Smart People Taking Smart Drugs

Executives are gaining a competitive advantage by popping nootropics like Modafinil. Want one?

Dave Asprey takes drugs and he’s a better man for it. The former VP of a Silicon Valley cloud security company and current health and biohacking expert is one of the biggest advocates for nootropics, cognitive enhancers with few known side effects. He favorsModafinil, one of the more popular smart drugs, which he uses to keep up with his roles as father, husband, and entrepreneur. Though Modafinil was developed to treat narcolepsy, Asprey and an increasing number of high-level executives take it for its side effect, increased brain function.

Unlike stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall, the pills most people think of when they think of pharmaceutical-aided performance, nootropics help users focus without making them jittery. Asprey described them as “arousal-promoting,” meaning they effectively engorge cognitive function. While they all work a bit differently, Modafinil – most commonly sold as Provigil – stimulates the release of histamines in your brain (basically the opposite of Benadryl) and increases dopamine, making the process of connecting and creating ideas almost frictionless. Asprey compares taking Modafinil to that moment in The Wizard of Oz when everything changed from black and white into color.

Militaries around the world have used smart drugs for years to help their soldiers. The French had some of their soldiers on Modafinil during the Gulf War, and the U.S. Military gave it to pilots who had 40-hour flights when we were at war with Afghanistan and to soldiers who needed to stay awake for repeated 40-hour shifts during the invasion of Iraq.

In fact, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research has helped fund studies on Modafinilin an effort to find the best way to reduce the amount of sleep soldiers need. Soldiers on the drug could stay awake for 90 hours and outperform unenhanced watchmen. Aspreyhas had pretty much the same results. He recently took cognitive tests during three days without Modafinil, then repeated the tests shortly after going back on the drug and found that his performance was substantially improved.

Given that the reasons to take the drug are scientifically documented, the questions about Modafinil and other nootropics – Piracetam, Aaniracetam, Noopept, and AlphaGPC, to name a few – inevitably veer towards the why not. “Why not?” turns out to be a difficult question to answer.

Modafinil was developed in the seventies and the drug’s advocates are generally unconcerned about its availability through online pharmacies because there have been, up to this point, no negative side effects observed. And it’s not like we’re talking about a small sample size. For a drug you’ve probably never heard of, Modafinil moves units. Provigil, the brand name of the drug, went from selling $25 million in 1999 to $475 million in 2005, to $800 million in 2007, and then to $1.4 billion in 2011. An estimated 90% of these sales are for off-label use – for people like Asprey, who want to be better versions of themselves. Asprey’s reasons for taking Modafinil seem pretty obvious: He just wants to be ‘rockin’ the entire day. “I want all awesomeness,” he says, “recognizing that it’s not possible within what we know today, to completely be at 100, you know, 110% percent like that all the time.”

That thinking is why nootropics are being taken like pharmaceutical-grade Tic-Tacs on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley, and even on college campuses. And that last trend matter: Historically, drugs that go to college become pervasive.

Professor Anjan Chatterjee of the University of Pennsylvania has described the drugs as harbingers of the “age of cosmetic neurology,” but for workers in competitive and intellectually challenging fields, the drugs may become a near necessity. A stimulant arms race may be right around the corner and there may not be any real downside to it.Modafinil has been banned from the Olympics since 2004 because it can prolong the amount of time before an athlete feels exhausted, but the world of work and world of sports are wholly different. Sports are about better. Work is about more.

That said, competitors compete. Barry Bonds was using Modafinil as well as steroids, which begs the question of how well he would have played using Modafinil alone. IfModafinil wasn’t considered cheating in sports, people would look back on Bonds in amazement – and with respect. They’d see the slugger in the same way we see the guys at climbing the ranks at Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, which have very different drug screening practices than Major League Baseball.  

During business school exams at Wharton, Asprey used to lie out his bottles of supplements on his desk so that other students could see what he was using. He figured if they had the opportunity to use the same tools, then it was fair. It may have taken a while for everyone else to catch on, but they finally have. Still a devout believer over a decades late, Dave Asprey raves, “The stuff is magic.” It isn’t, but it can feel that way.

Photos by Getty Images