A Complete Guide to Social Nootropics: Pills for Charisma and Charm?

By on March 30, 2015

Before you get any further into this article, I just want to say right from the offset that it is meant as a hypothetical piece. I don’t recommend any of the supplements I discuss in this post and if you’d like to get my current thoughts on nootropics and how to use them, you’re better off looking here.

That said…

The idea of a social nootropic is, despite being ill-advised for reasons I will discuss later, definitely interesting.

When you think of using the ‘perfect’ nootropic supplement, what do you imagine it doing for you? In reality most nootropics will have the effect of making you ‘concentrate a little better’ or ‘feel a little less sleepy’. In all honesty, there’s not much out there that is substantially more profound than caffeine from a productivity point of view. And if there is, it’s dangerous.

But what many of us imagine happening in a perfect world scenario, is a pill changing our lives. Helping us to see patterns, come up with amazing creative ideas, impress the people we know with our charisma and climb our social and career ladders. Basically we want Limitless. And actually, it’s the social aspect in that film that made the imaginary pill ‘NZT’ so alluring. In the movie, Bradley Cooper’s character is able to talk women into bed, impress potential business partners and employers and meet rich new friends who take him on awesome holidays. He becomes better at fighting, cracks the secrets of the stock market and completely changes his status and power.

social-nootropic

Really then, many people who get into nootropics are after the wrong thing. They take caffeine + l-theanine hoping it will change their lives, when really all they’ve done is enjoy caffeine with slightly less ‘jitter’. Maybe they choose modafinil instead – in which case they get to feel wired and increase their focus to the point where they can maybe churn out an additional 20 minutes worth of work a day. It’s not exactly life changing and no-one’s going to suddenly see some amazing overnight transformation as you become a ‘new you’.

But there are nootropics out there that come a little closer to this idea. The term ‘social nootropics’ is sometimes used to describe supplements, pills and drugs that make people less anxious in social situations, more friendly and outgoing, more charming and more confident. Theoretically, these types of nootropics could help you to climb the social ladder and to acquire status and power just like the film Limitless. They could be a lot more ‘life changing’ than

Problem is that all the social nootropics currently being touted are either ineffective or dangerous. There are some interesting areas for future research but that’s about it. There are other more efficient ways to achieve the same thing though, so keep reading for an overview of the topic.

Examples of Social Nootropics

Phenibut

One example of a social nootropic is phenibut. This is a derivative of GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) which is the brains primary inhibitory neurotransmitter – a depressant for the central nervous system. In other words, Phenibut works by slowing down the brain and reducing the firing of the brainwaves, thereby preventing the kind of anxious internal monologue that makes us choke in social situations or experience anxiety. At the same time, by relaxing the brain, we’re able to encourage the natural flow of ideas rather than staying focused on a single idea. This way phenibut could increase creativity, as other inhibitory substances are said to and that could also have a positive knock-on effect for conversation. Conversation will often flow freely between ideas and subjects when they’re going well and being ‘wired’ is in stark contrast to this.

Unfortunately though, being inhibitory, phenibut can also make you drowsy and sleepy. It also has problems with tolerance and dependence and can cause severe withdrawal symptoms. Phenibut is preferable to GABA as GABA may be unable to cross the blood-brain barrier. Phenibut is available without prescription but isn’t that far removed from using something like benzodiazepines which are also GABAergic.

Alcohol

To describe alcohol as any kind of nootropic is certainly stretching the definition, but this is perhaps most telling of the inherent problems with the term ‘nootropic’ in the first place (what is ‘better’?).

Nonetheless, alcohol is the ‘original’ social lubricant and just as caffeine has become an ‘acceptable’ stimulant, so alcohol has become an ‘acceptable’ social nootropic. Let’s face it – a lot of people drink simply in order to become more social and to deal with social anxiety.

Alcohol exerts its social effects in a similar way to phenibut – it is a central nervous system suppressant and actually shuts down the prefrontal cortex thereby preventing us from worrying about the repercussions of our actions and helping us to forget about our worries. Conversation flows more freely but you’re also much more likely to say something awkward or embarrassing, or to forget a friend’s name. So that’s not really an improvement… Of course the health problems and risk of addiction are givens in this case.

5-HTP

5-HTP, or 5-hydroxytryptophan, is a precursor to serotonin. Serotonin meanwhile is the neurotransmitter we most associate with ‘feeling good’ and being positive and happy. Serotonin has also been shown to be more closely linked with anticipation of reward (as opposed to reward itself). Those suffering with depression will often exhibit decreased levels of serotonin and as it just so happens, they also tend to be less socially outgoing.

