stacks’) interact in distinct manners with the brain and body. By using a blanket term like “nootropics”, it makes things a little confusing. Technically you could argue that caffeine and cocaine are both nootropics; they are hardly equal, but they both enhance your brain function.

Some nootropic drugs have been available on prescription for years (for example, Modafinil – a substance used to treat narcolepsy) and some can be acquired without a prescription. Whilst there is a percentage of people who commend the drugs for helping them lead happier, more productive lives, there is another group that urges extreme caution until more definitive information is known about the drugs, their effect, and what combining multiple substances might do. However, on balance, cognition hacking is appealing to a growing number of people, forming a semi-cult among large user bases.

Popping pills in the hope for greater productivity and better grades are unsurprisingly university students. A nationwide survey showed that 1 in 5 students have used study drugs at UK universities, and the Oxford University student publication, Cherwell, discovered that in Oxford, it was more like 1 in 4 (Independent, 2017).

Moreover, for the white-collared elite, gone are the days of day-drinking and cocaine for the Mad Men and Wolves of Wall Street, they are now turning to modern smart drugs. In Silicon Valley, where the nootropic market is the most matured, enthusiasts typically take a cocktail of pills, taking everything from Adderall to LSD. Given that the area is driven by innovation and competition, as well as the necessity for hyper-focused work valuing mental speed and agility, it is the ideal market for smart drugs.

One of Silicon Valley’s greatest nootropic advocates is Dave Asprey, the chairman of The Silicon Valley Health Institute. Founding Bulletproof Coffee, the supposedly performance-booting beverages have earned famous devotees such as Jimmy Fallon and Shailene Woodley. Other prominent productivity ‘gurus’ such as Tim Ferriss and Joe Rogan are nootropic users, but also sell their own nootropic stacks.

Although unconfirmed, even the pinnacle of modern democracy, the former President of the United States, Barack Obama was rumoured to be using them in some form. And Elon Musk, often touted as a visionary business leader, opened up recently about taking Ambien to help him sleep. Under a broader definition, this could be considered a Nootropic.

From techies to stock traders, data scientists, students and medical doctors, no one can afford to lose a step anymore, so it comes as no surprise that they are hacking the experience to work for their time-constrained schedules.

Getting Results

As the effectiveness of nootropics is dependent on an individual’s neurochemistry (which is closely related to weight, sleep pattern, diet, genetics and mood), the results of use vary hugely… Leaving no shortage of nootropic success stories, as well as horror stories. Success stories tout a variety of benefits such as:

  • Beneficial for productivity and motivation.
  • Boost in social prowess, confidence, extroversion.
  • Increased exercise performance.
  • Improved brain health.
  • Advanced mental wellbeing.

More details on each of these benefits can be found here.

The Other Side

However, nootropics still exist largely in unregulated grey areas, and there is a serious lack of knowledge about many of the drugs and supplements selected by nootropic communities. Unlike traditional medicines that undergo decades of drug testing and scientific consensus, the government’s procedures for legislating cognitive enhancers is scattershot at best. For example, Modafinil cannot be sold legally without a prescription in the UK, but it is legal to import or purchase online for personal use.

Frankly, there isn’t enough research to support the long-term usage of nootropics. Complicating things further is dosage. Many users begin with small doses of smart drugs, but feeling little to no effect, end up cranking up the dosage, opening themselves up to a number of side effects.

Below is a list of potential dangers associated with long-term nootropics use:

  • Brain chemistry alterations – possibly inhibiting important brain functions.
  • Cognitive defects and dependence – there is a possibility for brains to adapt and become tolerant of the drugs, so users end up relying on it to perform their normal cognitive tasks. Neurotransmission in the brain is a very sensitive system, so by taking a drug over an extensive period of time, it is likely to deplete certain neurotransmitters. This may result in needing to take the drug to maintain adequate functioning.
  • Cumulative toll on the nervous system – forcing your body to create energy when you feel tired can disrupt your circadian rhythm and use up energy stores that changes the way your body works, possibly accelerating ageing processes. Certain nootropics, when used over a long-time, such as Provigil are thought to deplete slow brain waves during sleep (similar to the impact of long-term cocaine use).
  • Medical interactions – certain medications or supplements may interact with nootropics.
  • Dubious quality – since the majority of nootropics are sold online and unregulated, it is problematic to appraise the quality of the source.
  • Side effects – these vary from person to person but can include: migraines, dizziness, headaches, skin rashes, mood swings and more.
  • Withdrawals – any substance that impacts the way your brain works, changes neurotransmission, and provides energy where there wasn’t any previously, is going to have some sort of discontinuation effects.

Stacking

To counteract the negative effects of certain nootropics, or accentuate their positive effects, many users ‘stack’ (combine) two or more synergistic smart drugs. The stack will go above and beyond the capabilities of a single nootropic and produce a broader spectrum of positive effects, essentially achieving a ‘whole system upgrade’. These stacks can be extensive.

One extreme example is Silicon Valley millionaire and entrepreneur, Serge Faguet, who has spent $200k on biohacking, and takes 60 pills a day – varying from natural supplements, prescription medications to SSRI antidepressants, lithium, metformin, statins and oestrogen blockers. He wrote an extremely detailed article detailing his exact regimes if you’re interested in learning more, but be warned- it is mind-bogglingly comprehensive!

A quick search online can give you an idea of the prices for nootropics. Mind Lab Pro sell a full stack of nootropics for £40 (+ shipping and handling) for one month’s supply. Depending on your choice of stack, Mind Nutrition offer products ranging from £10.95 to £29.95 (with most of the customers likely buying a variety of stacks for different effects). This varies company to company, and it is usually cheaper to buy each ingredient individually, rather than a ready-made stack – however, there is a convenience-cost trade off as this can be time consuming and inconvenient.

What If I Don’t Want To Take Pills?

For those that don’t want to, or can’t afford to pop dozens of pills, there are plenty of foods you can eat where many of these compounds can be found (although in significantly less concentrated amounts). Here are a few examples:

  • Choline – improves learning and memory. Eggs, liver, seafood and shellfish are rich sources.
  • Flavanols – antioxidant compounds for stronger cognitive functions. Found in dark chocolate – I know you guys will love this one.
  • L-Theanine – promotes relaxation and brain function and present in green tea.
  • Flavonoids – blueberries are high in flavonoids and been proven to reduce rates of cognitive decline.
  • Omega oils – omega-3 and omega-6 promote healthy brain ageing and are prevalent in fatty fish.
  • Lutein and zeaxanthin – 2 carotenoids that lead to faster mental processing speeds, are found in dark leafy greens such as spinach and kale.

The World of Biohacking Leads Me to Some Very Thought-Provoking Questions:

  • If biohacking becomes mainstream, what will the world look like?
  • Would those incapable or averse to purchasing and using biohacking methods fall behind the rest, further skewing global inequality?
  • Would it lead to a world that considers functionality over everything else, forcing a dependency on cognitive enhancement?
  • If biohacking was prohibited in one nation, would that nation be relegated to a lesser position on the world stage?

Biohacking is a complex practice and at this point, it is impossible to know what the future holds. Only time and more testing will tell whether those pioneering biohackers will find themselves at the forefront of a new hyper-intelligent humanity or consigned to a footnote in history.