Nootropics and Cognitive Enhancement for Gaming and Martial Arts

By on July 15, 2015

Computer games have come a long way in the last decade and while they still haven’t managed to top Sonic the Hedgehog 3, it’s fair to say that they’ve come on leaps and bounds in terms of the realism, graphics and physics. So it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that games like Counter Strike and Call of Duty have become spectator events that attract large amounts of competition and cash.

And with that come the pro gamers who dedicate their spare time to becoming awesome at their chosen shooters. So awesome in fact that the military are allegedly recruiting from these competitions to find drone pilots.

This is actually insanely science fiction when you think about it: virtual combat environments are birthing the first remote soldiers. And when you consider that computer games have been shown to improve visual acuity, decision making, spatial awareness and more (1) – it’s also true that the games are actually honing the skills of these pilots, turning them into hyper aware combat machines with lightning reflexes. They’re developing all of the mental skills of perfect soldiers, they only lack the physicality. One day, we might see active recruitment drives using specialist software.

And as is inevitable, many of these top tier ‘pro gamers’ are turning to nootropics to enhance their learning and their focus even further. This the equivalent of ‘doping’ for the literal armchair athlete. But does it work? What’s the best strategy? And what can the rest of us take from this?

Nootropics and Martial Arts

Before we get into the meat of this article, I’d like to point out that the nootropics that enhance your gaming performance can also potentially enhance your performance in sports and particularly martial arts. These activities require many of the same mental abilities such as intense focus, fast reflexes and the ability to learn new complex motor skills. I believe that playing computer games can actually enhance your ability to focus on an opponent and to react to telegraphing for faster reflexes.

And as with computer games, I believe there’s a place here for using nootropics to learn the required skills faster and to gain a competitive advantage. Someday, we will have ‘war room’ style virtual reality combat training, until then, gaming and nootropics offer an interesting alternative to martial artists.

Did you know in fact that Tim Ferriss’ first business revolved around selling a nootropic aimed at martial artists? The product was called ‘Brain Quicken’ and ‘BodyQuick’ and was rather popular apparently, demonstrating a real interest among the martial arts crowd. In theory, nootropics could help martial artists to learn new techniques faster, to be more aware of their opponents and to avoid nerves and anxiety.

Like that awesome scene in Limitless…

limitless-fight-scene

Modafinil and Racetams for Gaming

I’ve said in the past that I don’t necessarily recommend using nootropics to enhance neurotransmitters for general productivity. Increasing dopamine seems like a good idea for focus but seeing as it may also dampen creativity and could lead to tolerance and dependence, I think we’re better off with nutrients and metabolic enhancers to fuel the brain with energy (for instance creatine or MCT oil).

But there are exceptions to this rule. I think in some cases, these types of nootropics can be used like a ‘laser’ to give you an edge during certain important tasks. So I don’t recommend using nootropics all the time but if you had a competition, or if you were going to sit down for a very intense gaming session, some modafinil or Piracetam could be helpful. Likewise, if you were in a martial arts competition, these substances could help you to stay completely focused on an opponent and thus react to their movements far more quickly and efficiently.

Modafinil works by increasing dopamine among other things and was originally designed as a wakefulness drug for narcolepsy. It also has the effect of greatly improving focus and drive though and could certainly help you to concentrate on a game better to spot more bogeys on the horizon. If you were going to be entering a competition, this might be a useful one to use. In the long term though, I personally find it psychologically addictive and it can mess with your sleep. It’s like being completely wired on caffeine all the time, which is almost certainly not healthy.

The nootropic of choice for many gamers though seems to be the racetams. These work by improving the availability of acetylcholine in the brain – a neurotransmitter that is used for almost all synaptic communication. Like modafinil, the precise mechanisms of action are not fully understood but these also appear to improve memory, attention and communication and increase the oxygen use of the brain. Racetams are one of the most popular nootropics in general for all around performance but the effects don’t come on immediately for certain racetams and require continued supplementation. In other words, it would be hard to use piracetam as a ‘scalpel’. There are some reports of people experiencing brain fog as a result of using racetams in the long term, so again – I don’t personally recommend this route either.

