Base of the brain. Stipple engraving by Neele & Son, 1810/18 Base of the brain. Stipple engraving by Neele & Son, 1810/18

The word “nootropic” comes from the Greek for “mind” and “turning.” To turn the mind—to move it over itself, like turning over an engine, spinning the parts alive—is to look inward. Or it is at least to believe that the solution comes from within, not from those around us. What solution? The specifics don’t matter; what matters is that there is a solution—something being done—that creates the problem: not being productive or efficient enough. To solve this problem, which is less a personal problem and more a symptom of society, we might try to work with others, all those workers we’re networked to; we might try to change daily demands, not to make them easier, necessarily, but to change value from quantitative to qualitative. Or we might try nootropics, an individual, personal solution to a collective unease with the way things are.

To take a nootropic is to separate oneself from the world in order to stand out in it. To take a nootropic is to demand measurement: We measure ourselves so we can compare who we are now not with other people but with previous and future versions of ourselves. Improvement, then, via nootropics and the like, becomes a necessarily solitary pursuit, with each person using the tools of the internet—apps, trackers, &c.—to keep herself separate from the rest of the internet. To take a nootropic is to insist each of us is alone online, a place defined by connectivity. It is to insist on the self, alone and lonely, as the source of and solution to the problems of the day.

—Rachel Z. Arndt

Instruction manual

1. Feel inadequate. Feel that you’re not getting enough done. Feel that other people have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps when you’re still in your socks.

2. Choose a stack online that appeals to your dual responsibility to be productive and to be independently so.

3. Wait for the shipment to arrive, tracking it obsessively in between visits to Facebook and pings from an app that asks “What are you doing right now?”

4. Collect two days worth of work and one day to do it.

5. Set your apps to quiz you at two-hour intervals, frequent enough to collect sufficient data, infrequent enough for your productivity to thrive.

6. Take a pill. Sit down at your computer.

7. Wait for the pill to kick in, to tickle the brain into action. Feel neurotransmitter activity increasing and decreasing according to the manufacturer’s promises, because if there is no change, then what you’re doing—taking a pill—is a waste of time and effort; it’s inefficient.

8. Start typing. Start annotating the pill with Powerpoint slides and Excel spreadsheets. Thank Microsoft, thank the nootropics manufacturer, thank yourself.

9. Don’t talk to other people—they may get in the way of your optimized state. If you must talk, listen to yourself: hear your words flowing as they do for a nootropics-juiced Joe Rogan.

10. Track your output. Later, you can use these numbers as further justification for the pill. You can remind yourself, in moments of weakness, that it was not other people who got you to that “heightened state”—it was you (and some chemicals).

11. Go online to prove how focused you are.

12. Sign off. You don’t need other people to give context to your efficiency; you already have context: what you were before the nootropics kicked in, what you will become when the nootropics wear off.


hero – he who optimizes

optimization – the new self-help, with a focus on dismissing the present as never good enough in the push for a better—a more productive—future

optimize – to weed out the bad habits that connect you to the world and to program yourself as a spreadsheet or Powerpoint: moving according to formulas with given inputs and expected outputs

present – the disappointing current state of things

sleep – what computers do when inactive, mimicked by people when nootropics wear off; the opposite of productivity—unless it’s measured

system – the body

work – that which makes a person valuable

the body – an experiment or machine

ritual – the performance of obsessive detail

overclock – to stay up past one’s bedtime while measuring the effects of staying up past one’s bedtime

biohack – not an improvement but a way of improving, like the sky on the water is not the sky but a way of seeing it

quantified self – the way bits become people, replacing flesh until they comprise the whole body, a body sewn from data points, its hems the faulty correlations drawn to make the project worthwhile

resilience – the space between want and need, between feel and think

focus – the ability to think the way one hears while blocking out with noise-cancelling headphones the upstairs neighbors rearranging the furniture again: Distraction exists, but it is not distracting; you are alone with thoughts, and those thoughts are productive

stack – a combination of ingredients that result in optimization; or, a combination of ingredients you share online, open source, not out of benevolence but out of the need to stand out as a more optimized individual

individual – used in place of “person” when a person must emphasize, for the purposes of her argument, the similarities between people and protocol; used in place of “person” to make the speaker sound more scientifically minded, like a person whose every action is part of a well-planned process that guarantees well-planned, measurable, and valuable results

quantified self – the system of beliefs that reduce to the idea that correlation is causation

numbers – what comprise the body

track – to value the present because it produces data that can stabilize the future; to experience the present as something to be measured, not lived

enhancement – the replacement of vitality with ambition

peak performance – the mechanical whirr of thinking

baseline – a life loud with distractions and the squeak of gears ungreased by stacks

feedback loop – the perpetual motion machine that makes nootropics worthwhile because taking a pill is evidence of the kind of ambition and focus necessary to decide to take a pill and the kind of ambition and focus that result from taking a pill

Rachel Z. Arndt received MFAs in nonfiction and poetry from the University of Iowa, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow and nonfiction editor of the Iowa Review. Her work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Quartz, Pank, and elsewhere. Her essay collection, about measurement, is forthcoming from Sarabande in 2018.

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