By RayNata (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

SPECIAL GUEST: Jesse Lawler (Smart Drug Smarts). It's a myth that we only use 10% of our brains... but beyond that myth lies the wonderful world of nootropics, smart drugs and cognitive enhancers. If you saw the movie Limitless, then you've seen the fictional version of these concepts. What connection does the celluloid version have to reality? Can you really hack your brain for peak performance? What are the downsides of using these types of technologies (chemical and otherwise) to affect your performance? On this episode we're joined by Jesse Lawler, the host of the podcast Smart Drug Smarts, to dig into the strange and wonderful world of human enhancement as it presently exists and to speculate a little about the future. Recorded 5/28/2015.


You can download the episode here, or an even higher quality copy here...


Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:

The Smart Drug Smarts site

Smart Drug Smarts on Twitter

Jesse Lawler on Twitter

Episode 72 - Luke's Arm, where Matt & Mike discussed human enhancement/improvement for the first time

Episode 150 - Enhanced!, with guest John Danaher

Smart Drug Smarts Episode 76 - The Ethics Of Moral Enhancement, with guest John Danaher



Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #176. On the show we take a look at how society is changing, everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, technology trends to social norms, all in about thirty minutes or less, every Tuesday and Thursday.

Mike Johnston: Greetings cyborgs, robots, and natural humans. I’m Mike Johnston.

Matt Bolton: And I’m Matt Bolton.

MJ: And joining us on this episode is Jesse Lawler of Smart Drug Smarts. Jesse, thanks for joining us. 

Jesse Lawler: Hey, thanks for having me here.

MJ: And I guess to start off, I’m going to kick it over to Matt to kind of ask a little bit about what you do and the general topic.

MB: So Jesse… What do you do? [laughs]

MJ: [laughs]

JL: [laughs] Well, I’m a fellow podcaster, I’ve got a podcast called Smart Drug Smarts, and I started it about two and a half years ago. I’ve sort of always been a self-improvement enthusiast, to one degree or another, and I have always been interested in science and neurology, came very close to being a genetic engineer myself but then kind of pulled the plug on that when I realized I really wanted to be kind of like the movie version of a mad scientist versus the real world version of spending every day in a white lab coat, playing with pipettes version. But I still really have always had a love around science and also the futurism of what science might do for us next. I started this podcast based around basically me calling up neuroscientists, for the most part, and asking them questions about hey, what could I be doing to optimize my brain, is this thing that I read about actually doing something good for me in the long term or might there be downsides I’m not seeing; and basically just asking people questions on what’s come to be a weekly basis, to try to see what I can do to make myself incrementally smarter.

MB: You’re talking about nootropic drugs, is basically the term that people use, is that correct?

JL: Yeah, yeah. I mean, smart drugs, cognitive enhancers, and nootropics are all sort of terms that you’ll hear more or less used interchangeably, although smart drugs and cognitive enhancers are far more general terms. When people talk about nootropics—and a lot of the time you’ll also hear this pronounced “neurotropics,” but it’s actually derived from the Greek word “nous,” which is where that word comes from. But there was a guy, I’m blanking on his name right now, but he was a European researcher in like the 1960s, working for one of the big chemical pharmaceutical companies over there, and he invented what’s kind of like the great grandpappy of all the nootropic drugs, something called piracetam. Anybody that’s familiar with smart drugs will probably have heard of the “racetam” family of chemicals. There’s now probably 10-15 different things that all have “racetam” as a suffix. But anyway, so this guy, when he first created piracetam way back 40-50 years ago, he coined this term, “nootropics,” to describe what he proposed is a class of drugs that met five criteria, and these criteria, I’m going to see if I can do all five of them off the top of my head. But it’s pretty restrictive; you’ll hear as we go through it that to basically qualify as a nootropic you pretty much need to be a wonder drug, because it needs to make your cognitive processes function better, so you need to essentially get smarter at least some degree from the drug, you cannot build up a tolerance to it, it cannot be addictive, it must be neuroprotective—so, in addition to making you smarter, it should help your brain cells or neurons in general survive any sort of cellular damage better than they otherwise might. Let’s see, I think I’ve gotten four of the five, and I’m blanking on the fifth one, so I probably haven’t taken enough nootropics today. [laughs] So anyway, where somebody says something like smart drugs, they might be talking about a general umbrella that could include something like ritalin, which definitely doesn’t have the non-addictive qualities for example, whereas nootropics is a much more restrictive class. I think one might argue, and I might even be one of those, that I’m not sure if there’s really any drug that’s met all five of his criteria yet.

