This week on Too Embarrassed to Ask, Geoffrey Woo, the CEO of Hvmn (pronounced “human,” naturally), came by the studio to talk to Kara Swisher and Lauren Goode about the science and practice of nootropics. Nootronauts, as they call themselves, take brain-enhancing drugs; Hvmn provides a subscription box of the chemicals and guidelines for how to ingest them.
You can read some of the highlights from their discussion here, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode.
Lauren Goode: I’m Lauren Goode, senior tech editor at The Verge.
KS: You’re listening to Too Embarrassed to Ask, coming to you from the Vox Media podcast network. This is a show where we answer all of your embarrassing questions about consumer tech.
LG: It could be anything, like, “Why is everyone making such a big deal about augmented reality right now?”
KS: Why so?
LG: Apple and Google.
KS: Apple and Google, that’s why.
LG: The AR platform wars have begun. “What’s the latest in the Uber-Benchmark saga?”
KS: Oh my God. We’ll have a big story on that soon.
LG: Big story on that soon.
KS: Every day. What are you talking about? All I do is write about Uber.
LG: I was going to say, I think by the time you listen to this, it might be a week later and there’s still probably a new Uber story on Recode. Go check that out.
KS: It’s my new Yahoo.
LG: “Can tech really democratize health care?” Really?
KS: I don’t know.
LG: This is a topic that we’ve tackled for the past couple weeks now on the podcast.
KS: Yeah, big topic. We hope someone can. Send us your thoughts. We do read them all. Find us on Twitter and tweet them to @Recode or myself or to Lauren with the #TooEmbarrassed.
LG: We also have an email address. It’s tooembarrassed@recode. A friendly reminder, embarrassed has two Rs and two Ss.
KS: Yes, so we’re in a healthy mode. We’re in a health care mode.
LG: We are.
KS: I’m drinking coconut water here.
LG: You just finished your Whole30 diet.
KS: Yes, I did. It was horrible.
LG: I’m drinking green tea. You’re having some type of murky-looking water.
KS: More like Whole28, I’ll be honest. Yeah. It’s coconut water. It’s delicious.
LG: Still, 28 is still a month.
KS: It’s the real coconut water. You know who told me to drink this? Larry Ellison.
KS: It’s the real. He owns it, apparently, but it’s quite good.
LG: Does he source it from some rare island he gets to from his many yachts?
KS: No idea, but he recommended it, and I would agree with him. It’s delicious. I also like Harmless coconut water. In any case, we’re very health oriented.
LG: In either case, today on Too Embarrassed to Ask, we’re going to be continuing this conversation. We’re talking about Silicon Valley’s obsession with life hacking, especially around cognitive enhancement, whether it’s fancy new health care clinics, which we talked about in a previous week, over-the-counter genetic testing, efforts to lengthen lifespan, or just plain old fad diets. The Silicon Valley technosphere is known for taking the lead on some of these efforts, and with some mixed results.
KS: Yeah, so we’re talking to Geoff Woo. He’s the CEO of Hvmn, which is spelled H-V-M-N, of course. It was formally known as Nootrobox, selling nootropics, which sometimes are called smart drugs or cognitive supplements essentially to make you smarter or faster or more sharp. This is all the rage in Silicon Valley right now. Lots of people talk about it. Geoff, welcome to Too Embarrassed to Ask to answer some questions from our readers and us.
Geoff Woo: Thanks, Kara. Thanks for hosting.
KS: No problem.
LG: Thanks for having us on.
LG: Hi, Geoff. Talk about what Hvmn does. What are nootropics and what does your company do?
Hvmn is the human enhancement company. Nootropics are a class of compounds that enhance various aspects of cognition, so things like memory, reaction time, stamina over a long period of time and attention to detail. We really think of ourselves as ... I’m a computer scientist by training, and I think in the ’70s and ’80s, I look up to those guys at the homebrew computing club as folks who were innovating on silicon as a platform of innovation. When I first started diving into the space of what’s called biohacking, I see an interesting analog where people today, I see, are experimenting on the platform of biology on themselves. In one sense, we think of ourselves as ... We’re taking a lot of the interesting creativity and that same hacker ethos on computing into biology and the human body.
