The Rise of the “Limitless” Pill
In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes penned the essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” In it, he famously predicted that within a century’s time, Americans would be able to make a comfortable living by working a mere fifteen hours a week.
Were he alive today, Keynes would surely be horrified to discover that not only does the average American work much more than fifteen hours a week, but that the length of the typical workday has only increased in the decades since. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the tech industry, which has now become a target market for meal replacements as many web developers find themselves too busy to eat real meals.
In an economy where more and more jobs are being replaced by technological advancements that render human workers obsolete, there is enormous pressure to outperform one’s competitors and to be the most productive employee it’s possible to be. University students feel similar pressure, facing a job market that no longer promises a livable wage even with an advanced degree.
In the interest of keeping up, many employees and students alike have found themselves turning to nootropics (or “brain boosters”): pills said to optimize cognitive function, making whoever takes them sharper, more alert, and better able to concentrate.
The use of these supposedly performance-enhancing pills is controversial. They frequently aren’t FDA-regulated, and those that are are often used for other than their intended purpose. Ritalin, for instance, which is commonly prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy, gained notoriety thanks to an epidemic level of abuse. College students, recognizing the brain-boosting properties of the drug, began buying it directly from their peers without a prescription, leading to a black-market economy involving the illegal sale of prescription stimulants and an increase in addiction.
Obviously, the abuse of nootropics is cause for real concern, particularly when the substances in question haven’t been clinically evaluated for possible side effects. But what if there was a pill you could obtain legally and without a prescription that would allow you to increase your powers of concentration with no potential risks.
Does such a pill even exist? If so, what would it look like? And what sort of untapped potential could it unlock? Could it really optimize brain power and increase productivity enough that that fifteen-hour work week could become a reality?
CBS’s “Limitless”: More Than a Fiction?
In the CBS series “Limitless,” a struggling musician named Brian Finch discovers a nootropic called NZT-48: a pill that allows him to access 100% of his brain, transforming him into the smartest person in the world for twelve hours after it’s taken. In addition to giving him total perfect recall, NZT-48 gives Finch heightened powers of intuition and optimizes his reasoning abilities. Soon after, he is hired by the FBI.
“Limitless” paints an enticing picture of what nootropics can do to a human brain. Simply by swallowing a pill, Brian Finch is able to become a super-genius and his life is changed forever. He can remember every moment of his life in vivid, accurate detail. Complicated problems become effortless to solve. His intellect is totally free of human limitations.
Sounds too good to be true, right?
That’s because it is.
Although medical science has made some incredible advances in the 21st century, there is still no drug that can transform a person with an average IQ into the next Albert Einstein.
However, certain nootropics which can be purchased legally without a doctor’s prescription have been show to enhance cognitive abilities in moderation and for short periods of time.
If you’re wondering what some of them are, keep reading.
The Next Best Thing to the “Limitless” Pill
The brain-boosting powers of stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall are well-documented, but they can’t be obtained without a doctor’s prescription, and they frankly aren’t safe to take without medical supervision. Ritalin is highly addictive if abused, and Adderall can cause paranoia, anxiety, and depression with long-term use.
Even caffeine, one of the most popular legally obtainable stimulants out there, can have some undesirable side effects. Anyone who’s ever had one too many espresso shots in a sitting can tell you all about jitters, anxiety, and even heart palpitations.
So what are some safe alternatives?
Well, one nootropic that’s rapidly growing in popularity is modafinil.
Modafinil has been studied primarily for its therapeutic value to patients with psychosis, but it’s drawn the attention of mentally healthy people looking for an addition brain boost at work or school.
According to researched Barbara Sahakian, modafinil works by affecting three neurotransmitter systems in the brain. (Neurotransmitters are chemicals that transmit signals between brain cells.)
First, it affects the dopamine system, which makes you more alert and also heightens your interest in things. Second, it affects norepinephrine, which increases alertness as well as concentration. Thirdly, it affects histamine, which can help you stay awake longer. But additionally, modafinil provides a boost to the user’s working memory. Some research indicates that it can increase short-term memory by as much as 10%.
With this in mind, it’s easy to see why modafinil has become so popular among university students. When there are exams at stake, heightened ability to retain information after a session of cramming can be a huge advantage.
Likewise, modafinil offers significant potential benefits to employees. People working in intellectually rigorous fields with long hours, such as web development, would benefit tremendously from heightened concentration, improved memory, and more wakeful hours. For those working in physically taxing industries or jobs with irregular shifts (such as truck driving or completing a medical residency), modafinil could even help make them safer on the job, lowering the risks that come with sleep deprivation.
But is it really safe to take?
The Potential Risks of Modafinil
Since 1998, modafinil has been prescribed in the United States to treat narcolepsy, a sleep disorder that makes sufferers fall asleep at irregular intervals, and sleep apnea, which can cause sleep hygiene problems.
In the context of treating those conditions, research has shown that modafinil can boost cognitive function without causing serious side effects.
However, that doesn’t mean users are completely off the hook just yet. Research like this is context-specific, no clinical trials have been done on modafinil’s long-term effectiveness or safety as a brain-boosting drug. In other words, nobody can say for sure whether it’s safe for healthy people to use habitually over a long period of time.