MB: Are most of the nootropic drugs over the counter? Is there some prescription? I know ritalin is obviously a prescription drug; adderall—some of the variants of it.

JL: Yeah, it really varies. So, there are things that are definitely cognitive enhancers that you can buy in your regular grocery store or health food supplement store no big deal. Even something like a caffeine pill you could argue is a cognitive enhancer, and I certainly would make that argument. Then there are other things on the farther end of the spectrum that are going to be prescription chemicals, and those actually vary quite a bit, whether you’re in the US or Europe. There are some things that are over the counter supplements in the US and are prescription-only in Europe, and then a complete flip flop with different chemicals that they give out like candy over there and we get prescriptions for over here. So, jurisdiction matters a lot. And then because there’s so much research going on into the brain and how to give these pharmaceutical improvements to it now, there’s also new chemicals that are kind of within this realm that are getting created all the time and that just haven’t had a chance to go through things like the FDA approval process or, on the flip side of the coin, of the regulatory bodies recognizing the chemical and saying hey, this is something that needs to be restricted. If you know about the way the FDA works, and you’ll see this if you look at a lot of bottles in grocery stores, that says, “This product is not intended to cure or treat any sort of disease.” That’s sort of what’s something that is considered a food product versus a drug or a medicine, it always needs to say something like that. So, there’s these weird legal vagaries. Like, you can say something is for life extension, and a lot of things that have some cognitive benefits sort of promote themselves as life extension things because that’s something that doesn’t have a legal classification attached to it in the same way of saying, “We specifically cure Parkinson’s Disease,” or whatever it might be.

MJ: So Jesse, is it fair to say maybe that the most, at this point, well-known popular media image of nootropics or a smart drug would be something like Limitless?

JL: Yeah, I think probably the movie Limitless was what put this on the cultural radar screen more than just about anything else has done. There was a movie I think called Lucy about a year ago that was pretty frickin’ terrible, it was a pretty bad movie—

MB: [laughs]

MJ: [laughs]

JL: —But it was kind of dealing with the same things. You know what, since I’ve got a little podium to stand on now: One of the things that always gets referenced culturally and is just completely ass-backwards is that we only use 10% of our brains—a ludicrous idea. I’m on a one-man stampede to try to stomp that out of public consciousness, because it’s akin to saying we only use 10% of our muscles because we’re not all constantly doing bench presses and jumping jacks 24 hours a day. It’s like we wouldn’t have evolved this giant brain if we weren’t using all of it at some point. Just because we’re not constantly firing every neuron all at once doesn’t mean that we only use 10% of our brains.

MJ: Yeah, that does seem like one of those things that a lot of people latch on to, and I remember that even being used a little bit I think in the commercials for Limitless, but it seemed like the movie itself did a little bit better of a job with not exactly going that route.

JL: Lucy was based around that entire stupid thing of like, “Oh, this chick only uses 10% of her brain. Now she’s up to 20%! Now she’s up to 30%! Jesus Christ!!” 

MB: [laughs]

MJ: [laughs] You know, I recently read about modafinil—I forget exactly where it was—but reading about it, a lot of people had compared that to the movie Limitless specifically. Some of the guys that I worked with and I had looked it up and found out about the lesser version of modafinil, adrafinil, and gotten some of that and tried it. What’s your sense about modafinil?

