I started this post a few years ago when I was working on a book project called “The Creative Brain on Drugs.” I’ve left the original content down below – but more recently I’ve been focused on writing faster and boosting word count: when I searched for “best smart drugs for writers” Google actually showed me this post… so I’m going to assume you might also be researching how to boost your productivity, avoid procrastination and writer’s block, and unleash a “genius mode” where you can easier crush your daily word count goals and make consistent progress on your book.
Something I’ve learned recently, after trying out nearly every kind of nootropic, is that writing productivity is only partially about mind and mood: a large part of it is confidence, enthusiasm, and external pressure (in the form of hard deadlines or partners waiting on you to do the work).
Supplements can help, but they aren’t the only thing or even the main thing to keep in mind.
I’ve been writing some recent posts on this stuff:
But am also working on a massive post which may become a book called “writing under the influence” – since that can include a lot of productivity boosting rituals or processes which aren’t limited to drugs or supplements.
BUT in case you just want a quick list of smart drugs to help with writing, here are some brief comments:
Modafinil. It’s amazing but not great for long term use, and I often get a tension headache or migraine the next day. However especially when you’re having trouble holding the WHOLE book in your brain and figuring out plot holes or organizational problems, this can really boost your cognitive ability and let you “see” the whole picture. I also think it kills my procrastination (I usually procrastinate for emotional reasons, because I don’t want to do the work… with Modafinil I just do the work I’ve been avoiding, without the resistance. Warning: also takes away your filter, so you can sound like an asshole (even though it makes me more confident, more eloquent, and able to easily remember more information – great for class – it can also make you sharp or edgy or say mean things).
Huperzine A. This is included in many nootropic stacks and it’s dangerous. Taking for several days makes me manic, which can be awesome: you feel invulnerable, your have HUGE ideas and limitless confidence; but it may be hard to sit and focus on the work (and you may do risky things… I almost got a tattoo and jumped off a boat.) I still take it sometimes when I need Big Ideas.
Green Tea/Mate. Both of these are excellent. Sometimes I add some Pu-erh tea as well.
Coffee/Espresso. With some mct oil, butter or coconut oil. Some coffees give me muscle tension, and you should drink lots of water, but generally this is a great combination.
Lion’s Mane. This is a mushroom; it has subtle effects that are harder to define. I do feel warmth, increased sweating, which are classic indicators of Genius (being in an energized, hyper state). I’m not sure the energy is primarily cognitive (there’s a difference from having more energy so you can work out/exercise/be more social or communicative vs. sitting in your butt and putting in a few thousand words). But this seems to be worth something worth taking.
Marijuana. Some sativas are excellent both for productivity and creative visualization, which makes them ideal for writing fiction especially. Some indicas, which are more relaxing, actually give you a “body high” but an extremely clear and focused mental energy. My current favorites are Sensi Star, Jack Herrer, and Mauei Wowie. These are great for the drafting phase especially, which I always have trouble with – if I’m editing/revising I will do it mainly coffee/lion’s mane. But if I’m rewriting/polishing, I may use weed because it increases dual-hemispheric cognition, which means my word choice, metaphors, the way the syllables taste in my mouth, make my writing more unique and interesting.
Kratom. Still legal in most places, Kratom is a tropical tree from southeast asia with psychoactive effects. In small doses, it can increase energy, sociability, and alertness. I much prefer marijuana, but if I’m somewhere I can’t get it, Kratom is an interesting alternative. It basically makes you feel good and increases focus.
Nicotine. One of the purest stimulants available, like Lion’s Mane it has a “warming” quality, I feel energized without the mental focus and clarity I prefer, but in limited doses or combined with other things it can give you an edge. I use the mints or patches.
Refined sugar. People talk about a sugar buzz or sugar high for a reason. I also plan to train myself to enjoy writing by ONLY letting myself eat junk or cookies when I’m doing writing sprints, to trick the dopamine receptors in my brain.
Gabapentin. This makes me more social/outgoing, so my hypothesis is it will also decrease resistance and let me get into the story. Still need more testing though.
Ritalin. The beat poets used amphetamine for mega-writing sprints (sometimes finishing a whole book in a few days). Personally I haven’t found it great for writing, you feel energized but also antsy, you want to get outside and do things (most drugs that give you a novel sensory experience are too distracting to sit down and do the work… they they can be great for giving you a different way of looking at things or a unique insight into your story). I’ll test this a few more times under more controlled writing settings to see if I can boost my daily wordcount.
