How Limitless is Your Brain? Nootropics, Technology, and Exercise

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Even though trans-humanism, roughly described as our attempt to go beyond our biological capabilities, is an idea that’s been around for at least two centuries, our obsession with improving or “unlocking” the full potential of our brains really gained traction in the late 90s. Two noteworthy factors have triggered this frenzied interest in the brain: a surge of U.S. government funding for neuroscience during the administration of George H.W. Bush [1], on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the neo-liberal narrative of achieving a whole (and, why not, better) human individual [2].

This idea has seeped so deeply into the Western cultural imagination that we now have blockbuster movies on the topic that amass millions of dollars in tickets worldwide. Although they approach the problem from slightly different angles, Limitless (2011) and Upgrade (2018) are two such examples you may be familiar with. Desktop and mobile applications, alongside hordes of miscellaneous consumer products related to “improving brain function” are a testament to the kernel position that brain enhancement plays in today’s society.

However, how many of these methods are actually effective? Are they selling you empty promises or concrete results? In this article, I will briefly go over the cognitive benefits that nootropics, technology, and exercise hold for the human body.

The Tech – What We Fear and Desire the Most

The past decade has seen tremendous steps forward in terms of our ability to interface with technology. Everyone is already using smartphones and computers to store and process information at a much higher rate than any human being would be biologically capable of at a given time. Carefully-engineered robots are handling some of the most grueling tasks on assembly lines, but the most promising aspect of technology is yet to come.

Brain stimulation techniques (such as tES and TMS) were shown to be successful in diminishing risk-taking behavior, helping people deal with dyslexia, slightly improving our attention span, and perhaps even boost our memory [3]. However, the promise of readily-available, effective brain stimulation devices is still years in the making.

question, questions, man

However, there are many experts who stand against such technologies such as Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Food-based medicine expert Paul Jenkins MSc who is the founder of DNA Lean sports nutrition spoke up about what he believes the dangers of integrating AI into the human brain are. Paul said that “AI is unpredictable and machine learning is arguably infinitely quicker than the rate at which we humans can learn and evolve. Before we know it AI could quickly become independent and misaligned to the purpose of what we humans created it for”.

Jenkins then added, “Besides the risk of AI independence, whoever controls the AI, controls all the people whose minds are connected to it, you’d have a human army at your disposal”. However, Jenkins also pointed out that he understood the principle of applying machine tech to better human performance, and continued by saying that he believed substances such as natural nootropics are more reliable for brain optimization and warned against the integration of AI.

That said, directly interfacing with intelligent technology seems to be a real step forward in human evolution. Elon Musk’s Neuralink [4] is one such example that we may see marketing as a product within our lifetime. In fact, in a recent interview with the Financial Times, Elon said that “the ultimate goal of his company Neuralink, is to allow humans to achieve “a sort of symbiosis with artificial intelligence”.

Mr. Musk then further said that humans risk being overtaken by AI-equipped machines, but if the brain can be enhanced with computer connectivity, “we can go along for the ride”.

The problematic aspect of technology is that the more we rely on it, the more difficult it becomes to distinguish where we end and it begins. Who would be responsible in a court of law (and to what extent) for a crime committed by an individual symbiotically using a chip? It is in no way inconceivable that algorithms might just take over our entire being – incidentally, the premise of the movie Upgrade.

The Pills – Smart Drugs And Nootropic Supplements

The myth of “we only use 5-6-10-X%” of our brain continues to power a global industry of nootropics and nutraceuticals, when, in fact, you’re already using 100% of your brain throughout the day [5]. Of course, we’re still far from understanding how our brains actually work. Roughly 10% of the matter in there seems to be made up of neurons, while the remainder is glial cells whose functions continue to be largely unmapped. Odds are, whoever will be able to fully explain consciousness will win the Nobel Prize in Medicine, alongside the one in Chemistry and the one for Physics too.

What truly skyrocketed our conviction that a pill can put our brain in overdrive are certain OTC drugs that also have cognitive effects. We know that some esports competitors use Ritalin and Adderall to speed up their brain activity during competitions [6]. While we don’t have blood tests to confirm it, this seems to be more than just hearsay, given the confluence of testimonies currently available, as well as the severe lack of medical regulation in many esports competitions. Some progress is being made by ESL, but the industry remains largely unchecked.

Another substance, modafinil, has a cult-following of its own, with some saying that it was actually the drug that sparked the idea behind Limitless [7]. There is evidence that the latter boosts alertness, decision-making, focus, and energy, but its side-effects are yet to be fully discovered. Notwithstanding, by 2012, the number of U.S. prescriptions for modafinil had grown by 1.3 million from 2011, a 300% year-to-year increase. Although marketed as relatively safe, we know that modafinil will have a deep impact on your long-term cognitive health [8], such as modifying your brain’s chemistry (and not for the better).

cranium, head, human

Although not as powerful as OTC pharmaceuticals in terms of impact, some nootropic supplements seem to be crucial to our brain health and functioning [9]. As one trial suggests, the evidence in terms of the impact that omega-3s and flavonoids have on the cognition of healthy adults is marginal, at best. If you lack those substances that are essential to brain functioning, such as certain B vitamins, it’s likely that you’ll see some improvement by taking them. Otherwise, not so much.

Coffee, green tea, lion’s mane mushroom, and other plant-based products will definitely boost your alertness and slightly enhance your memory. Despite relatively harmless side effects (unless you take too much), there’s a good chance you’ll become hooked to coffee and any merchandise that contains it. So long as you double-check the contents of nootropics with your medical practitioner, there’s a chance your cognitive processes might benefit from supplementing with them, but you won’t become limitless overnight.

Where Nobody Looks – Outside of the Brain

There is one sure-fire way to improve your brain without any harmful side-effects and that’s physical exercise. We’re so busy trying to look inside our heads that we forget what they’re connected to. There are a host of direct and indirect benefits that exercise confers upon the human cognition. It has been shown that regular physical activity will improve your memory, critical thinking, and executive functions [10].

If you give your body the movement it needs to stay healthy, you’re essentially increasing your individual capacity – physically, mentally, and emotionally. Just 25 minutes of meditation every day will also boost your brainpower, focus, and goal-directed behavior.

Conclusion

The problem with these two methods is that they’re not easy, nor immediate. They also don’t involve miracle pills or futuristic technology. They take old fashioned time and effort, which is why they’re so unpopular. Expectedly, they’re not as enthralling to the wide cultural imagination as other methods, despite the fact that they have the most consistent and outstanding impact on our brain functioning and development.

If you want your brain to become limitless, our advice is to revert your priorities as they are pushed by popular culture. Focus on the least mediatized and most beneficial methods (exercising and meditation), supplement a little (natural nootropics are highly beneficial), but don’t really hold your breath for a miracle pill or symbiotic technology. Before you know it, you’ll be able to focus, memorize, and make decisions with greater success than you’re normally able to.

References

1. https://neuro.hms.harvard.edu/harvard-mahoney-neuroscience-institute

2. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/0045/3bd975078c1a18cd2280c73d43ed7f1ed5f8.pdf

3. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2019.00013/full

4. https://www.theverge.com/2019/7/16/20697123/elon-musk-neuralink-brain-reading-thread-robot

5. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-people-only-use-10-percent-of-their-brains/

6. https://esportsinsider.com/2018/08/esi-gambling-report-sex-drugs-and-esports/

7. https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/7/8/18772467/nootropics-silicon-valley-brain-fitness-goop-smart-drugs

8. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnsys.2014.00038/full

9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4696451/

10. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/regular-exercise-changes-brain-improve-memory-thinking-skills-201404097110