It’s also inconclusive whether it can lose its effectiveness over time. Like many drugs whose efficacy starts to decline with long-term use, it’s possible that modafinil will lose its effectiveness as a brain booster if it’s taken more than once in a while.
Still, to many people looking for a temporary cognitive performance enhancer, the benefits seem to outweigh the potential risks. A study of almost 2000 students at UK universities in 2014 showed that as many as one in five students may have taken modafinil to improve their academic performance.
Presumably, not all of these students are suffering from narcolepsy or sleep apnea, so where are they getting modafinil without a doctor’s prescription?
That raises another question that should be considered before running out to buy some modafinil for yourself.
Obtaining Modafinil: Can It Be Done Safely and Legally?
Brain-boosting drugs aren’t just quietly traded in the hallways of high schools and colleges. Many of them are also available online. Though United States law prevents prescription drugs from being sold on the Internet, many Canadian pharmacies and Indian drug companies make pharmaceuticals readily available for competitively low prices.
But the fact that a drug is available on the Internet doesn’t automatically mean it’s safe to take. It doesn’t even mean that you’ll be getting the drug you think you’re paying for.
According to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), there are numerous risks associated with buying unregulated drugs online.
Many online pharmacies sell unapproved drugs, drugs containing the wrong active ingredient, drugs containing too much or too little of the active ingredient, or drugs containing dangerous ingredients.
One particularly scary example of how online pharmacies can be unreliable occurred when a number of consumers ordered drugs they thought were Ambien, Xanax, Lexapro, and Ativan. Instead of receiving the drugs they thought they were buying, they were sent foreign versions of Haldol, an anti-psychotic medication. These consumers required emergency medical intervention to treat side effects of Haldol, including muscle spasms and difficulty breathing.
It’s important to realize that if you take any drug that isn’t regulated by the FDA, or any prescription that hasn’t come from a legitimate, licensed pharmacy, you are potentially taking a serious gamble with your health, and possibly even your life.
So where does that people who want the brain-boosting advantages of modafinil or other nootropic drugs? Rather than purchasing prescription drugs illegally or taking your chances with an online pharmacy, are there any safe and legitimate means of obtaining a “Limitless” pill — or something like it?
Good news! There is.
Nootropic Alternative to Prescription Drugs
As manufacturers have come to recognize the market appeal of nootropics, many natural alternatives to pharmaceutical brain boosters like modafinil have become widely available online. Unlike prescription drugs from online pharmacies, these nootropic supplements are derived from natural vitamins and minerals that don’t carry the same side-effects of prescription medications.
Most of these supplements can be easily purchased online from reputable retailers like Amazon.com. Purchasing from Amazon is exceptionally smart because it allows you to view user ratings of any given product, as well as read detailed feedback from real people who have actually tried the product. This way, you can make a more fully informed decision before you make your purchase.
To find highly rated and reviewed nootropics on Amazon, we recommend using the search term “nootropic” and then sorting the result from highest to lowest ratings.
Many nootropic supplements are unregulated by the FDA, which may leave you wondering how they’re supposedly safer than drugs purchased online from foreign pharmacies. The answer is that the highest quality nootropic supplements are manufactured in facilities subject to quality control regulations that demand some level of consistency and reliability.
In that sense, these supplements are already considerably safer to take than many of the drugs being sold online as brain boosters.
But what if you decide that taking brain boosters isn’t right for you, or you’ve had a low success rate with the ones you’ve tried? What other alternatives exist?
Keep reading to discover some other ways of enhancing your cognitive function that don’t involve taking pills of any kind.
Alternatives to Nootropics
If you’re looking to improve your memory, enhance your concentration, and maximize your productivity, one of the surest strategies is through aerobic exercise.
It may seem like a cliche, but recent research has demonstrated that in addition to helping you stay fit and toned, aerobic exercise can help the brain grow new neurons.
At one time it was believed that neuronal growth stopped in adulthood, and that the brain you had couldn’t be improved through any means. But more research indicates that this is false, and that in fact staying active is one of the best ways to promote brain health as you age.
Exercise helps to oxygenate the blood and improve circulation, which means more oxygenated blood will reach your brain as well as the rest of your body. Even just an hour-long jog a few times a week can make a world of difference when it comes to relieving brain fog and improving concentration. There’s also evidence to suggest that those who exercise regularly sleep better, and consistent sleep hygiene is also linked to better cognitive performance.
For those looking for more intellectually stimulating means of staying sharp, there are also brain-training activities and apps designed to help increase mental acuity. Research has shown that brain-training can be helpful for patients with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, those recovering from a stroke or a traumatic brain injury, or those who simply want to increase their intelligence.
The bottom line is there is no such thing as a “Limitless” pill, at least not as it exists on television. While certain pharmaceuticals can increase cognitive performance, they should only be taken with medical supervision and acquired through legal, regulated means. The potential hazard to your health isn’t worth a few more hours of productivity at work or school.
Those who wish to safely explore nootropics should stick to natural brain-boosting supplements, and even then it’s best to begin taking any new nutritional regimen only after consulting your doctor. For the rest of you, there’s tried-and-tested diet and exercise, and intellectually stimulating games and activities to help you stay sharp.
None of us are “Limitless,” but through good health and diligence we can overcome our limitations.