Oxygen. Too easily discounted, you really need to be breathing deeper and taking walks in nature, as often as possible. It’s critical to the writing process. Just have a notepad with you to jot down your ideas.
I also take some general brain-healthy supplements like fish oil, magnesium, vitamin C and turmeric.
The main thing is, you need a sturdy writing habit first, you need a baseline. Just taking some drugs isn’t going to suddenly turn you into a writer. You have to know what you’re writing and what happens next, although like I said, if you get stuck on something, sometimes being able to use your brain differently with modafinil or marijuana can give you the epiphany you needed.
Things I want to try: I stopped using modafinil because of the terrible side effects; but recently I tried it again and was fine. I’d like to try it with L-tyrosine and Sensoril Ashwagandha (L-theanine leaves me foggy, but the calming effective of Ashwaganda might balance out the modafinil).
Also, even though I dislike choline, it’s probably important to add some to my diet, so I may find a stack with choline that I can take at night.
What about nootropic stacks for writers?
I’ve tried a lot of nootropics, and generally I don’t like them because they have a bunch of random stuff in them that sounds good, but doesn’t work as intended. Many have huperzine A, which I warned about above. Others have L-Theanine, which is supposed to create “wakeful relaxation” (it always makes my brain feel sluggish and too relaxed). People like it because it reduces stress and gives you that “zen” feeling… but for juggling thousands of words together in your head and organizing huge amounts of data, I’m not a fan). A lot of others also include Choline – while this may help some people, I’ve also gotten severe brain fog from it, so I try to avoid it.
I really appreciate this article from MindLabPro, which does a great job of outlining the things writers need:
- Focus and Concentration
- Decision Making
And then offers why its ingredients will give you those results… but I disagree in practice.
I also adore the ads for Qualia, which is targeted towards helping creative people bring forth their vision into the world… great branding. BUT the benefits are subtle, for the price (there are two separate pills, and they’re really big) the first is decent, so I used up those… now I use the bigger pills every few days before going to sleep; the choline makes me drowsy and I can’t eat it daily because of the huperzine A).
If you’re interested in this stuff, stay tuned for my massive post on writing under the influence. Here are some notes on the original product:
I’m writing a book about creativity and drugs. It isn’t finished, but given a popular and title-loaded article I’ve seen circulating this week (“Will smart drugs really make us smarter, or just ruin lives”) I thought I’d share my basic introduction to the topic.
My book is called “The Creative Brain on Drugs: Smart pills, nootropics and other mental stimulants in art, history and your life“.
The foundations of this book are two-fold
The first is that the past 5 years have seen a flurry of publications on creativity and productivity – due to the outsourcing of blue collar work and the unstable job market in a shaky economy, the myth of getting a job and saving for retirement – the American Dream – has largely failed to inspire.
Instead the only way to preserve your value and earning ability is to be an “ideas-man”; to be creative; to produce your own content or start your own businesses. If you aren’t creating (not only value but innovation and novelty), you’re easily replaceable.
As such there are scores of books rushing to market with promises of improving your lateral thinking, creativity or innovation. Scientists are writing about brain chemistry and artists are writing about the creative lifestyle. Our cultural heroes are the great artistic geniuses of old; the mad scientist; the emotional painter; the rebels and non-conformists. We romanticize these creative producers and their biographies and highlight their frustrations and inabilities to be “normal.”
But at the same time society largely perpetuates the false stereotype that creativity necessarily verges on madness. “Peer into the abyss and the abyss peers back at you” (Nietzsche). The Faustian dilemma of “going too far” and straining against natural limitations is read as a cautionary tale rather than a practical primer (Faust was an early story of drug fueled creative discovery).
What is conveniently forgotten, even hidden and disguised, is that the creative output of the greatest minds in the history of civilization was mostly drug induced. The ancient philosophers were all initiates of secret mysteries, in which some form of psychoactive substance brought about novel experiences. The Enlightenment thinkers had the newly introduced foreign substances of tobacco, sugar and coffee.
