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Products that Make Me Smart and Strong

I've noticed that some of my social media acquaintances have started to give public endorsements for a new generation of so-called "smart drugs." That's what we called them in the late 80s and early 90s. I don't know if anyone describes products like Qualia or Alfa BRAIN as "smart drugs," but I have seen them described as "nootropics," another word from the previous craze for cognitive enhancement supplements.

I wondered, publicly on Facebook, whether this is pure advertising or if there has been some pharmaceutical revolution. Based on the responses I got, these substances seem to have some noticeable effect, but this sort of feedback is hard to separate from the expected placebo effect that a certain percentage of people taking something billed as a cognitive enhancer will report.

One person asked, "Do you really think you need to "boost" your cognitive ability? Why? Do you not think it's good enough as is? I truly do not understand this."

I did not reply to his question. I took it as rhetorical.

But I'll give it a shot now. I didn't go looking for these kinds of products. I don't feel a burning need to boost my cognitive abilities. It was the advertising and the fact that people I know were putting their public seal of approval on these products that prompted me to ask the question.

Still, I did ask. So I probably do have an interest. What's that about? I'd like to maintain my focus for longer periods and avoid getting distracted, but I think adjusting my electronic environment is more of a high leverage point than adjusting my bodily composition. Also, a little additional self-discipline in the mornings aimed at avoiding unproductive activities at the time of day when I find it easiest to concentrate and access creative states would likely move me in the direction of fulfilling my creative ambitions.

At present, I take a teaspoon of creatine monohydrate once a day. The stuff is dirt cheap. I also use some whey protein powder that I buy in bulk. It's not as cheap as the creatine, but compared to the new crop of brain boosters, it's still quite cheap. If I were going to expand my dietary supplement regimen, I might add a pre-workout fuel or an amino acid supplement, but brain boosters will not be in my budget anytime soon. Not until they develop something that has undeniable effects.

I know none of this really gets at the reader's question. "Why do you want to enhance your thought process? Is it defective?"

My memory is not what it used to be. I know I'm not as quick on the uptake as I used to be. Just like I'd like to be able to do a bunch of pull-ups or run an easy mile, I'd like to be able to take in information like I did back when I was in grad school. I studied a lot then, for long periods. That's the equivalent of being a mental gym rat. If I want to have the mind I used to have, I'd need to push it the way I used to, and just as with physical exercise, I will remember doing more in my youth than I will be abe to achieve in the present. If some product that promised to give me my 25-year-old physical capabilities back actually delivered, I would make deep financial sacrifices to secure a supply. The same is true with mental performance.

But why? Isn't that agist? Shouldn't I savor my current capabilities and not pine for what I've lost?

I don't see any reason to make a virtue out of falling apart. Good health is its own reward, and the slow degradation of time represents a creeping loss of something that is worth having. Wanting to retain and even restore mental and physical capabilities requires no elaborate justification. It's good to have a pliable young body that responds to exercise, and it's good to have the mental energy to focus on a task for many hours at a stretch. I don't hold out any hope that medical science will make me immortal, but when it does offer up something that genuinely restores lost function at a price I can afford, I'll take it.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Cloudwalking Owl
Mar. 16th, 2017 04:16 pm (UTC)
Don't Forget the Opportunity Cost!
One of the human behaviours that I've noticed over the years is a tendency by the overwhelming majority of people to forget to check what economists call "the opportunity cost" of any decision. That is, for most things we do, there is something else that we give up in order to pursue that particular action.

So I think it's important to think about what opportunity cost there might be in taking the "smart drugs" you mention. Let's just leave off the table any of the obvious potential issues---I assume that you have done some research into whether or not these might cause you to have a stroke, a heart attack, cancer, etc. What about the subtle issues?

Being a sci-fi fan, you may have read the Octavia E. Butler's Parable series. The main protagonist was the issue of parents who took these sorts of enhancement drugs and as a result she suffered from an affliction that involved intense, enhanced empathy. I don't know why Butler chose this plot device, but it "works". The big problem for middle-class people in an intensely competitive meritocracy (which is the USA that Butler describes) is that they are so focused on "winning" the fight to keep their precarious place above poverty that they lose the ability to have empathy for the people beneath them in the social order. That is a huge problem in current American society---middle class people have to a large extent lost the ability to feel empathy for anyone lower than them in the pecking order.