KS: What got you doing it? Were you feeling unhealthy or what? We’ll get to the bigger issue of what’s mentally wrong with Silicon Valley that they’re obsessed with this idea. What got you into it? You seem rather healthy and young.
Yeah, no. Three, four years ago, I sold my first company to Groupon. A big company wasn’t necessarily my cup of tea, and I was looking at different things to sort of keep my ambient cycles rolling. One of my friends started mentioning a compound called piracetam, and you might find that in a European pharmacy for Alzheimer’s or other cognitive deficits. There’s all these crazy people on online forums like our Reddit Nootropics, LoungeCity. People literally are reporting these N=1’s experiments with importing Russian Alzheimer’s drugs, etc.
LG: These are drugs? These are things that are generally prescribed, but in this case, you were getting them on the open market.
It’s interesting. In America, they’re unscheduled. They’re not what’s known as FDA generally regarded as safe or not a food status or supplement status, but it’s not necessarily a scheduled drug as well. It’s in this gray area, limbo area. These are considered drugs in the European Union or other nations.
LG: Okay, so you’re hearing about people taking these things.
They want to get smarter. If you think about human performance as a spectrum, if you’re fixing deficits, what if you apply the same techniques to a normal person? Ostensibly, could you enhance various aspects of cognition?
KS: Using Alzheimer’s drugs or whatever?
There goes a theory. A lot of these compounds, some had interesting results on rat models. Some had interesting results on folks with dementia. Some had early human trials on healthy humans. It was sort of like I might as well be optimizing myself so I could work on the next big thing.
KS: Right, optimizing myself.
Yeah. It’s a very, I guess, kind of an engineering thing. If you don’t necessarily know what the next problem you want to solve, you might as well solve the abstract problem of making you more efficient for the next possible thing. That, sort of long story short, ended up being the next thing, just optimizing one’s self. Yeah, in the early days, it was just like, “Okay, I’m going to have my ...” In parallel of reading all these reports, I was like, “Okay, is this stuff real?” I think the natural skepticism is like, “Okay, where are the RCTs, or randomized controlled trials? Is this some crazy thing that crazy people are doing?” Some were pretty crazy. Some were like DARPA-funded peptides that haven’t ever been tested on humans. Some had reasonable safety profiles and reasonable efficacy. I was like, “Okay, let’s start trying some of these things.”
I went on Alibaba, on the dark web, and just kind of figuring, “Okay, let’s start asking for samples and importing some of this stuff.” I had my own sort of “Breaking Bad” setup with milligram-accurate drug scales to weigh out the different ratios that match what was reported in these experiments both on published research journals as well as these self-experiments.
LG: As you were receiving these products, these supplements, you had no way to verify they were what you thought they were?
LG: What Alibaba said they were when you bought them.
Yeah, so it was literally it would come in a gray envelope that was sealed. There was a little printout that was associated with the Chinese labs. It’d be a Mandarin copy and an English copy. It’d be like, “Okay, 95% pure X compound.” Yes, probably recklessly, me and who ended up being my co-founder, Michael Brandt, were kind of exploring these things and trying them out and seeing how these would affect us.
KS: How did you decide to determine if they were successful? You felt smarter? It’s not like the Bradley Cooper movie where he gets instantly smarter.
Yes, of course not. That definitely just set expectations, right? I think one especially interesting moment was when we took this compound called Noopept, which is a Russian Alzheimer’s peptide. We were walking to the office where we were working at the time, and on the way to the BART station, we saw these yellow carnations, they just seemed more bright than usual. It was kind of like these subjective effects, and then also referring to clinical research papers and also, yeah, starting to look at psychometric studies that we could do on ourselves.
LG: Right, which you could also do with regular drugs.
Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. I think, again, as engineers, we’re very much trained to start measuring these things. I think when we talk about health in general, we’re very ... Health has always been sort of intuitive, in terms of medicine has always been like, “Okay, you’re in this range. You’re unhealthy.” If you’re within the healthy range, then it’s kind of like no one tells you what to do. Why aren’t there people being quantitative on the healthy range? If it’s in the healthy range, can we eke out something better?
KS: Improve it.
LG: I want to come back to this idea of sort of the quantified selves and maybe personal responsibility around health and all of these topics. Talk first about how you turned this into a business.