Van Gogh, the impressionists and other modernists had Absinthe, hashish and opium; Edison and Freud used cocaine; Einstein and other mathematicians used speed/meth (if you doubt any of these claims, you’ll have to read the book for my arguments). Kerouac and the other beat poets used Benzedrine.
It isn’t merely that, in the history of mankind, some artists and writers used drugs: I will argue that drug use is nearly unanimous, and that the history of art and literature coincides neatly with the history of what mind-altering substances were cheap, legal and widely available.
Humanity has been flirting with prohibition and state legislation of illegal drugs and pharmaceuticals for just over a century, and despite an outpouring of research from all fields proving prohibition leads to increased violence, crime, dependency and addiction, policy remains largely in force. But there are cracks: millions in jail for possession of marijuana as Colorado and Washington introduce full legalization, without prescription.
Voices previously silenced by a restrictive, conservative religious elements which targeted dissenters and free thinkers as “Communists” during the Red Scare and then “Satanists” during the hippie movement have begun to reemerge, pointing to the long and deep history of social philosophy and political theory which warns of the dangers of a police state regulating citizens states of mind.
“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
For decades, housewives have been prescribed barbiturates and other mood regulators, and students have been taking speed or other uppers to keep up with school (often on the recommendation of the family doctor). Today, a wave of restless young graduates with dim career opportunities rush into startup and entrepreneurial communities and compare their daily “stacks” of productivity boosting meds, supplements and vitamins to increase their competitive edge.
The subReddit board for Nootropics features incredibly precise and calculated dosages, cutting edge scientific research, and personal experiences with various new chemicals being made in Russia or China and ordered online. These are no kids getting stoned in the basement; these are health and brain-conscious individuals pushing the limits of human cognition with self-experimentation.
As someone who works in both publishing and fine art, I receive dozens of emails every day from creative people trying to start businesses, not sure what they should paint or write about, not sure how to be more productive or more successful. It’s a shame that many of the most significant creativity boosters known to man remain largely unrecognized for their contributions to civilization, progress and science, art, literature and music. And not only unrecognized, but viewed with disdain, skepticism or mistrust, as “dangerous” or “evil.” Decades of anti-drug propaganda have convinced the general public that such drugs lead to violence, crime, psychosis and ruined lives.
Even though the greatest creators, artists and musicians in history – those most deserving of the term “creativity” – were moderate to heavy users of novel and foreign substances that greatly altered thinking, sensation and awareness; we tend to assume their creative genius was a gift so strong they could access it despite the drugs, or that they were using the drugs to bolster their natural genius or mental activity. We think “what a pity nobody appreciated their genius and they had to turn to drugs to comfort themselves” even when they’re telling us openly and without hesitation, that drugs were integral to their creative process and output.
If you’ve never been high on any drugs (substances) you literally have never been in the same “state of mind” or had a shared mental experience with 99% of the greatest writers of all time. On the other hand, if you drink coffee in the morning and Camomile tea at night, you’re already familiar with self-medicating and controlling your mood, energy and productivity levels.
Given then, the current obsession with creativity boosting, and a not unconnected rise in the interest of “smart drugs” or “cognitive enhancers” to maximize productivity, a proper research into the subject is warranted.
How this book is organized
Part One: The history of boosting creativity with deliberate drug and substance use.
Part Two: What is creativity? Who needs it? What’s it good for? How can we get more of it?
Part Three: A practical and personal guide to the available substances and how to use them for creative success.
I hope by the first section to prove that a great many iconic creative thinkers and artists were quite literally experiencing states of mind that can only be replicated with similar mind-altering substances.
We cannot envy them their creativity while refusing to experiment with the same mental states. Aspiring to their levels of creativity with only coffee, fish oil and moderate exercise is doomed to be a frustrated ambition.
The Definition of Crazy
You’ve heard it before. Crazy is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Let’s say you want to finish the book, or start that business, or quit your job. You’ve been thinking about it for years. But you’re stuck in a routine. You’re missing that “Big” idea. So you just keep doing the same thing and hoping, somehow, things will change.
But “big ideas” don’t just strike out of the blue, and you won’t get them by using your brain the same way you always do. Your thinking follows the well worn paths of brain pathways. To get them to jump off that highway and go somewhere new, and make new connections, your brain needs to be used in novel and unprecedented ways.
This book will be your guide.