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For centuries, people have been looking for ways to boost their intelligence, focus, and creativity, using nootropics, also known as “memory boosters” or “cognitive enhancers.”
In fact, if you’re drinking coffee right now, you’re consuming a form of nootropic: caffeine is a stimulant and is known for its uplifting effect.
But “smart drugs” or “smart drugs” – which are not necessarily pharmaceuticals – are growing in popularity: there is now a huge market for over-the-counter dietary supplements that claim (with very little scientific evidence) improve concentration and memory.
Some people even go a step further and seek out prescription stimulants, like modafinil, to try to improve their performance at work or in school.
Research conducted in 2017, based on the Global Drug Survey, an anonymous questionnaire, showed that 30% of Americans had taken some form of “smart drug” in the previous twelve months.
That’s a 20% increase since 2015. And the study showed they weren’t the only ones: big increases were also reported across Europe.
But are these products really effective, and what are their risks?
“All medications carry a risk of side effects”
“It’s surprising how little we know about our brains, but what we do know is that our brains are a carefully calibrated system, especially in terms of brain chemistry. And that balance is not the same for all: each has its own well-adjusted balance.”
So says Hanneke den Ouden, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behavior at Radboud University in the Netherlands.
His lab studies how the state of our brain chemistry determines how we act.
“Modafinil falls into the category of psychostimulants, she explains. Other examples are methylphenidate and amphetamine. And psychostimulants generally act on the activity of the dopaminergic system [du cerveau].”
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter. High levels of dopamine can boost signals in parts of the brain associated with concentration and focus, and help reduce hyperactive and impulsive behaviors.
It’s incredibly useful for people with ADHD, for example, but can also end up, illegally, in the hands of those without a diagnosed medical condition.
“In some of the recent studies, we looked at how psychostimulants affect decision-making in a young, healthy population. Specifically, we looked at methylphenidate, a drug that is perhaps better known by the brand names Ritalin or Adderall,” she explains.
“And what we found is that it improves a number of tasks. What we think is the case is that we experience these tasks as less cognitive effort,” explains the neuroscientist.
But, warns Den Ouden, taking these brain-boosting substances without a prescription is risky.
“All medications carry a risk of side effects, and there’s a reason they’re sold by prescription,” she says.
“That’s why, when we conduct a study on drugs, such as psychostimulants, we subject our participants to a thorough examination beforehand,” says Den Ouden.
“We actually make sure that a doctor only prescribes one pill per person (we often only give them one dose),” she continues.
We know, for example, that psychostimulants increase the heart rate and that this may pose a risk to people with underlying heart conditions such as arrhythmia, without knowing it.
These substances do not have the same effect on everyone: some people are helped, others are not.
The neuroscientist adds that there are virtually no studies on the long-term cognitive effects of psychostimulant consumption in healthy people.
However, the increase in dopamine levels in the brain could cause long-term problems.
“We’re talking about the subtle balance of our brain chemistry, and when you upset it by adding too much dopamine, the system can, in response, try to restore the balance and dampen its sensitivity to the substance,” explains- she.
Thus, the person, trying to maintain their “normal” dopamine levels, can become addicted to dopamine.
“Another risk, perhaps more theoretical but important to bear in mind, is that being really focused all the time is not necessarily the optimal state for all situations. what we know is that too much focus can actually reduce creativity and openness to new ideas or solutions, so we don’t want a society of hyperfocused people.”
Meditation instead of drugs
Instead of boosting your brain power through drugs, boost it through more natural means, like meditation and mindfulness.
How do these means work?
“One of the characteristics of being human is that we have these minds that can wander and think about all kinds of weird things,” says Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale University in the United States. United.
“Research shows that the simple act of meditating, even for ten minutes a day if you’re new to it, can significantly reduce brain activation in areas of your brain that tend to wander your mind.
“So the simple act of meditating literally changes your brain’s default patterns.”
But why isn’t mind wandering so good?
Santos explains that research on the subject shows that when our mind wanders, it can make us unhappy.
“The irony of it all is that we’re never fully present, and to appreciate the simple things in life, whether it’s eating something delicious or talking to a friend, we really have to be,” she explains.
She adds that “the act of mind wandering therefore seems to diminish our well-being considerably”.
Meditation, a remedy for the human condition?
“That’s why practices like meditation can be so powerful, because one of its benefits is that it trains our mind to be a little more present than usual. Meditation not only puts an end to mental wandering, but also to strengthen the connections between the different parts of the brain. It effectively reconnects the brain to the present.”
And the effect lasts, according to a 2008 study – which found that people who practiced it were happier – for up to eight weeks.
But meditation doesn’t just seem to help you enjoy life.
A 2013 study from the University of California shows that a meditation class did indeed increase test scores. And there are several other benefits, according to Laurie Santos.
“It increases concentration, helps memory over time and has several effects on physical health: improvements in immune function and markers of aging can be seen.”
If there are indications that meditation improves brain capacity, happiness, immune function and even DNA, would it be an overstatement to say that meditation is some sort of cure for the human condition?
“We scientists are concerned with those that seem to have all of these benefits, but meditation seems to be one of those that, empirically speaking, is the most beneficial.
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What meditation does to your brain – BBC News Africa
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