I'm not suggesting that you are going to spawn mutant children. But I would suggest that you should think long and hard about what any attempt to enhance your ability to focus and concentrate will have on your life. We are finite vessels and one of the things that I have learned from growing older and losing my cognitive abilities is that there is a lot more to life than the ability to focus, do productive work, and, learn new things. There is that elusive quality called "wisdom".

We learn wisdom more from understanding our limitations than we do by expanding our knowledge base. And I don't mean just "learning about" limitations, but also accepting and accommodating them. One of the big break-throughs I had had in my PTSD treatment, for example, was learning that I would never be completely "cured". If the analogy was with losing the ability to walk, I'd never be able to run a marathon, but I would be able to walk with a cane. That's good enough. When we get old we don't have the mental acuity that we once had, but we can gain the wisdom to realize what is and isn't important---to pare down to what is essential to our life project and throw over-board what isn't necessary to keep the ship afloat.

Looking at the work load that you've set out for yourself---podcast, YouTube channel, weekly cartoon (how long did that last?), weekly blog posts, work in a radio station, social media to advertise the whole enterprise, plus life in the country (I bet you and Olga found it a lot more time consuming than a condo in the city), and, a relationship. They all take time. It must be so nice to think that all you need to do to get all the wobbly plates spinning again is to take a pill in the morning. Maybe it is that easy. But might I suggest that it might make more sense to just give up on some of the plates?

I don't want to be too critical, but on the other hand, feedback of any type is something I crave and rarely get---maybe you are the same. Could it be that the quality of your podcasts has suffered a bit because you haven't had enough time to do the research you would have liked to do before hand? Are you maybe not finding the time to go further afield for guests? Or to be a bit more critical of whom you put on the show? And is just reading stuff from on-line really what podcasts are supposed to be about? You are REALLY GOOD at what you do, but I sorta get the feeling that you are stretched too thin and you aren't finding the time you need to do it the way you used to. Cutting back a bit on the sidelines seems a better bet than taking a pill.

Mar. 16th, 2017 04:34 pm (UTC)
Re: Don't Forget the Opportunity Cost!
Again, this isn't something I was thinking about until I noticed people I know on Facebook endorsing these products. I have done almost no research into them, though Google has noticed the tiny bit of research I have done and now populates the websites I visit with ads for these sorts of products.
Cloudwalking Owl
Mar. 16th, 2017 04:55 pm (UTC)
Re: Don't Forget the Opportunity Cost!
Well, in that case take what I wrote as a general statement.

I wonder if I am having a problem with processing social media. Marshal McLuhan said that "the medium is the message". Perhaps there is something about social media and LiveJournal in particular that I read as being "confessional" in nature. They fool idiots like me into thinking that what is happening is some sort of conversation that I have with my close friends over a beer.

In my public life I am a very formal person that generally opts for the "fuddy duddly" way of doing things---formal essays format instead of chatting conversation. The social media tends to bread down that hard division between the public and the personal, and I seem to have a hard time navigating this division.

I apologize for over-stepping my bounds.
Mar. 17th, 2017 01:25 am (UTC)
I've thought about this smart pill possibility ever since I accidentally wandered into the local book shop and sat in on a talk by author Martin Lee concerning his book Smoke Signals. He told that the Reagan-era ban on studying marijuana in any way was eventually softened in the Clinton administration by researchers who insisted that, if it was to be listed as Schedule 1 and therefore of no medical benefit, then at least research on that should happen.

The research, again according to Lee, was astounding. There were literally hundreds of cannabanoid proteins (?) that joined specifically to hundreds of naturally-occurring human brain receptors, each with a different effect on cognition/metabolism.

THC was hardly the only goodie in pot that had an effect. Another, CHC (IIRC), improves focus on tedious tasks for hours at a stretch. Lee himself used high-CHC cannabis for proofing the book (which I have yet to read).

It's something I can't try personally for professional reasons (grrrr....), but one I'd love to try. One of my personal shortcomings is my limited attention span, one of the reasons my podcast episodes continue to be short.

Then again, what is smart? The ability to concentrate? Or is it to recall? CHC might be no help there. It is to correlate, interpolate, ponder, philosophize, or just turn up the mental whammy to chat someone up toward veering to the bedroom? For me, there is genius in that as well.

As grandpa used to say, "I'm too soon old and too late smarts."
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