JL: So, there’s three of them, and they all have similar-sounding names, which happens a lot. There’s one called adrafinil, which is the one that I think you’re talking about, then there’s modafinil, and then there’s armodafinil, which I like to say is “pirate modafinil” because it says “ar-” at the beginning. But yeah, so the way that these three chemicals are related is that adrafinil in the US can be purchased as a supplement, it does not require a subscription, so you can just buy it and take it; it’s a chemical precursor to modafinil. So within your body, your body actually breaks down adrafinil into modafinil after you consume it. So, it’s a way of getting around the fact that modafinil requires a prescription, adrafinil doesn’t. You’re thinking, “Well, why wouldn’t I just do that?” You need to eat three times as much adrafinil to get the effects of a like amount of modafinil, and while that doesn’t sound like such a big deal, the fact is that there’s just some extra wear and tear on your liver in that breakdown process. So, there’s not really that much bad to say about modafinil as a drug, but it does have a little bit of wear and tear just on your internal physiology, the same was as like eating an aspirin does or something. So, not a giant amount, but on the other hand, if you multiply that by three—by taking adrafinil instead of the more refined version of modafinil—then you’re dealing with that. And then the third chemical I mentioned, armodafinil, is sort of a chemical cousin of modafinil. It’s quite a bit stronger on a milligram per milligram basis, but subjectively as far if you take the milligram-balanced equivalent, I can’t tell the difference between the two. They perceptually feel about the same for me. Both of them have a very long half-life—well, I shouldn’t say very long—but a longer than you’re used to half-life within your body. You drink a cup of coffee, and I think the half-life of coffee is something like five or six hours in most people, so it tapers off pretty quickly. Modafinil, the half-life within your body is about 15 hours, and I believe armodafinil is about 18 hours. So, you take 100 milligrams of modafinil and 15 hours later 50 milligrams of modafinil is still circulating in your bloodstream. So, it’s going to be around for a while when you take it.

MJ: I think that’s what most of us noticed that tried the adrafinil. One of the guys complained that he was up until 2 in the morning.

JL: Well, why is he complaining? That’s why you take it, right!

MJ: I’ve certainly noticed, just on adrafinil, a little bit extra focus, just like drinking a ton of coffee but not as nerve-wracking, I guess.

JL: Yeah, totally. When I go to one of the afinils, the modafinil or armodafinil, it’s because I sort of want that feeling of having the mental blinders on and being able to sustain a bout of continued focus for a long time. One of the things that I’ve sort of mentioned to people that haven’t taken modafinil before and are doing it for the first time is I find that it tends to make whatever you’re focused on a little bit more interesting, which sounds good, it’s like at first blush that doesn’t sound like there might be any downsides. But the thing is you kind of want to decide what you want to be interested in before you take the drug, because otherwise you could get yourself into a situation where something which doesn’t necessarily deserve 10 hours of focus seems more interesting after you pop the pill, and you wind up focusing on something which is counterproductive for 10 hours. So, it’s not quite like you lose all sense of perspective, but on the other hand, just realize that how interesting things are is going to be modulated by the drug.

MJ: Well, I’ve noticed in your podcast you do things that are also not drug-related. I listened to your episode on the transcranial direct current stimulation…

JL: Yeah, yeah.

MJ: What has your experience with that been like?

JL: You know, that one I haven’t geeked out on nearly to the extent that I’ve geeked out on some of the nootropic stuff, but I’ve enjoyed transcranial direct current stimulation. I kind of want to get a better kit than I have for it right now so I can try some different things. I’m also very seriously considering shaving my head. I have a lot of hair right now, and I kind of want better access to my scalp so I can try some things with transcranial direct current stimulation that are a little hard to get to with all my mat of white man’s afro hair. But yeah, the podcast is called Smart Drug Smarts. Probably a good 50% to 60% of the episodes deal specifically with pharmaceutical or nutraceutical compounds. But the other 40% are kind of whatever I find interesting that has something at least tangentially to do with the brain, or in some cases we get into some sort of future-y, robot-y stuff, a little bit more your territory. But I’m interested in all of this stuff. It’s just when you’re deciding you want to put a flag in the sand somewhere, I kind of figured that smart drugs would be a great place to do it just because nobody seemed like they were really talking specifically about that week in, week out. But I’m interested in all this kind of stuff.

