Nootropics, smart drugs, adaptogens, peptides, actoprotectants, and the list goes on. Many supplements promise to improve your cognition and elevate your brain’s performance.
How do you know if they’re actually working?
The vast majority of brain products don’t make you feel any different.
To further complicate things, even noticeable stimulants like caffeine may give you just the perception of increased brain power. Or more likely in those with coffee habits, a return to baseline.
Brain boosters can get pricey. At $50 to $300 per container, you want to make sure it has the intended effects and works for your unique neurobiology.
The traditional approach consisted of taking a dose and comparing productivity to an average day. While simple and intuitive, this lacks vigor and true significance.
Instead, I recommend using the following tools and cognitive tests to quantify how well your nootropics, smart drugs, and brain supplements work for YOU.
A few quick notes before covering the different ways to qualify and quantify.
Choose Quality Products
Have you heard the aphorism, “garbage in, garbage out”?
It certainly applies to brain products.
Like many supplements, cheap, low-quality nootropics often come contaminated. By heavy metals, other active ingredients, hormones, and a dizzying list of toxins. That’s why I always recommend you buy products straight from the vendor rather than going through sites notoriously riddled with counterfeits (looking at you, Amazon).
You can reduce the chances of getting a bad product by using my nootropic sourcing checklist:
- Certificate of Analysis (CoA) is available to consumers on their website
- Video reviews and other verifiable customer testimonials
- Company reputation should be clean
- Founder information is readily accessible
- Website contains links to product ingredient research (performed in humans)
- Money back guarantee
The more of these checks the product passes, the more reputable. I check each of these for products I use. I’ve been researching, testing, and reviewing the best nootropic vendors on the internet. I’ll share my findings in a future post.
As much as I want one master test to quantify every cognitive enhancer, it doesn’t exist.
Nothing on this list will work for all ingredients and every goal.
There’s no way of accurately quantifying and attributing all biological changes to any particular stimulus.
Therefore, you should choose a service/method based on your desired effects. At the same time, don’t discard the qualitative effects.
Whatever method you choose, try to keep variables the same throughout your testing. So if you typically drink a 12 ounce coffee at 8 AM, continue that routine. Controlling variables like that increases the accuracy and repeatability of your experiments.
Heed Side Effects
Biological compatibility trumps high scores.
If a certain ingredient or habit dramatically increases your score, but comes with unpleasant adverse effects, listen to your body.
The human body is incredibly resilient. Side effects are signals that serve a purpose. You can often ignore them for a while. Ignore them for too long, however, and they may metastasize into something worse.
Cognition is a long-term pursuit. Many things can cause huge boosts but leave you depleted. Detracting from your baseline state.
Remember that improved metrics don’t always indicate better health.
Technologies & Services to Test the Effects of Brain Ingredients
There are all kinds of ways to get quantitative and qualitative feedback about how things impact your mental performance.
Below, I’ve listed just a few of the ones I’ve personally used and found useful.
HRV Biofeedback Testing
As I’ve covered previously, heart rate variability biofeedback training is the gold standard nervous system assessment. Unlike a metronome, the heart does not beat at a consistent rhythm. There’s actually a slight millisecond variation in the time between beats. That measurement of variation is called HRV. It depicts your balance between stress and relaxed states.
Stimulants and certain brain products can force you into sympathetic “fight-or-flight” dominant states. While increasing your physical and mental energy, sympathetic dominance restricts creativity, pattern recognition, and seeing the “bigger picture”. Strong sympathetic activating ingredients push you closer to burnout and breakdown of the body (catabolism).
Some of the most popular nootropics (like L-Theanine) shift the balance the other way, towards parasympathetic relaxation dominance. Helping you enter the “flow state” and the optimal state of “restful alertness” characteristic of high-performers. Parasympathetic ingredients epitomize working smarter not harder while at the same time, helping rejuvenate the body.
You can use an inexpensive HRV biofeedback monitor to measure your state before and after using the product. Then compare to see what effect it had on your nervous system. I like to test before, and then after 30 minutes, one hour, and two hours. Note that other life events can dramatically and quickly influence your HRV.
While heart and brain coherence are intricately linked, another important and more relevant form of biofeedback quantification is directly detecting changes in brain state.
Overwhelming evidence correlates brain state with certain qualities, experiences, and when imbalanced, health conditions.
There are many different frequency ranges of brain waves. Ranging from slow Delta waves, all the way up to “Hyper Gamma”.
Things that impact cognition also impact the dominant brain wave in crucial parts of the brain. For most of the waking day, modern humans live in Beta. A state characterized by focus, energy, and problem-solving. In excess, it leads to stress, burnout, and many of the most common health disorders.
Conversely, a state dominated by Alpha, Theta, and/or Gamma brainwaves can indicate a deep, insightful, highly-productive flow state. This is the realm of elite athletes, lifelong meditators, mystics, and other peak performers.
EEG devices and other brain sensing technology can help you determine your current state, and track it over time. You can find which neuro supplements (like hemp theanine, noopept, etc) bring your brain into coherence.
Neurofeedback is a powerful therapy used to train your brain to naturally enter and sustain those states at will. Not long ago, only clinics and universities had access to this technology. The kits cost tens of thousands each.
Today, budget-friendly neurofeedback systems make it available in every home. Two top kits are:
This technology provides a drug-free technique to achieve states similar to smart drugs. Without the side effects.
Neurofeedback is one of my favorite ways to enhance the effects of nootropics dramatically.
Human Benchmark is perhaps my favorite online brainpower testing app. It’s simple to use, modern, free, and quick. It’s one of the originals, available since 2007.