KS: Business, right, because I’m sitting here in front of a box.
LG: You’re your own guinea pig at this point. Yeah, and tell us what happens next.
This is interesting. While I was basically ordering random bags of powder from the internet ...
KS: That sounds bad.
I started also sort of light ... Yeah, and it’s like, “Okay, can we start heavy-metal testing these things? Can we do purity testing on these things?” Then if you actually look at the Google trends for nootropics and a lot of these key search terms around this broad area, they’re up and to the right. You can just see these things starting to grow in 2012. We hypothesize that it might be due to things like “Limitless” and sort of the Hollywood milieu of enhancement that’s kind of driving this broader awareness.
That bit of entrepreneurial light bulb lit up where there was interesting compounds that showed some efficacy subjectively and according to some early clinical trials. We were going through all these crazy hurdles to get these things validated, and importing them, and mixing it ourselves. This was a growing trend where you had people on Reddit, the subreddit our Nootropics was growing really quickly. The Google trends were growing really quickly.
I’m a software engineer. I can throw up a landing page for a website pretty quickly, so in a weekend we hypothesized what would be a very basic nootropic stack, had a landing page to collect credit cards for pre-sales, essentially, and then posted it on different forums, like Hacker News, etc. We got 32 preorders that first weekend. I was like, “Oh, okay. That’s pretty interesting.” We were able to drive a bit of free traffic, and people gave us their credit cards on a website we coded in a few days. I’m a pretty completionist type of person, so it’s like, “Okay, I want to make those 32 people really happy.” Figured out sort of the hustle of, “Okay, let’s figure out how to manufacture something,” and that kicked off a journey where at first I just wanted to have nootropics that I wanted that I knew were validated. I was like, “Can I just make this pay for itself? Can I make $10,000 a month?”
KS: Did you sell these things you’re selling ... This is the full stack I’m looking at, which is Rise, which you take in the morning for ... What did you say?
Yeah. It was essentially the first flagship product that we had, which is a daily nootropic that’s good for memory, stamina, new information.
KS: Stamina. And KADO-3?
Which is our what we call super-charged Omega-3 product. DHA, which is one of the Omega-3s ...
KS: Better skin. Right, anti-inflammatory. That kind of stuff.
Yeah, and there’s a couple different Omega-3 fatty acids. Actually, DHA is the one found predominantly in the brain. Most Omega products that you see on the market are actually pretty heavily biased towards EPA. We actually dialed up the ration to DHA.
KS: That’s like eating salmon. That’s supposed to be good for your brain and for your skin.
Yeah, exactly. Can we just make it in a concentrated dose?
KS: Inflammation. Yeah. Okay.
KS: Then Sprint is essentially one of those bottles of whatever you take. Yeah.
Yeah, so we look at there’s things that are better in this world than just caffeine for short-term alertness. We stacked it with L-Theanine, some other components that make ...
KS: Then Yawn is for sleeping, for jet lag, or if you just need a good night sleep.
Yeah. Yeah. It’s actually one of our ...
KS: Which is melatonin and things like that?
Yeah, so melatonin, which is I think well-known for being a hormone that is naturally elevated when we go to sleep, but glycine.
LG: How much does this box cost?
KS: This is a monthly thing.
LG: Okay, and this is a subscription.
LG: Where are you sourced? Are you still sourcing from various places on the internet?
Our supply chain has leveled up multiple times. We brought on our head of supply chain from Plum Organics, Chrissy. She’s awesome. She’s literally fed millions of babies running manufacturing for one of the biggest baby food companies. Essentially specifically for Nootrobox, the supply chain there, we use a factory that actually has an FDA drug license, so they actually manufacture for the likes of Pfizer and Merck.
LG: Where is that factory?
Los Angeles area.
LG: Los Angeles, and do you test this stuff before you package it, or is it tested at that facility for purity?
Yeah. You actually do it both. Usually even to actually just match what’s federally regulated by what’s called GMP, good manufacturing practices, you quarantine all raw compounds into your facility, test them for their certificate of analysis for purity, etc., and then compound them, mix them. Then you test the final work product before you actually ship it out.
KS: You’ve raised how much money to do this?
