There Is Nothing That Can Make You Smarter, But There Should Be

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Americans want to be smarter, and there's nothing wrong with that. It is human nature to seek self improvement, and the United States is the most competitive country in the world. In fact, we spend billions of dollars on drugs, supplements, and games that promise cognitive enhancement, although not one of them is truly effective.

Each year we spend $1.3 billion a year on "brain training" games sold by companies such as Lumosity and Cogmed. College campuses are rife with the illicit use of Adderall and Ritalin, and there has been a rapidly growing trend of stimulant consumption in the workplace. We are also shelling out almost $250 million a year on supplements like Ginkgo Biloba that are marketed with hyperbolic claims of neuroenhancement.

Are we smarter yet? No, but that doesn't stop us from trying, even to the detriment of our own health.

My advice to you is to use your brain, and don't buy the bull on brain enhancement. Don't waste your time and money on products with flimsy evidence. And in particular, beware of medications and supplements that could hurt more than they help. As a guideline, I've created a simplified list of which brain enhancers might work, which don't work, and how they can hurt you.

What Won't Make You Smarter:

  • Brain Training: Playing brain games makes you better at playing brain games. Those skills don't transfer to real life, and they definitely don't make you smarter. Brain games won't hurt your health, but they are a waste of time and money.

  • Stimulants: Stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin don't work nearly as well as people think they do for neuroenhancement. In one meta-analysis that looked at 45 studies in which adults without ADHD took either of these drugs, researchers measured their effects on different aspects of intelligence. They found that for learning and memory, Adderall and Ritalin sometimes had a positive effect, but frequently had no effect. They also looked at the drugs' effects on reasoning and problem-solving, and the results were mixed. Some studies showed a positive effect, some showed no effect, and some showed impairment. The conclusion was that Adderall and Ritalin are far from reliable in their neuroenhancing qualities, and that when they do work, the effects tend to be on the smaller side. Further negating these benefits, Adderall and Ritalin can lead to heart disease, aggression, anxiety, paranoia, and addiction.
  • Caffeine can improve a person's mood and arousal, which can lead to small improvements in performance, but continued use can lead to both tolerance and withdrawal. Caffeine can also cause anxiety and impair performance at higher dosages.

  • Supplements: There is no good evidence demonstrating Gingko Biloba's effectiveness, or any other supplements' effectiveness, for cognitive enhancement. Also, Gingko has been known to cause severe bleeding and stroke, and a recent study by the U.S. government found that it caused cancer in animals.
  • Racetams: These are new and experimental designer drugs that are chemically similar to other stimulants and marketed as nootropics or smart drugs. But they aren't monitored by the FDA, and so far, there haven't been any good trials testing their effectiveness.
  • What Might Make You Smarter (with further research):

    • Modafinil: There are conflicting results regarding Modafinil's track record for enhancement. One recent systematic review found that Modafinil does enhance multiple aspects of cognition, such as executive function, learning, and memory, and that the effect was larger on more complex tasks. On the other hand, a different review found that expectations for Modafinil's enhancement properties exceeded its actual effects, and that it only improved attention in well-rested individuals, while maintaining wakefulness, memory, and executive functions in sleep-deprived individuals. Also, repeated doses were unable to prevent deterioration of cognitive performance over a longer period of sleep deprivation and even led to worsened performance by inducing overconfidence. Not much is known about Modafinil's long-term side effects, but there is concern that using Modafinil frequently can negatively impact sleep over time.

  • Memantine and Aricept: Medications such as Memantine and Aricept, which are used to treat dementia, may improve cognition in healthy people, but the preliminary results are mixed. More research is needed to see if they actually work for enhancement.
  • Transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS): Studies show that transcranial direct-current stimulation, in which a low electrical current is applied to the brain, can improve learning and intelligence. tDCS also has the advantage of being cheap, and so far, there haven't been many side effects, but it has yet to be FDA-approved.
  • Transcranial electromagnetic stimulation (TMS): Transcranial electromagnetic stimulation involves using a magnet to stimulate parts of the brain. Scientists have shown that it improves attention, learning, and memory in normal individuals for a few hours or days after treatments, and they are actively searching for ways to extend the duration of its effects. Although TMS has few side effects, it's still pretty expensive and not widely available.
  • Genetic engineering: In the far future, it's possible that we could manipulate our genes to increase intelligence. Although most Americans currently oppose it, scientists around the world continue to investigate genetic engineering due to overwhelming demand for enhancement.
  • The reality is that none of the methods of cognitive enhancement Americans consume today are a surefire way of enhancing intelligence, and they all have their costs. But as a society, we are competitive and ambitious, and I have no doubt that scientists will keep searching for better methods to make us smarter.

    Still can't resist the urge to boost your brain power now? Then your best bet lies in the tried and true habits of healthy living: daily exercise, meditation, and a good night's sleep. All are proven to optimize brain function, and better yet, they're healthy, safe, and free. So while it may be tempting to take a risk on a quicker fix, in the long run, just staying healthy may be all your brain needs.