MJ: I noticed that you had John Danaher on, who’s been a great guest for us. We’ve talked with him before about human enhancement. But it certainly seems like technology in general is delivering a lot of things lately, from things like nootropics to the transcranial direct current stimulation. I’ve been a big fan of—I have this Muse brain-sensing headband that I use for meditation that I really like. It seems like we’re right on the cusp of a lot of technologies that are starting to move into more becoming either a part of you or enhancing you somehow. What do you think about how we, as a species, are kind of prepared to deal with that?

JL: Well, yeah, how we’re prepared… We’re probably pretty crappily prepared, at least psychosocially. It seems like a lot of people aren’t comfortable with these things that are going to be coming down the pike quite soon, as far as the number of years. So, I think our science is more ready than our psychology, as far as that goes. But that’s always been true. I think there are probably clans of cavemen that weren’t so into this fire thing when the first people figured it out, and those ones weren’t necessarily the ones that went on to become our ancestors.

MB: My experimentation with this kind of stuff is I actually used to have a prescription for adderall and ritalin and stuff, and so it’s one of those things that I’d kind of almost like to get back on again just because I did like the effects of the drugs. But it’s one of those things where, especially with adderall, you had to go to the doctor frequently to get checked up and “how’s it going with all that?” and everything, so. I do have pretty bad ADD. I can’t concentrate on anything for more than a few seconds at a time, so.

JL: Today’s culture is designed for that, huh?

MB: Yeah. [laughs] I mean, I was diagnosed back before smartphones and even the internet, really.

JL: I feel like Twitter is like ADHD for the rest of us, bringing ADHD to the masses.

MJ: What do you think about— in talking about ADD, or ADHD even—that some of these technologies like Twitter, like even the remote control have kind of made us almost more reactive. I remember reading an article where someone described—instead of ADD—ADT: Attention Deficit Tendency, and that these technologies are causing that in people who otherwise don’t have those symptoms. Do you think that the technologies themselves are starting to actually evoke these conditions in people?

JL: I think it would be insane if they didn’t. I mean, I think about the number of hours that I spend staring at a flickering screen every day and I mean, you know, I’m a computer geek, I’ve been a software programmer forever. I think on my average day I’m spending eight or nine hours, and it could be more than that, I haven’t pulled out a stopwatch to check, staring at a screen. To think that any biological organism can do something for eight or nine hours a day and not have that have major effects on them just seems completely naive to me. It’s like I’m sure that this stuff is having giant effects on us. It’s a question of how positive or negative in different areas are they. I’m sure in some ways there’s good things that come out of this. Our technology is obviously benefitting our lives in a variety of ways; people are living longer, we have access to more information. One of the episodes we did last year was talking about neurotoxins in the environment, and one of the scary things there is the EPA scientist I was interviewing was saying that he feels pretty confident that he would say that the average person now is dumber than the average person was 150 years ago just based on chemical exposure in the environment. But to counterbalance that, we’ve got things like access to all of the world’s information on our smartphones in our pockets all the time, which could be an interesting counterbalance. So, technology has all sorts of blessings and curses, but the one thing that seems quite clear is that it’s not going anywhere, short of a complete societal collapse, which none of us want to see happen. We’re going to be getting more technology in our lives, not less.

MB: Do you think if it weren’t for all of this technology there would even be a need for any of these nootropic drugs really, at all?

JL: Good question. I think people have always been looking for some sort of edge and nootropics are just one edge that people can get. The people that are interested in nootropics tend to be interested in other edges as well—you know, productivity hacks or non-pharmaceutical things like transcranial direct current stimulation, or just a good stock tip from your buddy. All these things are information or tools that we can use to get ahead. So, it just comes back to humans being inherently selfish, wanting to get an edge on the competition, be it human or otherwise.

