Can “Smart Drugs” Actually Make You Smarter? We Asked Futurist Nik Badminton

Brain fog is real. Some mornings, just getting out of bed can be a struggle, let alone doing anything more cognitively taxing than refreshing Twitter or skimming last night’s box scores. But are nootropics – or smart drugs, as they’re colloquially known – real? That part I’m not so sure about. Although, as someone who can’t imagine sitting down to write an article like this without the help of at least one (preferably XXL) coffee, I can certainly understand the appeal.

It’s not like the idea of a pill that can make us more focused, more quick-witted, more, well, “on” is a recent invention. The term “nootropics” was first coined in the 1970s, while movies like Limitless and Lucy have taken the sci-fi fantasy more mainstream over the past decade. Since we last did an article about it in 2015, the industry’s only gotten bigger, and is growing rapidly. But it’s still seen as something of a fringe movement, mostly because the evidence for it is still mainly anecdotal.

That’s where Smart Drugs comes in, a Super Size Me-esque look at the growing world of nootropics and “biohacking” – an umbrella term that covers everything from fasting, meditation, and breathing techniques to spending an hour sucking down pure oxygen in a hyperbaric chamber. Futurist/biohacker Nik Badminton agreed to become something of a nootropic guinea pig for the upcoming Canadian documentary, and over the course of eight months, swallowed handfuls of supplements, hooked himself up to electrical currents, participated in 36 hours of fasting, and otherwise went headfirst down the biohacking rabbit hole.

With Smart Drugs airing on the documentary Channel this Sunday, we spoke to Badminton about his takeaways from the experience, where he sees the industry heading, and his words of advice for anyone looking to try this at home.

What was your experience with biohacking going into this? Had you used nootropics before?

I started playing around with biohacking a number of years ago. I tried nootropics after a friend of mine told me that a lot of his friends at work were using it. I’d just had therapy to help me get over some PTSD, and that involved brain manipulation in a therapeutic setting. So I was really open to this, and tried some nootropics called Alpha Brain about five years ago. It was great for productivity, but I stopped using it because the lucid dreaming became too much to handle. Some of them give you lucid dreaming and some of them don’t, but this was really, really vivid. It was a little bit too much. But I was also doing other things, like implanting microchips into my hands, trying out different diets and exercise, all sorts of things. I was starting to think about transhumanism and levelling up. Sort of Human 1.0. That’s where I really got into it big-time.

What’s the strangest biohacking method you’ve come across? Was there anything that made you say, “Yeah, no, I think I’m good. That’s not for me?”

During the documentary, I tried stimulating the brain [via] tDCS, transcranial direct-current stimulation. That’s kind of the weirdest thing, but it worked incredibly well! But it’s something that’s very difficult to rig up and always be plugged in. It really does make you focused and give you an extra amount of attention, but I just find it a little strange to have electricity coursing through your brain all the time. I don’t know what the long-term effects are. I certainly don’t want to try to find out.

Towards the end of the documentary, you’ve built up a pretty impressive pharmacopeia. It’s not quite the guy with the literal shelves full of supplements, but still… How many of those pills were you taking a day at the height of this experiment?

Yeah, Eric [Matzner] is crazy. Absolutely crazy. But he’s very typical for a hardcore biohacker. I was trying a number of different ones: the Nootroo, I was doing the Silver and the Gold pill every day. I was also jacking up on vitamins, and I was fasting as well. So it wasn’t necessarily that I was doing 30, 40 pills a day like someone like Eric would do. I was trying to isolate the effects of particular things. But I found the Noopept worked really well. I found fasting worked well too, just not 36-hour fasting like I did in the documentary. [Laughs.] Like, 16-hour fasting, very careful dieting. What’s really interesting is, from the January through to around May, I ended up losing a whole bunch of weight. It was really good for my health. And it’s been really good for my health on an ongoing basis.

What results were you looking for going into this? And how did the experience compare to your expectations?

Previous experiences were like, little jolts and sprints, for work. This was a more holistic approach. I fly left and right several times a month, and now what I have with this kind of regime is a huge amount of balance. I actually managed to free up a lot more time in my life. I started making better decisions, I’m now in a relationship. And I actually think I can say these nootropics have been a really pivotal element in this, because you can take some of these nootropics and hammer out three times the amount of work in the morning than you normally would do. So doing that three or four times a week, it’s incredibly effective for releasing other time so you can go and exercise, or go and meditate and take some extra time for yourself.

How much of a jump is there between something that’s extremely mainstream, like, say, having a cup or two of coffee in the morning, to trying these nootropics?

It’s not exactly the same as drinking five espressos and then suddenly being wired, because caffeine’s got that jitteriness, and affects mood, and your body starts vibrating. The nootropics, it’s a very clean, focused high, in a way. It’s not a high like taking illicit pills or anything like that. It’s a high where you’ve just got access to energy and drive and focus. It’s like you’ve literally got tunnel vision. So I would do it over and above caffeine. I actually drink yerba mate now, which gives me a really intense caffeine high without any intense crash. And then I do some nootropics – like Phenylpiracetam or Noopept or something like that – and that’s a killer dose for me to get a lot of work done on a daily basis.

Have you found there’s a big gap between people’s expectations of what biohacking can do for them versus the actual reality of taking these smart drugs?