The last publicly announced round was a little bit over two and a half million led by Andreessen Horowitz back in late 2015, but we’ve brought in some new strategic investors. We don’t necessarily hide it, but it’s not necessarily ...
KS: It’s a bunch of these companies. There’s one I can’t remember. There’s a whole bunch of companies that are trying these various and different things, supplements. Do you call them supplements, or what do you call them?
Sure. The way I think about them are just inputs into the human digestive system. You can consume things as a pill, as a supplement. You can consume things as a food. You can consume things as a drug. To me, they’re just like arbitrary ... Not arbitrary, but just human-made classifications of compounds that we put into our mouths.
KS: Then you have these coffee cubes, too, these chewable coffee cubes.
LG: But what you’re doing is not FDA regulated. It’s categorized in the same sort of area as supplements.
Correct. I think there’s nuance there. In terms of a drug process or a pharmaceutical, and there’s a lot more ... You need to actually prove efficacy, but in terms of supplements, you don’t need to prove efficacy, but there is a baseline safety that you need to show. Actually, I think that was one of the questions that was brought up with Impossible Foods. I don’t know exact details there, but I know they were on your show earlier. Their hemoglobin compound in soy plants was ... I guess they had questions around the “generally regarded as safe” status. That is what FDA cares about in terms of food or supplement.
KS: Then you have any doctors on staff? Is that correct?
Yes. We have a clinical lead, Dr. Manuel Lam, who actually, he’s a practitioner at a VA hospital in the Bay Area. Then we have our research lead who recently joined us from Oxford University, Brianna Stubbs.
KS: Okay, so you ...
LG: What areas of medicine do they specialize in?
Manny is an internal medicine practitioner, and Brianna is a metabolic biochemist.
LG: Okay. How big is the rest of your staff?
We have 12 people.
LG: 12 people. You’re still relatively small.
LG: You’re shipping in the U.S. I guess we’re describing this as a Silicon Valley thing right now, but are you shipping to other places in the country? Are people all over getting into this, or is this concentrated in certain geographic areas?
If you actually look at the customer breakdown, it’s pretty central to population centers. Yes, Bay Area is a little under 20 percent, broader Bay Area is about, I would say — last time I checked, at least — is a little bit under 20 percent of our total business, but you have big pockets in LA area, New York, Florida, Massachusetts, which kind of maps to population centers.
KS: Lastly, how do you verify someone that nootropics is working? How subjective? You don’t do testing, brain tests, blood tests, or anything like that.
Yeah, so we recommend ...
KS: They just feel better.
One, subjective, but two, yeah, we push people to do objective brain training tests. There’s a software suite called Cambridge Brain Sciences. That was a project that spun out of Cambridge where they’re doing a lot of these psychometric studies. It’s essentially like the clinical trials that you do for detecting dementia, etc. Can you just apply that towards a healthy population and see if you’re just picking up measurable differences?
LG: Yeah, but the efficacy of brain training games is still kind of unproven.
LG: There’s a lot of debate around that, and that maybe it helps your brain get better in one area, but that doesn’t necessarily with task switching or whatever it might be, but it doesn’t necessarily help your brain function in other areas. Just because someone is using a brain training game and their score may happen to go up, can you actually correlate that to, well, they’ve been using Nootrobox or Hvmn?
Absolutely. I think it is hard to generally measure intelligence. If you talk to military physiologists or leading physiologists, it’s just hard to change people’s cognition, because the brain is so important. The body does everything to maintain brain performance, but I think that’s a great question.
What are objective measures one can measure? That’s a little bit of where we’re interested, in terms of future R&D. Can we show you in your blood metrics within X minutes that we’re changing something, or that’s metabolism? I think in terms of functional foods, functional consumables, I think that is the direction of the future where I think you start off with vaguer and vaguer claims, but I think the goal, I think the holy grail is, can I just prick your finger and show that, hey, I’m changing some values there?
LG: Right now, it’s largely subjective or self-reported. It’s someone says, “Hey, I’ve been taking Hvmn supplements.” I keep wanting to call it Nootrobox, because I’m looking at the box right now. “I’ve been doing nootropics for a while, and I feel better. I think I’m thinking more quickly. My memory is great,” or whatever it might be, but it’s all self-reported.
