Nootropics are a profound tool for exploring optimal human potential. With greater concentration, learning ability, and creativity, we can become more successful and tackle difficult global challenges. We may have a vested interest in nootropics, but that doesn’t mean we can’t see outside the box.
There are plenty of non-nootropic methods of optimizing mental performance and achieving the best version of yourself. Sometimes the methods we will cover in this article are better than nootropics and sometimes they compliment each other.
Despite the value of nootropics, we have to make a habit of seeing other tools in our toolbox. As the adage goes, if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.
How can we get the same or greater effects for mental performance without using nootropics?
Let’s find out.
Minimalist Approaches to Mental Performance
When we think about nootropics and cognitive enhancement, most avid biohackers imagine bottles of supplements and the latest gadgets and technology. In reality, some of the biggest bang for your buck is with removing things from your life rather than adding them.
With these three simple minimalist approaches, it’s far easier to optimize mental performance in the simplest way possible.
- Fasting (removal of food)
- Nutritional Ketosis (removal of carbs)
- Meditation (removal of thoughts)
The practice of fasting is a worldwide phenomenon done for thousands of years. While many religions and spiritual texts make fasting into as much a spiritual quest as a performance enhancing one, modern science is showing just how effective fasting can be.
Much of the research focuses on neuroprotection and anti-aging. Fasting can remove oxidative stress, which decreases the risk of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s disease. Beyond that, fasting can enhance certain brain chemicals such as BDNF, which is like fertilizer for the brain to create new connections.
The anecdotal evidence and subjective experience of the author suggest fasting regularly will increase mental clarity and reduce brain fog. Fasting daily for 16 hours (called intermittent fasting) is an effective way to see many of the benefits without going through 24 or 72 hour fasts.
One of the reasons fasting is so effective for mental clarity is because our body goes into a state of ketosis. Rather than utilizing glucose for energy, our brain utilizes ketones (fat). Unfortunately, most of the research is scarce on whether nutritional ketosis has cognitive enhancing effects. Most of the current evidence focuses on people who have diseases where ketosis can help.
By maintaining a diet high in fat, low in carbs, and moderate in protein, it is possible to trick the brain into continually using ketones rather than carbs.
Anecdotally, this provides mental clarity, longevity benefits, and a host of others, but few are verified in a research setting. This is one of the most popular trends in Silicon Valley and other places with high mental performers. For that, we have Tim Ferriss’ interviews with Dom D’Agostino and Peter Attia.
Long the darling of eastern philosophy, brain imaging techniques have proven the value of meditation. Harvard medical research Sarah Lazar found that simple meditation and mindfulness practices increased grey matter. The practice literally changes your brain.
The simple practice of focusing on breath for 20 minutes is a good place to start. Longer retreats allow you to learn and perfect varying techniques, but the benefits for our brain include reduced stress, anxiety, and resilience in the face of adversity.
Neurohacking Brain Technology
The minimalist approach to brain hacking is great, but for many excited biohackers, it isn’t enough. One can utilize all the above mentioned techniques AND seek the latest and greatest technologies.
- tDCS (trans direct-current stimulation)
- Sound waves (binaural beats and auditory neuroscience)
In the secretive DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) labs, scientists added tDCS electrodes to the brains of novice military snipers and increased their learning ability by 230%. With the tDCS they induced flow states, which made snipers more effective and lethal.
The irony is, the tDCS technology they used was only a bit more accurate than the technologies DIY biohackers have created for themselves in under $50. There are many resources online, which will explain exactly how to proceed.
Don’t be too overzealous, however. Tim Ferriss has first hand experience tinkering in ways that can be dangerous. He once explained how tDCS in the wrong location messed up his vision for 3-4 days!
If it seems far-fetched, the research on sound waves interacting with the brain is relatively old. By 1792 a Scottish-American printer was describing the phenomena of “binaural hearing”. Now the binaural beats are a common tool for increasing focus, improving relaxation, and enhancing sleep.
A recent startup called Brain.FM has conducted a pilot research study suggesting their music can increase focus and concentration (it doubles pattern recognition precision from 3% to 6%). They also showed an increase in slow wave sleep by 27%. All this for around $7/month!
Racing cars and spaceships with your brain might sound more like a video game than a brain optimization technique, but neurofeedback incorporates just that. By rewarding certain brain patterns (such as concentration, relaxation etc) the neurofeedback tool can help to literally re-wire the brain.
Neurofeedback isn’t new either. According to Dr. Andrew Hill at the Peak Brain Institute, it’s been around for decades without much technological enhancement. Most evidence suggests it can increase focus (even as far as reducing symptoms of ADHD). Most commonly, it is used as a tool for anxiety and depression. Most urban centers have a neurofeedback center where you can get relatively affordable sessions.
Brain Hacking Lifestyle: Every Part Matters
Spending money on the latest and greatest technologies may be great in the short term, but it becomes expensive over time. We all have different budgetary limitations and spending $1-200 per session (without insurance support) for neurofeedback probably isn’t going to last long for most people.
Of course, there are plenty of lifestyle tweaks we can make to change our brain chemistry as well. Here are a few we’ll briefly touch upon:
- Sex – we all enjoy sex, but how much can sexual activity help us for optimizing mental performance? It turns out, many of the chemicals associated with sexual activity, such as oxytocin, help to reduce anxiety and increase cognitive performance. For men, sex can also increase testosterone (whereas masturbation may not), which has healthy cognitive effects as well. Keep in mind, this refers mostly to emotionally-sound sexual intercourse between loving partners!
- Heat / cold exposure – many gyms have a sauna and cold pool, which does more than provide good feelings. In one study, sauna goers had a 66% reduced risk of dementia and 65% reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Check out an interesting podcast with the researcher here. Dr. Rhonda Patrick also mentions heat and cold exposure on Tim Ferriss’ blog.
- Exercise – the brain chemicals associated with exercise are naturally conducive to optimizing mental performance. We have evolved to move and a lack of movement creates an assortment of problems. Simple walking can increase creativity up to 50%. Chemicals like endorphins are only released during exercise.
- Breathing – we all breathe unconsciously to survive, but conscious breathing techniques can make a big difference in cognitive performance. There aren’t many studies, but holotropic breathwork is considered a psychological intervention. While subjective, try doing some of the Wim Hof exercises and see how your brain feels with a high dose of oxygen!
The Brain’s Toolbox
The human brain is perhaps our most important organ and with more people moving into knowledge work than ever before, it’s no wonder brain hacking is becoming popular. Just because nootropics are appealing, simple solutions that we can really feel doesn’t mean they are the only tool available.
By utilizing new technologies, minimalist practices, and altering our lifestyle according to our desires, we can effectively increase our cognitive performance in long-term and sustainable ways.
1. Source: Wade, N. J., Destined for Distinguished Oblivion: The Scientific Vision of William Charles Wells (1757-1817).