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I’ve spent thousands of hour studying. If you’re an undergraduate, you probably have too (cumulatively). Part of effective studying is developing a studying regimen or plan rather than aimlessly meandering through textbooks.
Nootropics play a big part in my own studying regimen. I’ve been using them to increase the value I extract from my time spent studying for nearly half a decade. In this post, I’ll report on what in my experience have been the best nootropics for learning and retaining.
The Ideal Study Drug
Some nootropics are good for staving off dementia. I count curcumin and blueberries as examples of good neuroprotectants. Other nootropics help you sleep more deeply or keep anxiety at bay. Still others are just a hedge against possible deficiency (like B vitamins).
But what makes one nootropic particularly good for studying?
The best nootropics for studying (and retaining what you study) have these attributes:
- They tend to increase motivation and concentration
- They improve working memory or memory consolidation
- They have limited downsides (e.g., they don’t interfere with restful sleep)
It’s important that a good nootropic for studying improve motivation and concentration because a big aspect of effective studying is staying focused. Humans aren’t suited to sitting in a chair digesting reading materials for long stretches of time; we naturally grow fidgety. We’re also living in an environment with ever increasing optionality and distractions (e.g., iDevices, the deluge of content published online).
That’s why the best nootropics for studying tend to boost motivation, arousal, focus and psychological reward. Every time you complete a practice problem, you get a rewarding dopamine jolt that signals to your brain that you accomplished something. If you can boost this reward, it tends to improve the efficiency of your studying.
Designing A Nootropic Stack For Studying
I’ve tried nearly a hundred different nutraceuticals, nootropics, and drugs. Through a process of trial-and-error I’ve arrived at the following studying stack:
The prescribed dosage of modafinil is 200 mg. I take half of one tablet because I’ve found too much arousal can actually impair my functioning. But just the right amount of arousal and I’m “in the flow.” Modafinil is the cornerstone of my nootropic stack because it has the most robust acute effect and keeps me on task. I avoid Adderall (amphetamine) because it’s unsustainable and potentially neurotoxic.
I’m living in a cold climate and don’t get a lot of sun. I take vitamin D because it’s a potent neurosteroid that plays a role in learning and memory. Vitamin D may also have a protective effect against depression.
Bacopa monnieri is a nootropic herb that has been used in traditional medicine for longevity and cognitive enhancement. Bacopa has been noted to reduce anxiety and enhance memory formation. It’s also one of the more popular nootropics among Redditors.
Bacopa particularly appeals to me because it may help remodel the actual synaptic structure of the brain by promoting dendritic branching.
Dendrites are the branched projections of a neuron that push electrochemical signals received from the electrochemical stimulation received from other neural neurons to the neuronal cell body.
Nicotine (1 mg)
Nicotine is highly controversial due to its negative association with tobacco.
Yet, in small doses, it can boost working memory. The key with nicotine is to only use threshold amounts and use it irregularly. In other words, only take the minimum amount to produce the desired effect.
Whether or not nicotine is habit forming by itself (without the natural MAOIs in tobacco) hasn’t been settled yet.
I personally use nicotine gum or nicotine infused tooth picks. Other routes of administration include the nicotine patch and using a vaporizer.
The gut-brain axis has received a lot interest. It’s the idea that the bacterial environment in your gastrointestinal tract can affect your brain.
I take a probiotic because nicotine can have interesting effects on your gut microbiota. Studies have bene mixed about whether nicotine is harmful or helpful to the gut milieu. One study reported that nicotine may protect against Parkinson’s disease by positively influencing the gut microbiome.
I take melatonin at night because it benefits my sleep quality. Sleep is vital to learning and memory. Studying as an actively is only beneficial if you retain what you learn. Most of this retention is solidified during slow wave sleep.
I would decline to live in a world without coffee. Hopefully that doesn’t sound too entitled. Coffee != caffeine. Much of the benefit of coffee consists of the fact that coffee contains a neuroprotective blend of antioxidants (hydroxycinnamic acids, polyphenols, etc).
Blueberries are a tried and tested nootropic food. Eating well is of general concern for anything who wants to boost their studying productivity. With blueberries, there’s nothing to lose. At worst, you eat a healthy fruit. At best, you enhance memory consolidation, deliver a potent blend of antioxidants to your brain, and protect against dementia.
Nootropics Can Only Take You So Far
I try to be mindful about using nootropics as a shortcut. Sometimes you don’t need a nootropic, you need to sit down, starting studying, and embrace the suck! Much of studying is a grind. That is, unless you’re very passionate about what you’re learning – in which case studying can be a compulsion.
If you’ve taken a drug like Adderall before, you might be familiar with the self-reinforcing pattern of thought that can emerge. You might start to imagine that you can’t study without Adderall. This type of thinking is toxic. Developing good study habits (and lifestyle habits) is probably more important than any particular nootropic that you take for studying.
Good Studying Habits
Thousands of practice problems later, here’s what I learned:
- Don’t worry about how other people study. You know your brain more intimately than anyone. Just because James learns best from flash cards or crazy mnemonic systems doesn’t mean you do.
- Just do one thing. Multitasking is counter productive. Pick a chapter and work through it. Pick a practice problem set and work through it. Task switching is costly. Bifurcating your cognitive bandwidth by multitasking is even more costly.
- Cross train. Sometimes studying the same material results in diminishing marginal returns. You could go over the same material again but you’d only benefit slightly. Sometimes you’ll actually get more academic benefit from taking a break or going for a run. In fact, if you’re sedentary, vigorous exercise is almost guaranteed to be more beneficial than another nth hour of studying.