Ever since we humans first started inventing things all those millennia ago, we’ve never abandoned our quest to live longer, healthier, and more fruitful lives. But while our paleolithic ancestors chomped down psychedelic plants to commune with spirit realms and struggled to invent the wheel, we’re now able to improve our memory, brain power and capacity just with a few small pills. The age of nootropics is upon us.
While many people have only experienced nootropics through films such as Limitless and Lucy, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to try them myself. For a month, I took a daily dose of Vin Pro a vinpocetine supplement from Profound Products, designed to boost my brain. Here’s the low down.
Vinpocetine is a semisynthetic extract from the lesser periwinkle plant, first isolated by Hungarian chemist Csaba Szántay in 1975, commonly considered a nootropic, or cognitive enhancing compound, vinpocetine is reported to provide beneficial increases to memory, mood, learning capacity and focus, as well as improving blood-flow to the brain. Some studies have even indicated that vinpocetine may have a neuroprotective effect, shielding the brain from potential damage.
Vinpocetine is also being promoted, due to its anti-inflammatory properties, as a potential treatment for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and in some European countries it is prescribed for cerebrovascular disorders and age-related memory impairment.
Historically, the periwinkle plant has been used for centuries as a rejuvenating tonic, especially for the elderly, and as an astringent. In fact, during the Middle Ages, periwinkle was known as “sorcerer's violet”.
The number of supposed effects of vinpocetine is somewhat staggering, including improved hearing, vision, and cardiovascular function, but it is most well-known for its cognitive enhancement capability. It is commonly reported as:
There is little, if any, toxicity associated with vinpocetine, and few reported side effects. The most interesting of these, and mentioned relatively frequently by users in online reviews, is a heightened sense for colour and contrast. I was really hoping to experience this.
To make the most of my month on vinpocetine, and to see what it could do, I decided that it would be worth testing my powered-up powers of memory and learning.
To attempt to leave as little to anecdotal bias as possible, I devised a series of assessments to test my burgeoning genius including a rigorous regime of memory task dual n-back, as well as a number of the Cambridge Brain Sciences activities, and even some rote memorisation tasks.
Dual n-back is a variant of n-back, designed in 1958 by Wayne Kirchner as a continuous performance task to assess parts of the working memory. Essentially, it requires the player to monitor stimuli, signalling when they match previous stimuli n steps back; in my case, the stimuli were a moving dot on a grid and a sound-clip of a number being read.
Dual n-back makes a great cognitive assessment for memory: when playing at 2-back or higher, it’s not enough to simply remember each stimulus as it appears; your working memory buffer has to continually update to keep track of what the current and relevant past stimuli are.
Not only is dual n-back an excellent assessment, it may provide bonuses too. A number of studies have linked continuous Dual n-back training with permanent increases in IQ.
The Cambridge Brain Sciences suite is a collection of online assessments primarily designed and developed by Dr. Adam Hampshire and Dr. Adrian M. Owen at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge UK. It provides a web-based platform for people to assess their cognitive function using scientifically proven tests in memory, attention, reasoning, and planning.
While I tried all the different assessments in the Cambridge Brain Sciences suite over my month on vinpocetine, I primarily focused on the Spatial Span and Spatial Slider (reasoning), and Monkey Ladder and Paired Associates (memory).
To make things a bit more interesting, I also undertook a few personal challenges. I decided to memorise a few pieces of poetry, Tolkien’s Lay of Beowulf, and a portion of one of Griffin’s monologues from H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man.
I also, taking a page from a few cognitive training books, started juggling! Juggling is widely reputed to not only be beneficial to hand-eye-coordination (something I severely lack), but also for cognition as well.
So, the results. Was vinpocetine everything I thought it would be? In short, yes, I suppose it was. While I didn’t become a memory superman, and in fairness, I didn’t expect to, I did notice some distinct benefits.
