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Substance: Modafinil
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Modafinil: The Rise of Smart Drugs

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People familiar with The Bulletproof Executive soon come to realize that it comes from an obsession with things that cause a big impact with little effort. Call it enlightened laziness or the relentless pursuit for personal perfection, if there is any difference between them. It’s time to write about Modafinil, the performance-enhancing smart drug that belongs in your bag of biohacker tricks, at least some of the time. This post shares the experience of several people who use it, including first-time users and an interview with a biomedical engineer who, like me, is a long-time Modafinil user. Read to the end for warnings.
I’m not shy about the fact that I use smart drugs and have for years. I used Modafinil (aka Provigil) when I got my Wharton MBA while working full time at a startup that sold for $600 million. I even hazard to mentioned it in my LinkedIn profile which made more than a few Silicon Valley exec friends open up to me that they had used it, at least on occasion.  More and more people are becoming aware of the positive effects Modafinil can have on their cognitive performance and overall wellbeing.  Students are starting to hack their intelligence too.  There are numerous stories about college students using Modafinil to get an edge on their schoolmates. It worked for me as a student.
Unlike some college studying tricks, there’s a good deal of evidence to back up the effects of Modafinil.  It has been shown to increase your resistance to fatigue and improve your mood.  In healthy adults, Modafinil improves “fatigue levels, motivation, reaction time and vigilance.”   A study published by the University of Cambridge found Modafinil to be effective at reducing “impulse response”, i.e., bad decisions.  Modafinil even improves brain function in sleep deprived doctors.  There is some evidence Modafinil only helps people with lower IQ, but after years of experimenting (and upgrading my IQ), it doesn’t feel that way. In fact, we have another post coming up outlining how Modafinil works.
I’m a fan of using food and supplements before drugs, but unlike some health experts, I’m not dogmatic about it. I decide to use something to improve my performance or health by looking at risks and rewards. It’s the same calculation whether I’m looking at a laser to speed wound healing (really) or a food, drug, herb, or supplement. Drugs usually – but not always – have more risks, but if varies by drug.
Recently over lunch with a few friends, including a very successful television producer, a top artificial intelligence researcher, a hypnotherapist, and a published author, I shared some info about how I used Modafinil. All decided to get some (with prescriptions or legal mail order). The next week, as I expected, I had some excited phone calls.
In one night, the TV producer finished a proposal for the Dalai Lama Foundation that had been evading completion for months and believes the proposal is far better than it would have otherwise been.
The AI expert said he was able to make new connections he hadn’t made before and suggested Modafinil should be widely available.
The author powered through his writer’s block and made more progress on his current book than he had in months.
My hypnotherapist friend felt she had huge breakthroughs in cognitive performance and made new connections in her mind on a new hypnotherapy technique she is perfecting.
These aren’t unusual responses to Modafinil. The reason you don’t often hear about them in mainstream blogs is that people are worried they will be seen as “cheating” or somehow weird. I admit it, I am cheating, and I’m weird too. But you’re reading this anyway.  I get these reports from people because I “outed” myself as a Modafinil user.
I recently interviewed Jonathan Reilly, a biochemical engineer and longstanding user of Modafinil, about his experiences with it. He eloquently explained what it did for him, and I’ve done my best to record it here.
Jonathan is a very successful biochemical and biomedical engineer in LA who works on med devices and does project management. He used modafinil for years but switched to a newer analogue of it called Nuvigil. As he explains, “I un-f*ck things for a living. On Nuvigil, I can see connections in a system even when I don’t know the process I am troubleshooting.” He says it helps with systems thinking, one time letting him double the capacity of a manufacturing line in one week, even though he didn’t know much about what was being manufactured.
Interesting. Applying systems thinking to the process of upgrading myself is what led me to create the Bulletproof Executive. I have no doubt that Modafinil has helped me make some of my personal breakthroughs.
When he started taking Provigil, Jonathan says he felt like he was in a scene from “Flowers for Algernon,” the famous book about a retarded man who becomes a genius using technology.  Except Jonathan was already successful and certainly not lacking in cognitive skills. He says, “For the first time in my life I felt like I was awake; I got stuff done that I had put off, and I felt optimistic and energetic.” But he says that Nuvigil is, “like 2x Provigil.” (Sadly, I haven’t tried Nuvigil because it’s not available in Canada where I live.)
He continues, “I’m not an 8 am morning person. I naturally perk up at 11 am and do great to 3:15, then nap, then I’m good from 7pm-10pm. Those aren’t hours that work for my career. Modafinil lets me go to bed normally get up and get to work functional and coherent in the morning. In my work with implantable devices, everything starts at 6:30 am, so you have to be there when it’s open.”
“Career-wise Modafinil has let me work at my best at any hour of the day. I’m inquisitive, I’ll dig, I’ll write great things. It makes any time of the day high performance. I don’t have the ‘I am a great golden god’ feeling but I feel good all the time.” “It  has let me see connections I wouldn’t have seen before. Is it because I’m more awake? Or some activated level of understanding unavailable without lots of sleep and nutrition. Without it, I’m still good, but it’s a bandwidth expander. It lets you step back and learn things. The effect doesn’t go away when the chemical leaves your blood. The connections it gives you stay with you. It helps me have a rational not emotional response to irritants.”
More recently, Modafinil was featured in an article from Tech Crunch titled,
“How Many Silicon Valley Startup Executives Are Hopped Up On Provigil?”
I have two answers, “Not enough” and “More than are admitting it.”  Here is a quote from the author,
“For me the most memorable thing was that I was about to brush my teeth and realized that instead of passing the toothpaste from one hand to the other, I had tossed it.  The effect for is an extra dose of energy or jauntiness, not a speediness.”
Another actual user of modafinil was a writer who needed to draft a proposal for the Dalai Lama Foundation.  After taking 70mg of modafinil, he smashed through his writer’s block and finished the proposal.
“I can say categorically that 1/3 of a pill (70mg) helped me break through a writer’s block I was having to complete a draft proposal for the Dalai Lama Foundation.”
—Edits below added based on feedback and reader requests—
Modafinil is not addictive, although there is some debate about that. It has a risk of abuse, however – some people use it to stay up for way too long, which will probably make you sick. Even if you extend them, there are biological limits.
There is an extremely rare condition (about 5 cases per million people) called SJS, or Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, in which people with genetic susceptibility can develop a dangerous life threatening rash. SJS is most often triggered by antibiotics, followed by analgesics, cough and cold medication, NSAIDs, psychoepileptics, and antigout drugs. Cocaine, phenytoin, and Modafinil can trigger it. More info here.
Even though the risk is low, you might want to get a genetic test before you use any of those drugs, including Modafinil. If you have one of these SNPs, you may have an increased risk, and to have the lowest risk, there are *a lot* of drugs you should avoid including some basic antibiotics…and Modafinil.