Hacking the Brain: A Primer

Nov 2, 2017 | Stephen Jackson

In the 2011 film Limitless, a cognitively frustrated Bradley Cooper gains access to a genius pill that grants him full access to his brain’s potential. Of course, nothing on the silver screen is ever that simple and both conflict and hijinks ensue for about two hours until… well, I’ll spare you the spoiler.

Of course, we are not quite there yet, but there’s a lurking zeitgeist out there, whispering for all of us to become mental “biohackers” — self-directed agents of change for our own well-being, using data and supplements called “nootropics” in order to improve mental functioning and give us that edge we’ve all been looking for.

“Ten years ago, we would be doing things that we believe made us better since it made us feel better. Now, we are getting to an era where we can pinpoint exactly what is improving and why we feel better,” says Geoff Woo, CEO of HVMN, a popular nootropics manufacturer based in San Francisco. “Everyone wants to improve himself or herself, so let’s do it responsibly and in an intelligent way.”

If you’re in or around the tech world, you probably at least know someone who’s tried some form of biohacking (legal or otherwise) if you’re not an early adopter yourself. Even that whole Bulletproof Coffee thing (old news, I know) is considered to be a nootropic.

Let’s take a look at what a few of these things are all about, shall we?

Nootropic Supplements

According to the Biohacker’s Guide found on HVMN’s website, nootropics are “a broad classification of cognition-enhancing compounds that produce minimal side effects and are suitable for long-term use. These compounds include those occurring in nature or already produced by the human body (such as neurotransmitters), and their synthetic analogs.”

Basically, they’re legal supplements lacking major side effects that can (allegedly) help your noggin get in the game when it’s time to get stuff done. If you scroll through their site, you can find a decent amount of science backing up their claims, and much of it is hard to argue against. That said, the extent to which taking their supplements can measurably increase your performance at work over a good night’s sleep, healthy diet, and good ol’ cup of coffee is very much up for debate.

And, while the Biohacker’s Guide certainly looks at things like diet, daily habits, exercise — and even fasting — as holistic components to an improved self, the product they are pushing to the front of the line is their Nootrobox, which is the entire suite of supplements they offer, consisting of both daily and as-needed boosts designed to improve cognitive functioning.

‘“Nootropics can be an avenue to giving one that ‘edge’ they’ve been looking for. It can be the difference between getting one client that day, or two,” says HVMN’s Woo. “No, it’s not Adderall. It’s not that magic pill from Limitless. You’re not going to find yourself becoming the next Einstein. What nootropics are is a safe and long‑term way to gain an edge with benefits that are backed by real science.”

Bulletproof Coffee

Dave Asprey is a former tech entrepreneur turned biohacking guru who popularized “Bulletproof Coffee” which, put simply, is coffee with butter in it.

While there’s a whole set of reasons behind why it works on the brain and how it can help you lose weight, etc., some folks in the medical community have warned against its use as an early-morning panacea.

However, it falls into the category of a nootropic, so let’s talk about it.

According to Asprey, when you add Brain Octane — “a purified form of medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) derived from 100% pure coconut oil” — to your coffee, it elevates levels of “brain fueling” molecules called “ketones” in your body.

Additionally, according to the Bulletproof Coffee website, “Bioflavonoids in coffee can actually make you smarter by intensifying neuronal firing in the brain. This means your brain cells will communicate faster so thoughts come more quickly and you’ll have better recall. Coffee can also protect your brain as you age.”

So yeah, by the way, coffee is a nootropic too. Is any of this right for you? You be the judge! Just make sure you look into any potential dangers your unique biochemistry might encounter whilst playing scientist with your brain.