MJ: Speaking of humans, it seems like the reaction to any of these new technologies or new chemicals is to clamp down on it or push it out. I guess I’m thinking of sports with enhancing drugs. They have very strict rules to not allow it, and yet it seems like everybody does it because there’s so much pressure for it. Personally, I look at that and think, “Well, why don’t they just make a separate league where that’s completely legal and accepted and then split them off, where if you’re going to do those things because you’re doing them anyway, now you can push them really to the limit openly and actually bring it out into the open. Whenever they try to push it and get rid of it, it seems like that just drives it underground and it introduces all kinds of issues, like the black market, like criminal elements coming into it, like things getting corrupted. Also, there’s a ton of money in this stuff sometimes for the chemicals that get banned that have this or that possibility. It just seems like we, as a species, the way we react to these things, that sometimes we’re potentially throwing the baby out with the bathwater and overreacting at first and then maybe, at some point, underreacting because it’s just become normalized. What do you think?

JL: I think when I think about things like that, it always ties back to an arms race mentality. If you look at the days before WWI, when all the nations were looking at these crazy new weapons; at the time, they had all these crazy new weapons that were getting invented and they had a lot of these early arms control talks. But the nations that were pushing the arms control talks tended to be the ones that felt like, “Oh, this other country has leapfrogged ahead of me by 15 years in arms development technology, so let’s do this arms control talk to try to stabilize the current level of technology and say that any additional technology is against the rules, we’re not going to do it, full stop.” I kind of feel like that’s often times what happens as new chemical compounds get invented too. People very justifiably want to take the time to appropriately study these things, find out whether they’re safe, find out whether there’s second or third order consequences or long term downsides that we might not know about six months after we invent the thing. But at the same time, they’re curious about it, they want to do the studies, but they don’t want somebody who maybe is less cautious to leapfrog ahead of them and just start using the stuff willy nilly and maybe gain an advantage that they get from being an early mover. So, I feel like that’s a lot of times where what looks like paranoia about progress comes from.

MJ: That brings us a little bit around to human enhancement. Refresh my memory Matt, when we were talking about being mentally disabled or something. I know personally if I were in that position, I would want to be brought up to a normal level. Obviously I’m looking at it kind of from the standpoint of normal, but I think that it seems like those technologies have a lot of room to enhance people that maybe are currently at a disadvantage, but also people that are relatively “normal.”

JL: That might be a really interesting thing to talk about for a second, because the whole nootropics community is really a major beneficiary of research that’s gone on much more into preventing a cognitive decline in old age. A lot of things that younger people are using now to get a cognitive boost—really, the studies and the financing and all that stuff—has gone into people that are coming down with senile dementia, or Alzheimer’s, or things like that. Their brains are really starting to not work well and these drugs have been developed to slow or stop that process, and is now just sort of a hand-me-down to a younger generation. Like, “Hey, this really works well if your brain has fallen off the cliff, but there might be some benefits even if you’re still in your 20s, or 30s, or whatever.”

MB: Mike, were you talking about—when you asked the question of let’s say you had mental retardation or something along those lines—if it was curable with something like this?

MJ: Yeah, that is kind of what I was thinking about. We talked about that a really long time ago, I think in one of our lesser listened to episodes. But just in looking at some of the transhumanist visions of where this technology is going to go, I think that if you did have access to, say, a Limitless drug or some combination of… Jesse, I don’t know if you’ve ever read Ramez Naam, but I’ve been a big fan of his Nexus trilogy and sort of the nanodrug in that, where it lets you run a cybernetic operating system, and network in with people, and share sensations or thoughts and things like that, or record things. All of those technologies seem like they would have a lot of potential to enhance people who are disadvantaged, but even still, enhance people that are sort of baseline normal. I guess I would hate to see us—because we’re afraid or because people have certain morals that they want to live by—that these technologies get thrown out for everyone. I can certainly understand not wanting to put chemicals in your head or things like that. I struggle with the idea that society as a whole might say to these things: “No.”