Self-reported, or you’re doing N=1 tests. Unless you’re double-blinding yourself, which some people are doing, but it’s hard, right?
KS: I’m sure there are, too.
Because yeah, it’s conflating with training effects. You’re playing the same game, for example. You’re just going to be better at the game. Yeah, it’s conflated.
KS: Right. Okay. Let’s talk about the fasting element of this. You mentioned before that a lot of your customers also fast. Can you explain the fasting thing to me? It’s a big Silicon Valley thing for sure. It’s all around, but these people here are very into it in much detail.
Yeah. I can tell you the personal story of how our company really adopted and really made fasting a part of the community. This is about two years ago. We had a new employee join, and he was obsessed with reading some of the research coming out of USC Valter Longo’s lab around caloric restriction, fasting for longevity. Our profile started to emerge as we were launching, and one researcher, Dr. Sandrine Thuret from Kings College, London, she actually gave a great TEDtalk around the growth of adult neurons. There’s, I guess, a popular misconception that you can’t grown neurons as an adult, but you actually can. Fasting is one of the ways to do that.
With a new employee that was all gung-ho on fasting, and then me having a dialog with a researcher looking at fasting as a way to jumpstart neurogenesis, it was like, “Huh. As biohackers, let’s try this out.” Paul, who brought fasting to our group here, was doing a 60-hour fast. It was a Sunday night to a Wednesday morning fast. He was doing it by himself, gung-ho. If I heard that three years ago, I would have been like, “That’s insane. Am I going to die?”
LG: No food, he could have water though. Was he drinking coffee or anything like that?
He was ramping down from 500 calories to zero calories. He would make this weird soylent protein powder shake to have exactly 500 calories at the time. He was feeling really good about it. I was like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” He wasn’t an overweight person trying to manage weight. He wasn’t necessarily looking sickly. Then he got Michael onto the fasting protocol. He got me on the protocol, and then eventually the entire company started doing this fasting regimen.
Of course, when we were constricting, especially in the beginning where you’re starving and you wanted to celebrate with a big breakfast, we would do these team breakfasts on Wednesday, or our break fasts. They were fun. We’d actually get to eat, and then people in our community wanted to join us. Our friends wanted to join us. We realized that the biggest part ... One, obviously, we keep doing it, because we felt really good while fasting. Then two, what was really helpful to maintain this weird behavior was the social camaraderie around it.
A lot of human culture is built around food, but if you think about why we even have a three-meal-a-day system, it’s really a cultural artifact. Roman societies were really primarily based on one large meal a day. A lot of East Asian cultures originally had two meals a day. The three-meal-a-day system is really an Industrial Revolution artifact where you had a meal before first shift, meal in the middle where there’s a break, and then a meal at the end of the second shift, if you actually look at how eating patterns change.
We realized that if you really wanted to change this from a cultural perspective, we need to build a community around it. That community has grown really quickly. If you look at WeFa.st, which is the name of the community, we have thousands of people on a Slack group and in a Facebook group. I think over 10,000 people that fast with us on a weekly basis.
LG: WeFa.st is a part of Hvmn the company, or it’s separate from that?
I think we started as just kind of a separate thing, but it’s been so intertwined with our company mission and now our R&D that we kind of subjugated it under the Hvmn, it’s like a Hvmn community now.
LG: Are you fasting right now?
Yes. Good question. Tuesday is a fasting day. I’ve eaten zero calories today.
LG: You don’t seem cranky.
KS: You go day off, day off, day on?
I do a 36-hour weekly fast.
KS: Weekly fast?
KS: Right, I see. Once a week.
LG: You go from Sundays to Wednesdays, Saturday, Sundays.
For now, I do a Monday night. My last meal was yesterday, dinner. Yeah. I woke up. I woke up at 7:00, worked out, drank a lot of water. Now I guess it’s like, what, 4:00?
Feel pretty good.
LG: What will be your first meal when you start eating again?
Great question. Usually I eat fairly low carb. Within the fasting thread, you also have people talking about ketogenic diets.
LG: Yes, this is a thing.
