The worst part about wondering where your keys are when they’re in the hand is the fact that you’ve been let down and maybe betrayed by your own brain, the thing that knows you the best and, confusingly, is you. Of course, you’ve “found” your keys now and can go on about your day, which is a relief, and it can end there. You could also consider that you slipped up, in a minor way, but you still slipped; you were imperfect and fallible.
It’s healthy to want to be better, but it’s unhealthy and self-defeating to want to be perfect. The things that people do in the pursuit of self-improvement don’t always fall neatly into those two categories because there isn’t a fine line between them, and our own brains, the tools we use to judge those behaviors, is inherently biased by them.
Self-improvement can be manifested in a lot of ways: regular exercise, reading more, and eating right are some of the big ones. The kind of self-improvement mechanism I’ve been interested in recently has been nootropics, a loosely defined conglomerate of supplements that you may associate with Silicon Valley. However, the term itself, and what could very well be referred to as the first nootropic, began in Romania,
A psychologist and chemist named Cornelieu E. Giurgea developed Piracetam, a drug originally designed to treat myoclonus, or involuntary twitching. Soon after, the use of Piracetam was quickly adapted for its effects on memory, learning, and cerebral performance. Regarding nootropics, Giurgea said, “Man is not going to wait passively for millions of years before evolution offers him a better brain.” That, in succinct terms, captures the motivation behind labeling certain chemicals as nootropics; a substance can be considered nootropic if its effects and use promote or enhance some functionality of your brain. This could be attention, focus, creative, memory, etc.
Some of you are probably familiar with Modafinil, a chemical first deployed to treat narcolepsy. Modafinil (and before you ask, it’s illegal to purchase modafinil in the US without a prescription) allegedly provides the kind of attention and focus that other, wakefulness-enhancing drugs do (read: speedy drugs), minus the excessive addictive force that many of those drugs bring to bear.
Modafinil users report profound results on their ability to work and, ostensibly, the purpose of a nootropic is to improve your work. After all, you don’t need a better brain to binge-watch Rick and Morty. But modafinil is just one compound that falls under the umbrella term of nootropics. At once both surprising and not surprising at all, another chemical that is building a reputation as a nootropic is LSD.
Anybody who’s taken acid in recreational doses before can tell you that they were not very productive, or maybe they can tell you something equivocal about the definition of “productivity.” Taking microdoses of LSD, however, (anywhere from 5 to 20 micrograms of acid) can feel like your local barista moonlights as a warlock and has made you a very weird cup of coffee that lasts all day. It promotes energy and allows one to take creative approaches to problems that may not have occurred otherwise.
Think of it like a rocket ship. You might spend your nine-to-five shooting rockets to the moon. If you adjust the angle of the trajectory by a lot, you’ll fly off into space, which can be pretty fun and cool but also dark and confusing. Adjust the trajectory by just a little bit, by a few degrees, and you might make it to Mars. Experimenting with your brain can have similar effects; there are some places that are interesting to go to, but not valuable in a mundane sense. Then there’s getting to Mars.
So, there are all these tools out there for you to fix your damn brain so you don’t forget your keys when they’re in your hand anymore. But the issue is that nootropics don’t fix you; they’re tools that can maximize your potential. They can also be tools to compensate for personal failures, impatience, your dread of work. Should motivation come in a pill? Or should motivation to work be born out of a person’s life experiences and desires? Are these two options mutually exclusive?
There are two places where nootropics and microdoses of LSD have taken hold in the world, and they set up an interesting contrast. The first is America’s Silicon Valley. American’s obsession with work is well-documented, which is an unfortunate side effect of living in a society that rewards merit. Silicon Valley and the tech world in general might be the apex of merit-hungry Americans. It takes skill and knowledge to be a lawyer, doctor, or financial adviser, but connections and money also play a major role. Working in digital technology takes genuine ability first and foremost—that’s not to say connections and money are irrelevant here, just emphasized less. Weirdly enough, the downside of rewarding merit alone is that people work far more than is healthy.Sometimes motivation in a pill can give you the edge, the merit, that you need. Rather than focus on whether motivation in a pill is right or wrong, it’s worth considering what our desire for it signifies, and what it means that I can replace the word desire here with need and mean nearly the same thing.
The other world where one might be found slicing up tabs of acid with a pair of scissors is in sports, especially in extreme sports. That extreme athletes take acid isn’t really surprising. It’s the particular use of what’s known as psycholytic doses of acid—as opposed to psychedelic—that’s interesting.
What you think of as an acid trip is a psychedelic dose of acid: the walls are melting, there’s snakes under the carpet, and you realize you love your dog so much that you start crying. The term “psycholytic” refers specifically to the use of low to medium doses of psychedelic drugs (like acid) for therapeutic goals, but for our purposes, we can consider a psycholytic dose to be an equivalent term to microdose. There are a number of anecdotal reports regarding athletic feats done under the influence of psycholytic doses of acid that, the athletes claim, could not be made otherwise. Anecdotal will have to suffice since research on athletic performance under LSD is difficult to carry out (apparently, acid’s illegal, who knew). As an example, Doc Ellis, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, threw a no-hitter in the 1970s. I won’t harp on about it too much, but it should be mentioned. You can find a pretty fun account of the story from Doc Ellis himself here.
So, what’s the difference here? People take low-level doses of LSD to improve their performance at work, especially in Silicon Valley, and in sport, especially in extreme sports. The difference is that sport is inherently gratifying, while work is not. It is always more gratifying to be better at sport because we love it. It’s wired in our brains to love particularly well-executed movements towards a definite and tangible goal. It is not wired in our brains to love the strange things we do for hours every day towards an abstract concept of success that we know is better for us in the long run than, say, taking a shit load of acid and watching Spongebob for 8 hours. Nootropics in sport help us soar higher, while nootropics at work get us out of the hole we jumped into.
Taking LSD, modafinil, or other nootropics makes work easier and more fruitful. They may come along with a string of undesirable side effects as well; many of these compounds are not well-researched. But their utility in our work is only as great as our attitudes about work. If work inspires that horrible work-feeling, the sticky, dreadful spiritual goo that keeps you tabbing over to YouTube, then taking a nootropic will be treating the symptoms and not the cause. But if work inspires that wonderful work-feeling, where an equally sticky spiritual goo keeps you glued to your project, whether that’s climbing a mountain or starting a company, then nootropics might help you find where your potential is.