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Honoré de Balzac was a great believer in the power of coffee over the brain.
The French writer had an exhausting schedule: every night he went through the streets of Paris to have a coffee in a place that was open after midnight, and then he wrote until morning. It is said that he consumed 50 cups of his favorite drink in a single day.
Over time, he came to eat whole spoons of ground coffee , something that, according to him, worked best on an empty stomach. “The ideas are set in motion quickly, like battalions of a great army in their legendary battlefield, and the battle is intensified,” he said.
It may work. Balzac was prolific and produced about 100 novels, long stories and plays. He died of heart failure at 51 years old.
For centuries, workers of all sectors have had their long working days with caffeine.
Now things are changing. New generations are experiencing a new range of substances that are believed to increase mental abilities.
In fact, some of them, called “smart drugs”, are already very popular. A recent survey, involving tens of thousands of people, found that 30% of Americans surveyed had taken them in the last year.
So it could be that soon we are all taking them.
Will that lead to dazzling inventions of the space age? Or maybe an explosion in economic growth? Could the work week become shorter, as people become more efficient?
To answer these questions, we must first become familiar with these substances.
The “smart drug” par excellence is the piracetam, which was discovered by the Romanian scientist Corneliu Giurgea in the early sixties.
At that time, I was looking for a chemical that could sneak into the brain and make people feel drowsy. After months of testing, he created “Compound 6215”. It was safe, had very few side effects and did not work.
This medication worked contrary to what was planned.
However, one of its side effects intrigued him.
When the patients took it for at least a month, it produced substantial improvements in their memories . Giurgea immediately recognized the importance of his findings, and coined the term “nootropic”, which combines the Greek words for “mind” and “flexion.”
Today, piracetam is one of the favorite drugs among students and young professionals looking for a way to improve their performance, although decades after the discovery of Giurgea, there is still not much evidence that it can improve the mental abilities of healthy people.
It is a prescription drug in the United Kingdom, although it is not approved for medical use by the US Food and Drug Administration. And neither can it be sold as a dietary supplement.
Entrepreneur Mansal Denton, who also makes podcasts in Texas, consumes Fenilpiracetam, a close relative of the piracetam developed by the Soviet Union to help cosmonauts withstand the stresses of life in space .
“I find it much easier to articulate certain things when I take it, so I do a lot of [podcast] recordings in those days,” says Denton.
Although many of the regular users of smart drugs are passionate adepts, their brain benefits are often not proven or minimal.
What does the brain gain?
Try taking creatine monohydrate. This dietary supplement consists of a white powder, which is usually mixed with sweetened drinks or shakes, or taken as a pill. The chemical is in the brain, and now there is some evidence that showing that taking an additional dose can improve your working memory -as it is known as short-term memory- and intelligence.
But although it is something more or less new among young and ambitious professionals, creatine has a long history with bodybuilders, who have been taking it for decades to increase their musculature.
In the United States, sports supplements are a multi-billion dollar industry, and most contain creatine. According to a survey conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs last year, 22% of adults said they had taken a sports supplement in the last year .
Of course, there are substances out there with more transforming powers. “I think it’s very clear that some work,” says Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University.
In fact, there is a category of smart drugs that has received more attention from scientists and biohackers – those who seek to alter their own biology and skills – than any other. It’s about the stimulants.
Two increasingly popular options are amphetamines and methylphenidate, prescription drugs sold under the Adderall and Ritalin brands.
In the United States, both are approved as treatments for people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a condition that makes it difficult to remain still or concentrate. Now, people in competitive environments abuse them in a broad way, looking to stay focused on specific tasks.
Amphetamines for work
Amphetamines have a long history as smart drugs.
They were used by Paul Erdös, a workaholic mathematician who relied on them to support the arduous days of 19 hours of mathematical exercises, and by the writer Graham Greene, who used them to write two books at the same time.
In recent years, there are many anecdotes in magazines about its widespread use in certain industries, such as journalism, arts and finance.
Those who took them swear that they work, but not in the way you would think. In 2015, a review of the evidence found that its impact on intelligence was “modest”. To most people do not l a s leads to improve their mental abilities, but your mental energy and motivation to work .
These substances also present serious risks and side effects, which we will discuss later.
One consequence of taking stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin is the ability to deal with demanding tasks for the mind, especially those with a clear reward at the end. One study found that people considered a math task “interesting” when they were close to finishing it.
If all workers began to be doped with prescription stimulants, it is likely that this would have two main effects.
In the first place, people would stop avoiding unpleasant tasks, and tired office workers, who had perfected the art of not working during the day, would begin to get into the office files, keep the spreadsheets up-to-date and assist in Enthusiastic way to boring meetings.
Second, offices would become much more competitive.
A fashion of Silicon Valley
“It seems that the percentage of workers in Silicon Valley and Wall Street who use nootropics is increasing – they are similar to professional athletes where competition is high,” says Geoffrey Woo, executive director and co-founder of nutrition company HVMN, which produces a line of nootropic supplements.
Denton agrees. “I think that nootropics only make things more and more competitive, the ease of access to Chinese and Russian intellectual capital in the United States, for example, is increasing, and there is a demand for any advantage that is available.”
But there would also be great disadvantages. Amphetamines are similar in structure to crystalline methamphetamine, a powerful and highly addictive recreational drug that has ruined countless lives and can be fatal.
Adderall and Ritalin are known to be addictive, and there are already numerous reports of workers struggling to quit. There are also side effects, such as nervousness, anxiety, insomnia, stomach pains and even hair loss, among others.
In the end, a workforce with many stimulants would not be more productive in general terms. “You think ‘are these things dangerous?’, And that’s important to take into account in the short term,” says Huberman.
“But there is also a different question, which is: ‘How do you feel the day after?’ You may be very focused for 4 hours or 12 hours, but then you are below the baseline for 24 or 48. “
Back to the cafe
Given these drawbacks, it seems fair to speculate that it is unlikely that prescription stimulants will change the world in the short term. But there is a milder version of them that you can buy without a prescription in almost any coffee shop, kiosk or supermarket: caffeine.
In the United States, people consume more coffee than soft drinks, tea and juices combined . Unfortunately, no one has estimated its impact on economic growth, but some studies have found many other benefits.
Somewhat embarrassingly, it has been shown that caffeine is better than the caffeine-based commercial supplement that produced HVMN, Woo’s company, which markets 60 pills for US $ 17.95.
Another popular option is nicotine. Scientists are increasingly realizing that this drug is a potent nootropic , with the ability to improve a person’s memory and help them focus on certain tasks, although it also comes with obvious risks and well-documented side effects.
“There are some very famous neuroscientists who chew Nicorette to improve their cognitive functioning, but they used to smoke and that is their substitute,” says Huberman.
So, what would happen if we all took smart drugs? It turns out that most of us are already drinking them every day, while we drink our morning coffee.