I think Virta Health had an awesome clinical result where they’re able to pull people off of insulin or show interesting results on diabetes with just diet. That’s basically like a ketogenic diet, or a low-carb, high-fat diet. How these things are related is that fasting is, in some ways, a more extreme version of a ketogenic diet. When you eat a ketogenic diet, you dial down your carbohydrate intake, elevate your fat intake. When you’re fasting, we have a natural stored form of carbohydrate in our liver called glycogen. We use that all up, and we start using fat. Essentially, in one way to look at it, we’re just eating our own body fat when we’re fasting.
LG: You’re part of this community. You’re helping to foster this community of fasting and of nootropics. Are you also conducting trials right now for this type of lifestyle? It seems like the jury is still out on the validity of this and also the safety of it. What are you doing to contribute to sort of the larger education around it and in a validated way?
Yeah. Good question. I think just published today in Lancet — which is a top-two medical journal, alongside the New England Medical Journal — showed that total mortality rates drop with increased fat intake, which is a good associative test on 140,000 people, which was just published today.
LG: The total mortality rates drop with increased fat?
Yeah, which is pretty counterintuitive to the standard ...
KS: If you drop carbs. I think that’s the critical part, ditch the carbs.
Yes. Yes. I think diet is very complicated.
KS: Eating all the bread, that’s really ...
Yeah. I think if there’s anything, if you eat a lot of carbs and a lot of fat, you’re screwed. I think if you eat a lot of carbs and low fat you might be okay. If you eat a lot of fat and low carbs, you might be okay. I think it’s kind of the most consensus way to think about it.
KS: I think most people agree with you.
To answer your question directly, yes. That’s something that was something that we’re working on. We’ll hopefully ...
KS: Yeah, but you can’t really sell a fasting kit, can you? It’s like, “Here’s your glass.”
LG: You’re not conducting trials right now?
We’ll be announcing some interesting results in the coming months.
LG: Of trials you’ve been conducting?
Conducting or with our researching partners.
KS: A lot of people are going to attack a lot of these different — because there’s been so many different diets, different ... even the Whole30, which is not unsimilar in those ...
LG: Kara just went through that.
KS: I did, the Whole28.
LG: She’s scarred.
What do you think? Did you enjoy it? Do you feel better?
KS: Okay. I understand it’s better. I slept better for sure. Marginally better. I did not lose weight, but that wasn’t really the goal. It’s correct. You shouldn’t eat so much sugar, and you shouldn’t eat so much bread. That’s pretty much it. I think it’s a little fascist, the people who run it. They’re a little, “The non-compliant.” They’re super mean about it, but that’s just besides the ... I think they could be nicer. I don’t think they should act ... Sometimes a piece of pie is very nice, and they should calm themselves down about it, but I understand the point.
On a NightLine, they talked about some of this stuff interfering with other ... We’re a heavily drugged culture, unfortunately, too. How do you warn people about this stuff like that, because there’s so many interactions, drug interactions? I would agree that we’re on too many medications. You’re not the problem. The too many medications are, but some medications are very useful and good.
Yeah, absolutely. One way that we look at it is everything that we sell is FDA generally regarded as safe. We look at, again, we rely ... I think regulators have a very important role to play here to validate basic safety. We only look at things that are generally regarded as safe (GRAS). Again, that ties into our R&D pipeline. We’re looking at bringing novel compounds, interesting compounds, through that GRAS status process. That’s sort of a baseline, in terms of, okay, these things are generally well-tolerated by living things. Then of course I think a big part of that is that they have a pretty low likelihood of cross indications. The standard line that we have to say is that we’re not medical professionals.
KS: See your doctor, and show them what you’re taking.
LG: Have there been any incidents where one of your compounds has interacted with, let’s say, blood pressure medicine or any other type of medicine that’s been reported by your customer base?
Fortunately, knocking on wood here, no adverse reports. I think some people don’t necessarily get the results that they expect, in terms of maybe feeling more productive or smarter, but ...
KS: They’re just dumb.
Of course. Yeah, I think ...
KS: I’m going to start a company. Tell people that.
LG: Yeah, you’d be great.
KS: No, I don’t think so. I did start a company. Anyway, getting into that idea, why is Silicon Valley so obsessed with this now? Not just this, but it’s either fasting, or diets, or Soylent, or whatever. It’s a really interesting trend that’s really amped up recently. They’ve always tried different things, but this is a really ... Are they scared of dying, which is inevitable? What do you think?
