While recently scrolling through tweets about Netflix shows you can watch while looking at Instagram, I saw an ad for a supplement that promised to help with focus. Naturally, I clicked, and was led to a powder billed as a “nootropic.” Then I got distracted again by something else. But ever since, I’ve been bombarded with more ads for similar products — sachets of instant coffee, ancient herbs, and $200 supplements, all boasting “nootropic” benefits like enhanced concentration and productivity. Clearly, I could use help in those areas, but would these potions work? And what are they, anyway?
“A nootropic is a substance that claims to improve cognitive function,” says Dr. John Krystal, chair of the Yale University Department of Psychiatry. Colloquially referred to as “smart drugs,” they are intended to enhance executive functions like memory, motivation and creativity in otherwise healthy people. The word nootropic, despite sounding like a tanning oil brand, has been around for centuries and is derived from Ancient Greek: nóos meaning “mind” and tropḗ meaning “turning.”
“When people are in focused states, all of their cognitive functions tend to work a little bit better,” says Dr. Krystal. This is often called a “flow state” — that magical feeling of losing yourself in a task, oblivious to all distractions.
Given how burnt-out many of us feel these days, it’s not surprising to see an influx of products that promise nootropic effects. The problem is, most of them offer very limited — if any — benefits. “People are very interested in substances that might be able to reduce the impairment in attention and focus that comes from being tired,” says Dr. Krystal. “In that respect, caffeine could be considered nootropic. But as anyone who’s drunk multiple coffees to try and perk up will know, it doesn’t work for very long.”
Plus, as I know all too well, you can be well-rested and caffeinated and still struggle to concentrate. “The ability to focus comes from many things, but crucially, it’s to do with arousal and engagement,” Dr. Krystal continues. In other words, you need to be interested in something in order to keep paying attention to it. “When we’re trying to recall a telephone number or a PIN code, it takes sustained activity from our brains to keep that information online,” he explains. “When we become distracted, those neural pathways peter out. And then we lose track of what we were thinking.”
The biggest enemy of focus is multitasking — an unavoidable part of everyday life that our brains are actually quite bad at. “We’re much worse at processing multiple inputs than we think. When we’re shifting between different tasks, our brains are just playing catch up trying to fill in the blanks,” says Dr. Krystal. Shifting between stimuli so quickly — while essential sometimes — is murder on sustained concentration, and can lead to that frazzled, can’t-get-anything-done feeling that most of us know all too well.
Can medication help? Dr. Krystal says that there are “very few” examples of drugs that help our brains function better than they normally do in a rested state. Technically, amphetamines — a class of stimulants that are prescribed to treat people with ADD, ADHD, and sleep disorders — qualify as nootropics, but only if you have a condition that they are designed to help. (And even then, they don’t always work.) For most other people, they can help stave off tiredness, but they don’t enhance your cognitive ability — more likely, they make it worse.
Another drug that is sometimes touted for its (very questionable) nootropic benefits is Modafinil, which is widely considered to be the inspiration for the fictional, ability-enhancing pills that Bradley Cooper takes in Limitless. Also known as Provigil, it is prescribed to those with sleep disorders like narcolepsy to help them stay awake. Some people claim it also enhances cognitive function, but the jury is very much still out.
“No drug has been demonstrated to improve cognitive function above baseline at a level that would be approved by the FDA,” Dr. Krystal explains.
As for those supplements I kept seeing? They are not regulated by the FDA, so what’s really in them is anyone’s guess — and the FDA and FTC have sent numerous warning letters to supplement manufacturers that claim nootropic benefits. “These over-the-counter options are not held to the standard of effectiveness that a prescription drug would be,” confirms Dr. Krystal. The so-called herbal nootropics usually include ingredients like ginkgo biloba, Lion’s Mane mushroom and panax ginseng, all of which have roots in ancient medical practices but have not been proven effective in any clinical trials.
Ultimately, the dream of nootropics is a symptom of what Dr. Krystal called “the modern pandemic” of stress. “We all want to be more effective, more efficient, to process information more rapidly and to have better access to the information that we’ve learned to be most fully ourselves all the time,” he says. “But we also feel the need to work hours that are too long without a break, and then we also want to have a life outside of work, so we stay up too late.”
Long story short, if you don’t have a diagnosed disorder — or even if you do! — no drug is a substitute for a good night’s sleep and a healthy lifestyle. “A lot of what we think of as good for our bodies — such as exercise, healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and dealing with stress in a constructive way through counseling, meditation, therapy, and medication if necessary — is also taking care of our minds,” Dr. Krystal notes. “These things get us pretty close to optimal function.”
However, if you’re concerned with your lack of attention span or powers of recall, Dr. Krystal recommends speaking to your doctor. These issues can sometimes be linked with hormonal or mental health issues. “If you’re struggling at all, that’s a sign you need help, whatever it may be,” he says. “We like to categorize things as either mental or physical problems, but often, it’s a little of both.”