5-HTP then can help to combat stress, depression and other symptoms that might generally prevent you from being the life and soul of the party. But really, you shouldn’t expect 5-HTP to have much of a noticeable impact and doing anything more to increase serotonin chemically would mean using antidepressants like SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors). The point is, you’re effectively taking anxiety medication or anti-depressants just to sound a bit more charming in conversation – hopefully you can see the problem in this.

Piracetam

Piracetam is a cyclic derivative of GABA but is not GABAergic in its mechanism. Rather, it works by increasing the activity of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine via muscarinic cholinergic receptors. Acetylcholine is an excitatory neurotransmitter but Piracetam itself is not a stimulant. To use Piracetam most recommend supplementing your diet with extra choline. It is also believed to increase bloodflow to the brain and to increase cell membrane permeability.

Piracetam improves memory function, mood and potential ‘social intelligence’ and verbal fluency. While piracetam is non-toxic and doesn’t really have any known side effects; generally it needs to be taken for a while before positive benefits manifest themselves and the exact mechanism of action isn’t fully understood. It has been known to cause brain fog for some people, to actually decrease verbal fluency for others and often has no effect at all if you’re a non-responder (like me). Once again, it’s a minor improvement at best and you can’t really be sure what it does in the long term.

L-Theanine

As mentioned earlier, l-theanine is often used alongside caffeine as a way to slightly reduce its anxiety-inducing effects. In theory though it could be used entirely on its own in order to combat anxiety and stress. It also increases dopamine and helps to encourage alpha brainwaves, memory and possibly serotonin in some circumstances. That said, it’s also thought to decrease serotonin in some circumstances…

L-theanine is a naturally occurring amino acid and is even found in green tea. There are no side effects, so as social nootropics go it’s probably one of the few that aren’t completely mad. That said, it’s also another one that isn’t going to have much of an impact other than placebo.

Oxytocin

While l-theanine might be one of the safest social nootropics, oxytocin is one of the most interesting. Oxytocin is often referred to as the ‘love hormone’ but actually it’s much more complicated than that. When you look at a baby, oxytocin is the substance that makes you feel maternal or paternal and likewise oxytocin is thought to encourage romantic bonding. For this reason, you can actually get oral sprays for oxytocin that are used in marriage counselling to encourage trust and bonding. Moreover, it can also be used by salespeople to try and make more sales.

Unfortunately though, as always seems to be the case with neurotransmitters, it turns out that the role of oxytocin is not so clear cut. It turns out that oxytocin can also increase anxiety, causing us to remember bad social interactions more intensely, to worry more about what other people think and perhaps to experience emotional pain like heartbreak more severely (1). In other words, it seems like Oxytocin is what makes you care. So instead of using it to try and combat social anxiety, perhaps it would be more useful to try and repress Oxytocin to give you the cold calculating mind of a psychopath or perhaps at least the indifference of someone with autism… The idea of ‘successful psychopaths’ has been around for a while so perhaps if you’re someone who keeps worrying what ‘Jeff will think’, you should try to reduce your Oxytocin. Oxytocin has been considered for treating psychopathy, so perhaps it would work in reverse? (2)

There is such thing as an oxytocin suppressant by the way. Atosiban suppresses both oxytocin and vasopressin and can be used to delay premature labor. Apparently it could be used as a nasal spray someday. Once again though, I’m not sure that sniffing anti-labor meds before breaking up with your beau is really a behavior we should be encouraging…

The Safe Way to Upgrade Your Social Skills

Sooo… the subject of social nootropics is definitely interesting but it’s not really a good idea to start experimenting. And apart from anything else, it’s kind of lame… I mean, taking a pill to try and be more impressive and persuasive is exactly the sort of thing that impressive, persuasive people don’t tend to do. It’s one thing to try and increase your IQ (which I personally think is cool – though often people go about it the wrong way) but a pill should not be the answer to your confidence woes.

What’s the alternative? I personally struggle with verbal fluency because my mouth runs ahead of my brain. I try and work it as an attractive quality (think Hugh Grant) but often I just sound bumbling. One thing that can help a ton with verbal fluency though is just to slow down what you’re saying and to stay focused. Those things are easier said than done though when you’re excited and in the moment.

For people who struggle with social anxiety, the main thing to do is to try to stay calm and to prevent that fight or flight response which results in a flood of stimulant-like chemicals and just makes you more jittery. One way to combat this is just to breathe deeply and steadily, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system. You should also avoid caffeine because caffeine is essentially ‘fight or flight’ in a cup.