This is my game face. It's why I avoid 'getting my game face on'...

This is my game face. It’s why I avoid ‘getting my game face on’…

But if you were purely interested in boosting your concentration, problem solving and reactions – you certainly could choose this option. As for which racetam, phenylpiracetam or noopept will probably give you the most benefit for gaming.

Of course there’s a much milder option too – which is to simply drink strong coffee. This will increase your dopamine, your norepinephrine and your wakefulness for more focus. If you’d like a slightly ‘calmer’ focus then you can mix it with l-theanine, which along with Piracetam is one of the most popular nootropic cocktails. This is like fight or flight without the anxiety – or in other words, a synthetic attempt at achieving a flow state.

Cognitive Metabolic Enhancers and Nutrition

You’re probably not a pro gamer though and you probably don’t like the idea of taking supplements without knowing precisely what they’re doing to your brain. I know I don’t!

So another route you can go down is the ‘cognitive metabolic enhancer’ route. This basically means you’re using supplements or substances in your diet to try and increase the amount of energy available to your brain. At the same time, you should fuel your brain with healthy nutrition in order to ensure you’re getting all of the ingredients you need to support healthy brain function.

A perfect example of this is creatine. Creatine works by recombining used ATP. ATP is the main source of energy in the brain and body and by letting the body re-use it, you allow yourself to stay awake and focused for longer without burning out. Only a couple seconds longer but in a fierce firefight, those few seconds make all the difference.

Vitamin B12 meanwhile is another crucial ingredient for fueling the brain with energy. It’s completely safe and natural and it plays a vital role in cellular energy production. B12 is often cited as the perfect cure to 4pm ‘grogginess’. Coenzyme Q10 and lutein can improve mitochondrial function, garlic can widen the blood vessels as a vasodilator and provide the brain with more oxygen and omega 3 fatty acids aid with cell membrane permeability allowing more signals to be passed between your neurons. MCT oil found in coconut oil provides the brain with a secondary source of energy by stimulating the production of ketones. You can read about all this here.

Safer than using synthetic nootropics meanwhile, is consuming amino acids as precursors to neurotransmitters. Make sure you get enough choline for instance and you’ll improve acetylcholine with no need for Piracetam. The effect won’t be as profound but nor will you risk creating an imbalance that leads to brain fog or withdrawal (a slight risk for sure but always a possibility with any of those types of nootropcis).

And the best way to improve brain function bar none is of course to get a high quality and quantity of sleep. This will clear your brain of adenosine which is the substance responsible for making you feel groggy at the end of the day.

This is all just common sense but if you want to perform optimally in any mentally demanding task, this is the best route to take. As with bodybuilding, there’s no silver bullet and hard work is rewarded in the long term.

Brain Plasticity and Martial Arts Technique

The great thing about computer games from a brain training perspective is that they involve learning a new set of motor responses. You can feel this in action whenever you pick up a new game and find the y-axis inverted on the flight controls. You can almost feel your brain work to try and adapt to the new status quo and practically hear your neural connections rewiring. To a lesser extent, learning new combos in a fighting game or learning the controls used for ducking, dodging and weaving in the latest FPS are comparable to learning a new physical skill.

Over time, repetitive use of these neural pathways leads to long-term potentiation and allows you to more quickly respond with your pre-set button presses.

This will be familiar to any martial artist who knows that the key to success is rote learning and repetition. To paraphrase Bruce Lee:

“I would rather fight a man who has practiced one thousand kicks once, than a man who has practiced one kick a thousand times.”

bruce lee

With enough repetition, the martial artist can throw punches with perfect form using the most efficient muscle fiber recruitment and the whole thing happens almost unconsciously – like riding a bike.