It contains eight different games and tests:
- Reaction Time
- Sequence Memory
- Aim Trainer
- Number Memory
- Verbal Memory
- Chimp Test
- Visual Memory
Each of the games is quick, shows your anonymous scores compared to other users, and can save to your profile.
Most people do fine using just Human Benchmark to quantify their state.
BrainLabs is a service created by Cambridge Brain Sciences for the masses to quantify their brain function. This tool is backed by 25+ years of research, used in 300 peer-reviewed studies, and successfully used seven million times globally. Each of their many tests has detailed instructions and takes less than 10-minutes to complete.
As they describe it,
“BrainLabs is for anyone who wants a quantified measure of brain health. Whether you’re a biohacker self-experimenting to find an optimal state of mind or are worried about issues that arise due to aging, BrainLabs will help you discover more about yourself, while helping scientists discover more about the brain”.
BrainLabs has been featured in many of the world’s biggest publications.
The service lumps tests into three categories:
Under the free plan, you can take tests multiple times, compare yourself to the community, and track your scores over time.
This is one of the first advanced cognition testing services I recommend testing.
Quantified Mind is an older brain testing service (as evident by the insecure “HTTP” website and dated look) and more for experienced neurohackers.
Rather than just taking tests and playing games, Quantified Mind is organized around experiments. Pre-loaded experiments include:
- Skipping Breakfast
- Time of Day
Each experiment contains a number of relevant tests.
They handle the experimental design, and you simply follow the instructions. If you’re interested in how any of the above impact your cognition, Quantified Mind is a nice tool.
More importantly, you can also create and customize your own experiments. That way, with a click of a button, you can see how an intervention impacts multiple facets of cognition. All in one place. Quantified Mind also allows you to entire notes into your experiment.
For a service that elegantly tests and logs various forms of mental function all within one report, use Quantified Mind.
BrainHQ is both cognitive assessment and training, all in one platform. They have 29 tests designed to improve attention, brain speed, memory, people skills, navigation, and intelligence. Over 100 published scientific papers show the validity and efficacy of this technology.
Based on your answers to a survey, BrainHQ customizes a training program to your goals. Or, you can design your own program.
Testing categories include:
- Brain speed
- People Skills
This is one of the few tools that also offers a mobile app and has a tiered “level” system. Each level only takes a few minutes, so you can sit down for as long (or short) as you like.
Unfortunately, users on the free tier can only access one “test of the day”. However, many libraries, health insurance companies, and other institutions offer the service for free.
If you don’t qualify for the free premium version, it’s a sub-par cognitive testing tool.
BrainHQ is a solid cognitive testing and assessment platform if you’re willing to pay or get it for free.
Brainitor is the simplest of all brain testing apps. You load the website, click start, and it quickly puts you through a series tests ranging in duration from 30-seconds to one minute.
Tests include one measure of:
- Immediate Memory
- Cognitive Flexibility
- Processing Speed
- Problem Solving
- Delayed Memory
- Response Time
After your session, they show a visualization of your results. Then your stats get saved to your dashboard, and compared both to other users and your previous scores.
They do prompt you to take a questionnaire afterward, which I skipped.
It’s relatively thorough but basic and should suffice for basic uses.
Brainitor is a decent no-frills brain testing service that promises a free-forever tier.
Test My Brain is another older site, that’s provided online brain testing for years. With the stated mission: “TestMyBrain aims to engage and collaborate with citizen scientists like you, by providing tools to help you learn about yourself. When you test yourself, you contribute to brain research.”
They offer several cognitive tests:
- Cognitive Speed
- Everyday Cognition
- Visual Reasoning
- Famous Faces
Ranging from three minutes (Cognitive Speed) to 19-minutes (Everyday Cognition). My complaint with TestMyBrain is that they require a multi-step questionnaire just to take the tests.
Plus, they do share your data with their sponsors (United States National Institute of Aging and National Institute of Mental Health).
Use TestMyBrain if you want your data to contribute to The Many Brains Project and don’t mind a tool with fewer tests.
If you want a powerful compilation of brain tests, CogniFit’s Cognitive Assessment Battery (CAB) is hard to beat. CAB precisely evaluates various neuroabilities and assesses your cognitive well-being. So far, they’ve collected 1,178,282,621 data points on 2,027,825 different people.
Testing categories include:
CogniFit assesses over 20 different aspects of cognitive function and health.
At 30-40 minutes, and as a paid product, I’d only recommend using it to compare significant lifestyle changes. Or to get your cognitive baseline if engaging in high brain injury risk activities.
It’s less useful to quantify the day-to-day effects of nootropics.
CogniFit has a mobile app, and its software generates beautiful, easy-to-understand results.
If you want the best overall (paid) brain assessment software, CogniFit’s Cognitive Assessment Battery is the choice of professionals.
The Best Tips & Tools to Quantify Your Brain Function
Everything influences our brain’s activity, processes, and performance. From diet, to supplement regimens, to common lifestyle habits.
Sometimes, you’ll notice great results when reflecting on a long day of productive work.
Unfortunately, effective brain boosters often don’t change the way you feel.
How do you know if you’re wasting money on brain products? Are they even working?
One of my favorite ways is to quantify how different things change my performance metrics. You can either get surrogate markers from biosensors, or use online apps and games. Other tools are designed for specific use cases. Like the ImPACT test to improve concussion/TBI treatment. For the DIY folks that want more, you can use this list of brain tests.
What do you do to quantify the benefits of your nootropics and smart drugs? Let me know how you choose your products in the comments below!