The best way to stay calm and avoid stress in social situations though is to just teach yourself to respond more calmly to anxiety-inducing social situations. This can be achieved with tricks from cognitive behavioral therapy, my favorite being ‘hypothesis testing’.

Me being all socially confident. Sadly, I have lost this nice top.

Me being all socially confident. Sadly, I have lost this nice top.

Hypothesis testing means testing the beliefs that make you anxious. So if you suck at public speaking, it’s probably because you’re getting your panties in a twist imagining people laughing at you and egging you off the stage. The reality though is that people are actually very sympathetic and don’t really care if you aren’t the perfect orator. To teach yourself this and to remove the association between public speaking and ‘danger’, you just need to stand up on a stage and purposefully choke. Don’t say anything for a minute and calm yourself down – realizing that the worst case scenario isn’t that bad.

If you want to become fearless in social situations – and thus remain calmer – try practicing being purposefully awkward. Go into a shop you don’t normally shop in and buy bread but using a ridiculous accent at the checkout. You’ll be all hot and bothered the first time you do it, but eventually you will adapt and you’ll become socially fearless. This is actually similar to techniques that pickup artists use and it’s a great way to generally become more carefree meeting new people and thus to make a better impression. A slower-but-less-terrifying alternative is just to keep putting yourself outside your comfort zone by talking to strangers and going to parties where you don’t know anyone. It’s just social training really.

CBT > Nootropics

Cognitive behavioral therapy has other tricks up its sleeve too. Hypothesis testing is one example of ‘cognitive restructuring’ with others being mindfulness and ‘thought challenging’. Using these techniques you can effectively reprogram your response in a variety of situations. As placebos show us, it’s not your situation that makes you nervous but rather your understanding of that situation. In one Derren Brown television special, Derren managed to get someone to completely overcome their social anxiety with a sugar pill (It was called ‘Fear and Faith’ if you’re interested). Meditation is also an amazing tool for combating anxiety generally and achieving more ‘mental discipline’.

Work out too because muscle will make you feel more confident while the testosterone increase will make you more aggressive in an ‘alpha’ kind of way. Get lots of sleep and you’ll be more focused and calm automatically – and the results are far more noticeable than you can get from a supplement.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it might sound like a nice idea to take a pill and suddenly be a hit in social circles but all you’re really doing is creating an imbalance in your neurotransmitters. That might be beneficial in some very specific situations but it’s likely to be a problem in others. Do you really want to feel like you’re ‘swimming’ in your brain when you’re in conversation?

You shouldn’t discriminate when it comes to neurotransmitters. They act in far more nuanced ways than we can understand currently and there is no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ neurotransmitter. Our brain function is optimal when we have the capability to produce all the neurotransmitters as we need them and that means nutrition, sleep and exercise. You’ll get your l-theanine and tryptophan from your diet but they’ll also be balanced correctly with everything else. If you want to get a boost from nootropics, stick with cognitive metabolic enhancers like creatine and CoQ10 which will just give you more energy.

Eat a healthy, nutritious diet filled with amino acids to make sure your brain has the energy and the raw materials to perform its best. Then train yourself to react the right way in the right situations. Forget the phenibut and oxytocin – for now.

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About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I'm an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I'll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.
  • Mark Purol

    Thank you, I really needed to read that!
    Recently hit the thirty + day mark on Headspace and have been thinking heavily of my caffeine habit, I do love the taste of coffee, but at what cost…
    I can attribute the following to caffeine.
    A “challenge” in the Headspace app is to count 5 times that you have either sat or stood from sitting in a given day, this has to be directly after either, I personally feel if it takes 10 seconds, it does not count.
    So, after five days guess how many times I counted?
    ONE! Just once, there seems to be room for improvement.

    Thank you for initiating further self review.

    • thebioneer

      Thanks for reading, glad you found it helpful! Yeah I really need to cut back on the caffeine too lol. That’s a really cool exercise – been trying it since I read your message earlier and already missed one! Thanks for sharing 🙂 Keep meaning to try the Headspace app! Let me know if you find you get better at counting them!

  • Zanther

    I wouldn’t trust this article, as it seems uninformed. I stated modafinil might get you an extra 20 minutes of work in your day. It gets you HOURS. And not just that, but better quality. I’m not pushing social nootropics, but that stuff I read in the article has to fit in with what I know to be true. Otherwise it feels like someone who doesn’t drink writing about why drinking is bad…but from a place of all theory.