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For centuries, people have searched for ways to boost their intelligence, concentration, and creativity through nootropics, also known as memory boosters or cognitive enhancers.
In fact, if you’re drinking coffee right now, you’re consuming a form of nootropic – caffeine is a stimulant and famous for its ability to wake up.
But so-called “smart drugs” or “smart drugs” – although not necessarily drugs – have been gaining popularity: there is now a large market for drugs. over-the-counter supplements that claim (with very little scientific evidence) to improve concentration and memory.
Some people go even further and seek prescription stimulants, such as modafinil, in an attempt to improve performance at work or studies.
A 2017 investigation, based on the Global Drug Survey, an anonymous questionnaire, showed that 30% of Americans had taken some type of “smart drug” in the previous 12 months.
It was a 20% increase from 2015. And it showed that they were not alone: large increases were also reported across Europe.
But do these products really work? And what are its risks?
“It is surprising how little we know about our brains, but one thing we do know is that our brain is a carefully calibrated system, particularly in terms of brain chemistry. And this balance is not the same for everyone: everyone has their own fine-tuned balance. “
So said Hanneke den Ouden, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behavior at Radboud University, the Netherlands.
His laboratory studies how the state of our brain chemistry shapes how we act.
“Modafinil is in the category of psychostimulants. Other examples are methylphenidate and amphetamine. And psychostimulants generally act on activity in the dopamine system [del cerebro]”.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and elevated levels of it can stimulate signals in the parts of the brain associated with concentration and focus, and help reduce hyperactive and impulsive behaviors.
It’s incredibly helpful for people with ADHD, for example, but it can also illegally get into the hands of those without a diagnosed medical condition.
“In some of the recent studies, we have looked at how psychostimulants affect decision-making in a young, healthy population. Specifically, we studied methylphenidate, a drug that is perhaps better known under the brand names Ritalin or Adderall,” he says.
“And what we found is that it improves a series of tasks. What we think could be the case is that we experience the tasks as a minor cognitive effort,” explains the neuroscientist.
But, Den Ouden warns, tomar isas substances that stimulate the brain without a prescription is risky.
“All drugs have the risk of causing side effects and for a reason they are sold with a prescription,” he says.
“So when we carry out a study of drugs, such as psychostimulants, we first evaluate our participants extensively,” he explains.
“In fact, we make sure that a doctor prescribes only one pill per person (we often only give them a single dose),” he continues.
And it is that “we know that, for example, psychostimulants increase the heart rate and that this can represent a risk for those with underlying heart problems such as arrhythmia without knowing it.”
These substances, moreover, do not have the same effect on all: some people are helped, others not.
The expert adds that there have been practically no studies on the long-term cognitive effects of the use of psychostimulants in healthy people.
Nevertheless, increasing dopamine levels in the brain could cause long-term problems.
“We are talking about the tight balance of our brain chemistry and when you disturb it by adding too much dopamine, the system may, in response, try to regain balance and lessen its sensitivity to the substance,” he explains.
Thus, the person, trying to maintain their “normal” levels of dopamine, could become dependent on it.
“Another risk, perhaps more speculative but important to take into account, is that being really focused all the time is not necessarily the optimal state for all situations.
“What we do know is that being overfocused can actually reduce creativity and openness to new ideas or solutions. So, we don’t want a society of people hyper-concentrated“.
Meditation instead of medication
Rather than increasing your brain power through medication, there is growing evidence that it can be enhanced through more natural means, such as meditation and mindfulness.
“a of the characteristics of being human is we have these minds that can wander and think of all kinds of strange things“says Laurie Santos, professor of psychology at Yale University in the United States.
“Research shows that the simple act of meditating, even for as little as 10 minutes a day if you are a novice, can significantly reduce brain activation in regions of your brain that tend to make your mind wander.
“So the simple act of meditating is literally changing the kind of predetermined patterns in your brain.”
But why is mental wandering not so good?
Santos says that research on the subject shows that when our minds wander, can make us unhappy.
“The irony of all this is that we are never fully present, and that to enjoy the simple things in life, from eating something delicious to talking with a friend, we really need to be,” he explains.
“The act of mental wandering therefore appears to significantly diminish our well-being,” he continues.
“That’s why you practice like Meditation can be so powerful, as one of its benefits is that it trains our mind to be a little more present than usual. ”
Meditation not only stops mental wandering, it also builds more connections between different parts of the brain. It effectively reconnects the brain to the present.
And the effect lasts, according to a 2008 study – which found that people who practiced it were happier – for up to eight weeks.
But meditation doesn’t just seem to help you enjoy life.
A 2013 study conducted by the University of California showed that a meditation course actually increased test scores. And there are several other benefits, according to Laurie.
“Increases concentration, aids memory over time, and has several effects on physical health: You can see improvements in immune function and markers of aging. ”
So if there is any indication that it helps brain power, happiness, immune function, and even DNA, Would it be an exaggeration to say that meditation is a kind of remedy for the human condition?
“Scientists are concerned about those that seem to have all of these benefits, but meditation seems to be one that, empirically speaking, just has a lot.”
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.