Perhaps the most noticeable change was, unsurprisingly, in my ability to recall information I’d learned the previous day accurately and quickly. During a misspent university career in the humanities, I had to memorise more than my fair share of literary passages, but what once took weeks of effort I was now accomplishing in mere days. Though a close friend suggested that this phenomenon may have had more to do with my lack of enthusiasm for schoolwork than the nootropics, I don’t think it can be entirely dismissed.
Fortunately, there was little uncertainty about my improvement in dual n-back performance. Phwoar. Over the period of a month, I went from barely struggling through 3-back to serenely cruising through round after round of 8-back. Given my working memory has been quite poor historically, even at the best of times, this is no small achievement. While, obviously, there was some non-nootropic influenced learning going on — it would be a sad indictment of my own intellect if I did something every day for a month and never got any better at it — I think the speed at which I progressed may not have been possible without vinpocetine.
Similarly, my performance in the Cambridge Brain Sciences suite of assessments was equally impressive in its improvement. While, as expected, I did experience some boosts to my performance in the memory tasks, my reasoning and logic results also went up as well which speaks for the overall benefits to brain function touted by vinpocetine’s proponents.
Ultimately, although the cynic in me wants to shout “placebo” and the optimist “success”, the rational me is sitting somewhere in the middle. I can’t prove that I wouldn’t have done as well throughout the month without nootropics, but I certainly did feel like I experienced some subtle changes in how well my memory and general thinking functioned.
I felt more alert, my brain felt more responsive to new information, and I felt motivated to learn like I hadn’t before. Maybe it was just a keenness to test out my vinpocetine-boosted brain but I often felt like I had more energy and more desire to get things done and put my mind to use.
If there are side effects to vinpocetine, I didn’t experience any. While I’d read online that some users experienced nausea, stomach upsets and even sleep disruption, I wasn’t once bothered by anything untoward.
That said, it’s definitely worth considering speaking to a doctor before taking a nootropic supplement if you suffer from particular allergies, currently take potentially conflicting medication, or have other health issues that may be affected.
Sadly, I didn’t experience any of the exciting changes to colour perception that I’d been hoping for.
I have to give this question a resounding yes. While I certainly didn’t gain magical memory powers or anything of the sort, I did experience a large enough improvement in my day to day cognitive function that I was not only impressed but also pleasantly surprised.
From my reading before I started the trial, I found that many people who had tried and then abandoned nootropics often did so because they had unrealistic expectations of the benefits they could offer. I consciously tried not to get caught up in this sort of mindset — while I enjoyed Bradley Cooper in Limitless as much as anyone, I never assumed I could look forward to that sort of mental power — and I think that had a role in my positive experience of nootropics.
In the month I took vinpocetine I consciously made the time to think more about how my brain works. I tested my memory daily, tried new ways of improving my cognition (I’ve stuck with the juggling and it’s my new favourite hobby), and generally did my utmost to squeeze more power out of my cerebral cortex. In fact, more than anything else, I think that enthusiasm may have been the most obvious benefit of vinpocetine: I had the inspiration to do more with my brain.
It sounds a bit silly, but it really isn’t. There is significant statistical evidence that people who take multivitamins have healthier lifestyles than those that don’t — the very act of researching and taking a supplement makes people more conscious and thus more responsible for and invested in their own health. I think the same principle applies to nootropics such as vinpocetine; whatever their benefits, and I definitely think there are some, the feeling of doing something actively beneficial for your brain is a great impetus to put more effort into staying mentally agile generally.
In my opinion, nootropics offer a similar sort of benefit as multivitamin supplements: the ability to optimize yourself and make big overall wins through small gains in general health and body function. Of course, it’s important to manage your expectations, but in my opinion, nootropics offer real benefits for those who are willing to put the effort in.
While, to quote famous sceptic James Randi, ‘there is a distinct difference between having an open mind and having a hole in your head from which your brain leaks out’, I’d like to think that, despite my open mind about nootropics, my brain has remained safely inside my head — and is perhaps even running just a bit faster.