People think you can suddenly liberate more brainpower by taking these. If you look at movies like Lucy and Limitless, it’s all about, “I can now use 27 percent of my brain!” It’s not like that. [Laughs.] What it does is, it just seems to cut out all the noise in your life. We live in an attention economy. Between Facebook and email and text messaging and phone calls and meetings and TV and YouTube… This is like, I’m going to get this work done, and absolutely nothing takes my eyes off of that. It’s absolute dedication and focus. It uses the resources available to us and just focuses them, without distraction. So it’s a concentration mechanism.

Is there anything these can’t do, or aren’t very good for?

I was at a conference, and I was chatting with a good friend of mine. I said, “Hey, I’m doing this documentary on smart drugs. You know what, you take one of these Gold pills, I’ll take one.” I was due to give a keynote in an hour’s time, and he was due to be the emcee and host. And it was really hard. I sort of ran at two times the speed. Luckily, halfway through, I noticed and tried to calm down a little bit. But the host, he introduced me, then went for an hour’s walk. [Laughs.] It was just so, so, very intense.

That’s what a lot of people find with this, and I think that’s why a lot of people don’t do it. You have to find what they call “the set and the setting” for it to have the best effect. And that is: you’re in an office, you have some focused work to do. Preferably writing, or something creative, or video editing. Use it for that. Don’t use it for interviews like this. I wouldn’t take it and do this. I’ve tried all these things in this whole documentary experiment, and that was really enlightening to me – when and where you should apply it.

What’s the barrier to more widespread adoption, in your mind? Because it does feel like this has gotten increasingly mainstream in recent years.

I think people are scared to step into it. There’s so much talk about everything from LSD microdosing and nootropics and Modafinil. And then there’s the lifestyle stuff: I do a lot of meditation, I do holotropic breathwork. Something called PSYCH-K and NLP, which is about belief system hacking. I think it’s sort of obscure, and hidden in the background.

Biohackers are seen as these wild, fringe people, right? They’re the freaks and the weirdos. I mean, I’ve got microchips in my hand, I’m heavily tattooed, I’m sort of in that scene. Some more extreme biohackers actually implant larger objects into their body. I just think it’s a branding problem. You almost need to step away from what biohacking is in the most extreme versions. It also needs to be endorsed by the medical community. I think that’s the big barrier right now.

What avenues seem the most promising to you going forward when it comes to the future of biohacking?

What needs work is the branding. Biohacking, it’s the Wild West. Nootropics is just a strange word, and “smart drugs,” I don’t think it represents exactly what it is. I think branding around these being legitimate supplements – a lot of the stuff that you can use for this kind of biohacking does exist on the pharmacy shelves.

There’s one drug that I tried which is Modafinil, and Modafinil is actually a prescription drug. That – out of all the nootropics and smart drugs I tried – is absolutely the most effective. It’s heavily replicated, under nefarious circumstances and sold via Amazon or whatever, by Indian and Chinese and Russian companies. But I think you’re potentially going to have big pharmaceutical companies getting into Modafinil.

I think we need to reframe it around a balance. I actually think that nutritionists and naturopaths can play a huge role in making this legit. I do think there probably needs to be some more legitimate academic studies. I think the government could step in. That’s why this documentary was really important. To say, Hey, there’s a lot of opportunity out there. Maybe you can go and find what works for you.

Do you have any advice for someone interested in trying this stuff?

Just find what works for you. I think you have to ensure your basic fitness is good. Especially blood pressure. Go and chat with a doctor if you need to. You can actually go online – there’s a very active community around nootropics and smart drugs. The Reddit community on r/Nootropics is very good. You can ask questions, and people are pretty legit in there. Really, just try it out. If something doesn’t have an effect, mark that down and don’t use that again, because it might not work for your physiology. Because they all work differently in everyone.

But if you get to the point where you’re doing this and you’re burning out and life’s getting more difficult, stop. I would recommend not necessarily doing several nootropics daily, week in and week out. It’s still burning energy – and you don’t necessarily feel like you want to eat that much when you’re doing it, so you’ve got to be a bit careful about that.

I tried lots and lots of things. [Laughs.] To be honest, some nootropics, and doing the Wim Hof Method – that cold water therapy – it was hugely powerful for me. I’ve actually gone on to do more of that. So, find the balance for you. For me, it’s nootropics, cold water therapy, meditation, occasional fasting. That’s my formula for success.

OK, but since this is still relatively unregulated, the Wild West, how do you separate the legit companies from the snake oil salesmen?

It’s really hard. I’d say there are probably more snake oil salesmen out there than there are companies that really deliver something amazing. Again, I think you have to go into these forums, like Reddit, you have to find people who are doing it and ask their advice. They’re brutally, brutally honest.

When you get to a level of understanding ingredients and what you’re doing, people really level up and actually start putting their own formulas together; they become like amateur chemists. Some of the people I know, they sit down with different substances and compounds and they put it together in their own formulas, what works for them. But I mean, this is a different kind of mindset. This isn’t, I’m going to go to the pharmacy, pick the pills off a shelf and just take them. This is a different level… of focus and attention to their own physiology. Because all of these compounds and substances – Modafinil aside – they’re natural, right? So this is like modern shamanism. It’s like the modern witch doctor.

Smart Drugs airs on the documentary Channel on May 14 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.