If you could take a pill that would allow you to access 100% of your brainpower, would you do it?
This was the premise of Neil Burger’s 2011 sci-fi thriller Limitless, based on Alan Glynn’s novel The Dark Fields, in which a struggling writer’s life is transformed by a brain-enhancing drug. As so often happens, Silicon Valley is bringing science fiction from the screen to the street. In this volume, we examine a trend that travels under multiple names—biohacking, smart drugs, cognitive enhancers, nootropics—and represents the confluence of two cultural currents we’ve been tracking here at Culture Briefing: changing expectations of modern medicine (see Vol. 61, 68, 78) and the spread of Silicon Valley’s culture of work (Vol. 20, 27, 88).
There’s a quietly growing market in and around the Valley for unregulated chemical supplements called nootropics (from the Greek noos, mind), which promise enhanced brain function: heightened focus, increased sensory awareness, better memory, and so on. Even more interesting: these drugs are being packaged and sold not by pharmaceutical companies, but by young tech-startup founders, selling mainly to their peers. In a fascinating profile called “The Brain Bro,” the Atlantic’s Olga Khazan tells the story of Nootroo, one of a cluster of San Francisco-based nootropics distributors. Khazan explains that the growth of this new market is fueled by the “productivity race among Silicon Valley types”; which, in its insatiable pursuit of “focus” and “flow”, now goes “far beyond familiar prescription stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin.”
In Vol. 68, we wrote about the ways prescription stimulants are increasingly used not to treat a medical condition, but to gain a competitive advantage in a high-pressure workforce. Nootropics take this one step further: unlike prescription drugs, Nootropics aren’t even intended to treat a “condition,” understood as a medical ailment or disorder. Or, put another way, the “condition” these drugs claim to treat is the gap between your actual level of productivity and what you wish it were. Nootroo’s origin story illustrates the point:
[Founder Eric] Matzner heard the call of nootropics five years ago. He was living in New York, running a different start-up and struggling to manage everything himself. One minute he’d be coding something; the next, he’d be reading a book about advertising so he could write some ad copy. At first, he turned to prescription medications, including amphetamines and modafinil (also marketed as Provigil), an anti-narcolepsy drug. But he soon realized that what he needed was not simply wakefulness so much as the ability to learn faster.
In promising users the ability to learn faster, work smarter, and even relax harder (no joke—read Khazan’s closing anecdote), the nootropics craze both feeds on and extends a set of values that are core to Silicon Valley’s culture of work, a culture we’ve repeatedly described as growing in influence and spilling into areas of life far beyond tech startups. Way back In Vol. 20, we wrote that “‘Silicon Valley’ has become as much a sensibility as a place...[it] stands in as code for a set of values: disruption, innovation, informality, and a deep faith in the world-changing power of technology...a culture that is being developed and exported nearly as ubiquitously as the latest iPhone.” As Sean Parker has put it, the essence of Silicon Valley is the idea that “there is a clever hack for every new problem.” The nootropics market shows that the scope of problems considered “hackable” is expanding to include even chronic and enduring conditions we’ve never treated as “conditions” before—like, say, the limitations of our brains.
If transcending the natural limitations of our brains seems farfetched, keep in mind that in Silicon Valley, the very meaning of a “body” is up for grabs. A New York Magazine piece from last fall called “The Pill Freaks of Silicon Valley” tracks the rise of Nootrobox, a nootropics distributor run by 20-something computer scientists Michael Brandt and Geoffery Woo. Tellingly, these young prophets of neuroenhancement make no meaningful distinction between the human body and a technology: “Humans are the next platform,” Woo says.
“Humans are the next platform,” Woo says.
Silicon Valley veterans know two things about platforms: they’re hackable, and potentially highly lucrative. In a domain whose kingmakers are technotopian venture capitalists—a group primarily driven by the ambition to do “really big, innovative, and groundbreaking things—grandiosity is currency (often quite literally). The Valley’s top VCs have already lined up to fund Nootrobox; because, as NY Mag’s Alex Morris writes: “While it might not seem likely that two computer-science majors would have figured out a way to leapfrog eons of neural development to unlock hidden brain potential, wouldn’t it be beautiful if they had?”
One of Silicon Valley’s most consistent moral imperatives is codified in the founding mantra of Facebook: “move fast and break things.” Permission, it turns out, is often more difficult to receive than forgiveness. It’s not surprising, then, that reliable long-term studies on the safety of nootropics don’t yet exist; Silicon Valley’s biohackers won’t wait around for mainstream science to catch up. Morris describes Brandt and Woo’s product development strategy as “ordering random powders off the internet and hoping they didn’t get punked or worse.” The young co-founders chime in:
“We kind of tried everything. I was half-terrified half the time,” Woo says. “If you’re ordering a compound that’s not really meant for human consumption, and you’re ordering it from Alibaba and it’s from China, you’re rolling the dice,” adds Brandt. Woo agrees: “We were kind of stupid … It’s a complete Wild West.”
Most commercially available nootropics seem doubtfully efficacious, but not obviously harmful—nootropics users are more likely wasting their money than damaging their bodies. But we don’t yet know for sure. As Khazan writes, “[Nootroo] has so far avoided regulation by the FDA and like many nootropics purveyors, it inhabits a regulatory and scientific gray area.”
You can learn a lot about a culture from the drugs it takes.
You can learn a lot about a culture from the drugs it takes. In the same way that the opioid crisis in America’s Rust Belt speaks to an epidemic of hopelessness, the rise of cognitive enhancers captures something of the essence of the Valley: its devotion to productivity—and its trust in hacker philosophy—is so strong that young, healthy people are willing to pump themselves full of mostly-untested drugs just to get an edge. And while the Cult of Optimization may be strongest in the solar-powered laboratories of our technotopian future, it doesn’t start (or end) there. For centuries, the fundamental enterprise of science as we know it has been to “relieve the human condition”; but while “the human condition” used to refer to the realities of pain and sickness, it increasingly refers to biological limitations long thought to be simply natural.