JL: Yeah, well I think that people are way, way more comfortable with the idea of bringing people up to an accepted standard baseline, where for whatever reason—they’ve had an injury, they’ve had a congenital defect, they’ve had whatever, or they just have genes that are deemed to be subnormal—and bringing people up to that accepted baseline vs. taking people that are already at that baseline or above and pushing them further. People tend to find the latter threatening, people tend to think that the former is just absolutely fundamental fairness. I think that’s kind of an arbitrary distinction. Putting on my futurist hat, I think that we’re going to see a whole lot less homogeneity in the human species, or whatever the human species turns into, because we’re going to have the option of applying changes. I mean, the same way that people like putting on different clothing to differentiate themselves from the herd and saying, “I’m the guy that wears star-shaped glasses,” “I’m the person that dresses like a goth person,” “I’m the person that wears a suit everyday”… We do all these things; people like being able to individuate themselves and we’re going to have all sorts of technological ways of further distinguishing ourselves from the herd. I’m not really worried about the genie being kept in the bottle. These sorts of technologies are going to be very difficult genies to keep in bottles because we’re talking about chemicals that can be synthesized by anybody that knows what they’re doing with graduate student-level chemistry. It’s a lot easier to publish now than it was in the days before personal computers. It’s not like only ten people in the world have a printing press. Pretty much anybody that wants to publish something can write anything, and I kind of feel like there’s a lot of technologies where that sort of democratization will take place and make it essentially impossible to keep the lid on something. You couldn’t keep somebody from writing a blog with whatever they want right now, and in 10 or 15 years it’s going to be pretty difficult to keep people from synthesizing whatever chemical they want to.

MB: Not only synthesizing drugs, but I think with what you were talking about with the gene pool, I think at some point you’re going to be able to basically design a baby or whatever so that you can get the sex you want, the hair color, the brains, how smart, how tall—I think you’ll be able to do that. So, it’s kind of one of those “design your own kid,” kind of like picking out a car at the car lot or whatever.

JL: I think that day is very, very fast approaching. The thing that makes people uncomfortable, myself included, is that it’s not going to hit everywhere at once. I forget who said it but “the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed,” and those sorts of technologies are going to be available in first world countries with a lot of money, citizens with a lot of money, before somebody in Bangladesh is deciding that they want their kid to have the 150 IQ and also be a track star. These things aren’t going to happen all at once everywhere.

MJ: I think that was William Gibson that said that the future is not evenly distributed.

JL: I think you’re right, I think it was William Gibson.

MJ: Well, and I think it’s also a very short jump from being able to design your own kid to being able to redesign your own DNA, so that if you wanted tiger-striped fur all of a sudden—

JL: —And who doesn’t?

MJ: Or cat eyes, or a tail! Although it seems like that would make for uncomfortable sitting at a desk.

JL: Yeah, you have to buy a whole new wardrobe once you get a tail.

MB: [laughs]

MJ: [laughs] Well Jesse, thanks so much for joining us.

JL: Hey, well thank you guys so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

MJ: And where can people find Smart Drug Smarts if they’re looking for it?

JL: You just gave them an excellent clue right there. It’s on the web. We’ve got a weekly podcast, we come out Friday, typically varies between about 20 and 40 minutes depending on what we’re digging into. But yeah, for anybody that’s interested in how to improve your brain, we try to talk about stuff like that every week.

MB: Cool.

A: That’s all for this episode of Robot Overlordz. Are you interested in the future and how society is changing? We’d love to have you join our community. Visit our website to learn more and to connect with others that share that interest. You can find us at RobotOverlordz.FM. The site includes all of the show’s old episodes along with complete transcripts, links to more information about the topics and guests in each episode, and our mailing list and forums. We’d also love to hear what you think about the show. You can review us on iTunes or email us.

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A: We hope to see you again in the future…

MJ: Thanks everyone for listening.

MB: Thanks.


Image Credit: By RayNata (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons