This article published last week, claims to be the first to use r/nootropics as a data source and is focused on the “not-so-productive, not-so-effective encounters with enhancement substances.” Their theory is that people under-report negative stories when it comes to cognitive enhancers. I partially agree that it is possible people under report side-effects, but I disagree with their methodology and conclusion because they only analyze the posts here and take no data from the comment section. As most of you can attest, much of the best information on /r/nootropics comes from the comments.

This study compares /r/nootropics users to amphetamine using college students in NYC, even while acknowledging that r/nootropics specifically excludes amphetamines from being considered a nootropic in the wiki. Even without agreeing with their methodology or conclusions, the study does include some interesting points that I will share and comment on below:

Who here mentioned us to the researchers? 😉

The discussion forum – a so-called ‘subreddit’ (see below) by the name of Nootropics – was mentioned by fieldwork participants as a source of information in regard to using substances for enhancement. To our knowledge, this specific data source has not been used systematically in any previous work within this field. We chose to conduct an analysis of the discussions of enhancement technologies on Nootropics due to the apparent importance of the platform, and the various empirical and methodological advantages associated with using unsolicited online data in this field (see below).

They say this of our hive-mind:

This type of data can thus provide us with unique insight into the sentiments of a hard-to-reach population, and into the social processes employed to create knowledge and develop group values.

They only processed posts and no comments:

our analysis is focused on the posts which initiate discussions – questions, experiences, news and so on – rather than the discussion itself.

Their word analysis found that the word “effects” is the most common, followed by “feel”, “brain”, “sleep”, and “anxiety”. When “brain” is found, it is most often found in the context of “brain fog,” which is interesting because I have also noticed the prevalence of that phrase and have not seen it used often outside of online forums like here or LongeCity. Their analysis found that people use the phrase both positively and in some cases, negatively:

The most common collocate of brain is fog (309 occurrences). When making a qualitative assessment of the 228 posts that include this collocation, it appears that the bigram ‘brain fog’ is used to describe an unclear, unfocused or confused state of mind, with two main trends emerging. Many of the posts explain brain fog as the main reason for using or wanting to use nootropics, in the hope of reducing or removing the foggy state of mind; but in quite a lot of cases, brain fog is used to describe a state of mind that either worsens or suddenly appears after having used these substances. Thus, while ‘brain fog’ for some is the motivation for using substances for enhancement, for others it seems to be a side effect or unintended consequence of using these substances.

By not including the comments in their analysis and only the posts, they kind of seem to miss the forest for the trees because those of us who have read and studied what works, are not actually posting new threads related to how good the stack is working and continuing to work for us every day. That kind of data is found in the replies to the types of threads they analyzed:

People query how long substance use should go on, whether they should keep using the substance forever and worry whether it will continue to work as well as it does at the moment. As one person writes, paraphrased here for purposes of anonymity; “I’m not expecting enhancement at the level of the movie Limitless, but I am not sure nootropics are worth taking for months or years if the only effect is a small improvement in memory, skills and mood.” The post ends by asking which nootropics have provided people with the greatest effects.

As backed up by the word frequency, they conclude that we are focused on the effects, which makes sense. And it also makes sense that people posting with little experience want to know the following:

Many of the posts, written by people who have little or no prior experience with these substances, request a range of information including how many milligrams to take, how to put stacks together and how often or in which kinds of situations it might be best to take them.

So the other half of the study is on stimulants in college students in NYC and what is interesting is something I didn’t think about in comparison to the way college students or others use stimulants vs the way I and many others use nootropics. I take nootropics (and the rest of my supplements), daily throughout the year including on weekends. The college students stop taking the stimulants when they are out of school:

Students generally use stimulants more frequently and at higher doses the further into the semester they get, although there is quite a variation in how often and in what situations they use them. When on break, most of the students in the study do not even think about stimulants, unless they need to catch up on work they did not finish or if, for example, an occasional apartment cleaning becomes too boring.

I also am interested in an example they use of a student who lost his phone, keys and wallet after having an incident after staying up for multiple days. I truly believe that this is a difference where it is a positive for nootropics that they are not stimulants. If your body really needs sleep, nootropics will not keep you awake. Whereas on modafinil or amphetamines, you can push yourself further than I believe is safe and everything can come crashing down quickly. It only takes one mistake to potentially ruin your life. Before I was fully into nootropics and started Nootroo, I had an incident myself after pushing too far on modafinil which resulted in a bad split-second decision that led directly to my backpack with laptop being stolen. I believe at that point I should have been asleep instead of awake and is partially why I am not a fan of amphetamines or eugeroics (name for the class of the wakefulness promoting agents including the -afinils) and have not taken them since:

Suddenly, in the last week of the semester, he did not show up for our appointment, two days after having turned in the final exam paper. He was going to return books and do some practical paperwork on campus, so we agreed to meet for a coffee near the library. 24 h went by before he sent an email apologizing and saying that he had lost his phone, his wallet and his keys and had no way of getting in contact. Only after he had been asked several times and very directly about what had happened did he explain that he had crashed after two ‘all-nighters’ and a party, meaning three days without sleep. He was quite embarrassed and did not really want to talk much about it.

I dig a bit of their section on “The Imperative of enhancement” (4.3, p8) and am looking into some of the linked citations such as the concept of “technology of optimization.” Another phrase I had never heard, although it sounds somewhat derisive, is how they describe our discussions, as “folk pharmacology”:

Instead, people who use substances for enhancement have developed an intricate ‘folk pharmacology’ and symptomology; in other words, they rely on their own and others’ experiences with these substances and the issues they are meant to alleviate. This indigenous knowledge seems to have priority over official medical knowledge.

Their conclusion is that while we are more open to talking about negatives (as compared to directly interviewed students), we still do not talk enough about the “dark sides” or downsides of using substances for cognitive enhancement. To that, I will say to the researchers reading this who wrote this paper or even future ones: most of the deeper discussion on those effects are in the comments and usually it is the OP (original poster) who is new to nootropics and less informed, and therefore this analysis throws out the very info you claim we don’t discuss.

And I also disagree with your conclusion and application of Aikins’ suggestion:

As Aikins has suggested, one of the biggest problems with prescription stimulants is that they work, or that users believe that they work (Aikins, 2011), and this may very well be applied to nootropics more generally. With so many available and possibly conflicting messages about what works and what does not work, for whom and in what situations, the pursuit of attaining a better self through substance use may often involve a never-ending journey

The is the reason you can’t compare stimulants to nootropics. Stimulants feel like they are working even if they are not and from single doses in pretty much everyone. With nootropics, there is more nuance, you don’t really “feel” anything as subjectively and the positive effects build up over time (whereas amphetamine effects get worse over time). Because of that, I would say that no, you cannot apply Aikins observation to nootropics.

Again, by excluding comments, you miss a major source of accurate information and throw the baby out with the bath water. The more experienced users are in the comments or are just “lurking” because this forum can sometimes get overloaded with “basic” questions and people get tired of responding with the same info over and over again (which is why we have the wiki that you mention). The reason there are over 150,000+ r/nootropics subscribers isn’t because it is a never ending journey, but because nootropics work for most of us we stick around because we want to learn how to go even further in enhancing ourselves. If you could put in a little work into what you call “folk pharmacology” and incrementally and safely enhance yourself, why would you stop? Exploring the upper limits of enhancement might be a better topic for your next paper.


Source: “The uncertainties of enhancement: A mixed-methods study on the use of substances for cognitive enhancement and it’s unintended consequences”