Both gamers and martial artists then can benefit from strategies to increase brain plasticity. There are a few tools out there that can help with this. Some of those aforementioned nutrients and cognitive metabolic enhancers for instance will support plasticity, including vitamin B12 and omega 3 fatty acid. Sleep is again important.

If you’re looking to take your plasticity a little further though, then you have other options available too. Brain plasticity can be enhanced by increasing something called ‘brain derived neurotrophic factor’ or ‘BDNF’ and nerve growth factor. These in turn are boosted when you increase dopamine and thus creatine and modafinil should in theory aid learning that way. Likewise, you can also increase BDNF with a nootropic called ‘Lion’s Mane’. This is a mushroom that has been shown to increase BDNF and nerve growth factor and thereby enhance nerve growth and myelination (2, 3). It has shown promise as a dementia treatment. The CILTeP stack meanwhile has also been said to increase long term potentiation but my own experiences with this one suggest it’s nothing to write home about.

The real substance to look into if you want to improve plasticity is apparently valproate which seems to unlock almost development plasticity in adult brains by inhibiting HDAC (4). This one comes with a lot of side effects though, so it’s not really recommended.

So increasing plasticity through nootropics is a bit of a guessing game at this point and certainly not highly recommended. Nevertheless, there is another strategy that gamers are actively using, which is tDCS or ‘transcranial Direct Current Stimulation’. This involves running very low currents through specific parts of the brain through damp pads attached to the skull. This doesn’t cause the neurons to fire but rather excites them making them more likely to fire and increasing production of BDNF (5). It has been shown in laboratory studies to offer slight but significant improvements in motor learning and memory, which are the things we’re really interested in as gamers and martial artists (6). Moreover, using the right ‘montage’ (anode and cathode placement), it’s possible to improve specific cognitive abilities such as attention, focus or spatial awareness.

So popular is this idea among pro gamers in fact, that there is actually a commercially available headset available targeted specifically at the demographic. This is the foc.us and while the device is rather pricey considering you can make your own tDCS kit at home relatively easily, it’s nevertheless an interesting and exciting concept. According to anecdotal evidence, tDCS seems to have a more noticeable benefit than using neurotrophic nootropics and it’s certainly a pretty futuristic solution.

Another interesting use for tDCS is to encourage ‘lateral thinking’. This is the only type of cognitive enhancement mentioned in this article that could potentially be useful for playing puzzle games then, like Debugger: Brain Untraining (shameless plug).

Would you feel like a bit of a nob wearing this thing while fighting? Probably. But the website does say it can be used for training and endurance, so clearly they’re not ruling it out. And what’s more, the effects of tDCS seem to last a while after you’ve used the headset, so you could always use this as part of your pre-game. More likely though, you could use it while performing kata and forms, or just while practicing punches.

Closing Notes

There’s no ‘conclusion’ as such to this article because it’s really up to you as a gamer/martial artist/someone who wants to be quicker and more focused what you decide to do. I’ve laid out a wide range of options here, including nootropics that offer laser-like focus, methods for accelerated learning and tricks to enhance your brain’s general health. Personally I feel as though modafinil and Piracetam are riskier choices and I’m sure a lot of people won’t be willing to shell out for a foc.us or go through the process of building their own tDCS device. Sleep, good nutrition and cognitive metabolic enhancers are safe and effective but their effects are minimal.

So really, the question is just: how far are you willing to go to achieve gaming supremacy? The answer to that question probably depends on how much you’re getting paid.

I would find it very interesting to try some online Poker jacked up on a few of these enhancers, and it would certainly make for a cool Limitless-style story. Perhaps one for a future article!

Something I will say, is that gaming is actually very good for your brain development and especially if you keep challenging yourself to try new games and get good at them. This is a fun way to keep learning new abilities and the best way to enhance your brain plasticity is simply to use it.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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