Experimenting with Cognitive Enhancers

Obligatory disclaimer – I am not a doctor and nothing in this article should be taken as medical advice. This article exists to document what I’m doing and is not meant to advocate consuming any drug or supplement without the consultation of a medical professional.

Ten years ago, the scientific journal Nature ran an online survey taken by 1,400 people in 60 countries around their use of three cognitive enhancers, or so-called “smart drugs”:

  1. Adderall / Ritalin (often prescribed to patients with ADD or ADHD to aid with focus)
  2. Provigil (also known as modafinil and often prescribed to fight fatigue or jet lag)
  3. beta blockers (a general category of drugs that reduce anxiety by blocking the effects of epinephrine, ie adrenaline)

The study found that about 20% of respondents reported having consumed at least one of the three with the goal of improving concentration and mental performance. I have to imagine if we ran that same survey today, the number would be higher.

I know a few people who have dabbled in nootroopics, as they’re sometimes called, but I’ve largely steered clear of these drugs. This is in part because of a concern around long-term health risks (people really can get addicted to Adderall) and in part because I felt like there was way too much hype and not enough substance. My daily cup of coffee not withstanding, I generally avoid anything that provides immediate short term benefits and hazy long-term results because I think it could go wrong.

Still, we live in a knowledge economy and knowledge work primarily relies on your cognitive abilities: to find and process information, solve problems, and communicate with other people. As a species, we have always found ways to improve our productivity through technology, and there’s no reason to believe that our brains will be left untouched.

Obviously many thing go into our brain’s performance – the amount of sleep we get, the amount of oxygen in the air, our blood sugar level, whether or not we worked out recently, how much stress we are under, prior experience or training with the activity / task at hand. And while I could probably be better about sleep, overall, I do well on the fundamentals of brain health.

So, what if I could enhance my cognition with something safe, legal, and effective?

Enter HVMN — a startup that produces cognitive enhancers. They are not focused on the three drugs I mentioned above, which require a prescription to consume legally, but rather with over-the-counter substances that have been demonstrated to produce cognitive enhancement in published scientific journals. I’m familiar with them because one of their founders is Geoffery Woo, a Stanford grad who was in the same Y Combinator batch as me in 2011 (with a different company) but I didn’t speak to them prior to writing this piece. However, I have appreciated, watching from afar, what appears to be a thoughtful and rigorous approach to building their products and company.

I’ve previously tried one of HVMN’s stacks called Sprint, which is a pill that combines Caffeine and L-Theanine, an amino acid found in tea which has shown to have positive effects in conjunction in scientific experiments on cognition, and while I definitely felt an effect, it wasn’t exactly what I needed in terms of focus and concentration.

They have another product called Rise which is meant to be taken daily to slowly improve cognitive performance over time. It’s main ingredients are Bacopa Monnieri, an herb that’s been used in traditional Indian medicine that’s shown to improve memory, Alpha-CPG, a form of choline that has shown to reduce the cognitive decline of Alzheimer’s patients, and Rhodiola Rosea, a flower that’s been used in Chinese medicine and seems to reduce the impact of stress and fatigue on cognition.

The fact that Rise is based primarily on long-standing herbal medicine suggests to me even if it doesn’t work, it probably won’t hurt me either. Human beings tend to phase out medical treatments that turn out to be harmful like bloodletting and lobotomies. Additionally, herbal medicine tend to contain compounds at a lower concentration compared to anything that we might synthesize in a lab lab.

HVMN recently introduced another stack called Kado-3, which is essentially a highly optimized fish oil pill along with Vitamin D and K. They claim that their 2:1 ratio of DHA:EPA, two different sub-types of Omega-3 fatty acids, are ideal for cognitive health. It seems like exotic compared to Rise but also not a bad extension to the product line since people are generally sold on fish oil pills.

So Rise and Kado both seem to check my criteria of “unlikely to be harmful, some possibility of benefit” and since HVMN suggests taking Rise with fat, which Kado-3 has, seem like a good pair.

But still, I had been hesitant to take the plunge because I was concerned about the placebo effect, which is incredibly powerful. How would I know if I was actually doing better? Without a concrete way to measure cognition, it felt like I would only be able to shrug if asked to confirm its effectiveness.

But then, I stumbled across the Cambridge Brain Sciences website, which has adapted a number of cognitive tests into an online format which have been used to measure concentration and memory (like the Stroop test, or a digit memorization exercise). They offer a free daily “brain report” that’s based on your performance on four cognition tests. They synthesize the results to produce a so-called “c-score” which represents your general cognitive level, and has three sub-components of memory, problem-solving, and verbal ability.

This got me excited. If I could use this test as a way to benchmark my results, I could avoid the placebo effect. So on Sunday, August 20th, I started taking 2 pills (the recommended dose) of Rise and Kado-3.

But there’s one more problem. Cambridge Brain Sciences encourages you to log in daily or as often as you can to take their brain quizzes. I started off with a core set of 4 tests that were the same every time, and they’ve since started switching it up, but in general, I feel like I’m getting better simply by becoming more familiar with the tests.

You can see my “c-score” improve and then struggle as I encounter new tests, and then improve again. It’s too early to say if this is the stack working so I’m going to withhold judgement until at least the 30 day mark.

To counter the “learning the quiz” problem, I found another site called QuantifiedMind, where I could do a battery of cognitive tests that took about 20 mins, but I won’t take them again until 30 days in, and once more at 60 days.

I’m posting my results on those tests at the bottom of this post so I can have a public record of my first test, which I took on around 3pm on Sunday, August 20th (the same day I started with Rise and Kado-3). I don’t exactly know what the scores mean, but all that matters is that my score goes up by something meaningful (hopefully a standard deviation?) the next time I play through it.

So that all is to say, this is the the start of an experiment, and I don’t yet know where it will go. But I’m excited to see what happens, track my progress as best I can, and share with you what I learn.

Simple Reaction Time
Score: 633.907 ± 27.722
Backward Spatial Span
Score: 501.135 ± 61.453
Visual Matching
Score: 426.182 ± 16.935
Design Copy
Score: 496.769 ± 28.455
Self-Paced 1-Back
Score: 426.338 ± 16.912
Inspection Time
Estimated inspection time: 83.932 ± 7.734
Go / No-Go
Score: 424.815 ± 19.191
Color-Word (Context Switching)
Score: 446.616 ± 15.480
Simple Reaction Time
Score: 475.829 ± 19.171
Score: 456.700 ± 14.961
Finger Tapping
Score: 516.558 ± 10.255


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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and advocate for Asian American men. He's written extensively and spoken all over the world about how individuals and organizations develop their competitive advantage. Follow him at @jasonshen.

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