This is a great VC question, right?
Why now? Why now?
KS: I’m sure VCs will want to throw money at you, because they’re on wife No. 3 and they need to now look good. I can see you getting a lot of money for this, because they all are interested in their own mortality. How do you look upon that? It’s really quite a thing in Silicon Valley.
The way I think about it is that, sort of going to the engineering mindset, I look at the amount of ... The hardware sensors being developed on human bodies are growing exponentially. The costs are dropping. If you look at hardware innovation on mobile, for example, you can make the argument that this iPhone 7 here is the same phone from five years ago. It’s just more megapixels and more battery life. You’re not adding a new dimension of functionality. I think, again, sort of like a theorycrafting sort of thinking, is that all these Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are essentially mixing and matching all these sensors for a variation that will work, that sticks.
What I think is super interesting in terms of biometrics is that, 10 years ago if I was telling you that I was tracking my footsteps, you would have been saying, “Hey, are you training for the marathon?” We see really interesting developments with potential optical glucometers where you’re able to track your blood sugar continuously without having to prick yourself, which I do to measure my ketosis and my fasting. All these sensors that are measuring human performance in the sense of biometrics are coming down in cost. Why I think it’s interesting now is that you finally have a seamless data stream coming out of the human body. Let’s be really smart about putting inputs in.
KS: Yeah, I get you. What about an existential thing?
LG: Right. I see what you’re saying about the accessibility of sensors and the commodities that these sensors have become.
KS: Yeah, it makes sense.
LG: I know people who walk around with these glucose meters stuck in their arms. They can do that now, but what about the psyche behind it?
KS: You’re tapping into something that’s going on.
Yeah. I’d like to live forever.
It’s a very cultural notion that we’re expected to perish.
KS: Cultural. I love that. “It’s a cultural notion that we’re expected to perish.”
Yeah, everyone in the past has died, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that it’s something that ... I’d rather be optimistic.
KS: Geoff, I like your thinking. I really do.
I’d rather be optimistic and be like, “Okay, can we put off something?”
LG: Is it a techno-optimism that’s applied to humans that would normally be applied to products?
KS: Yeah, what is it?
I don’t necessarily think it’s a techno-optimism. I think it’s a human desire. Chinese emperors were sucking down mercury to live forever.
KS: I know. That was a bad idea.
Pharaohs were getting mummified to live forever. I think it’s a very human drive. I think perhaps what is interesting now is that you have interesting clinical results coming out of peer reviews saying that, “Hey, we can extend life on monkeys or rats, and we can apply some of those exciting techniques to humans.” I think that’s where the biology has shifted.
KS: Now we’re going to take some questions about biohacking, which is improving yourself biologically, essentially, right?
KS: Hacking your body, from our readers and listeners. Lauren, do you want to read the first question?
LG: Absolutely. The first question is from Tim Letscher. He’s @Let5ch with a 5 in it on Twitter. He wants to know if there’s a “too-much scenario, as in the body stops producing on its own when supplements take over. Dr. Rhonda Patrick talks about this,” he mentions.
KS: Rhonda is concerned.
LG: I’m not familiar with that doctor. Yeah, I guess what are the potential long-term effects of taking these supplements and these compounds?
That is a great question. The body wants to maintain homeostasis. It tries to go into a stable state. Anything that you’re perturbing, it tries to naturally rebalance. That’s why, for example, caffeine, you have more and more caffeine tolerance for the same effect.
The way I think about it is I look at nootropics probably into two buckets. You have things that are acute that have a feedback loop, in terms of building up tolerance. Then you have nootropics or compounds that are really building blocks that feed as substrates into parts of cognition. DHA, Omega-3 fatty acid, that’s a building block for neuron walls or things that upstart BDNF, brain-derived neurotrophic factor. These things increase dendritic growth.
Yes. The short answer is there’s two buckets to think about. You have things that do have a tolerance effect, and we recommend cycling on and off on them. For Yawn and Sprint, these are acute-use products. We tell people to use it as needed, not on a daily basis. Then we bucket out the things that can be taken on a chronic or continuous basis as a daily use product.
LG: We still don’t really know what the long-term effects will be, because you just started this company relatively recently.
Sure. Yeah. I think longitudinal studies in general are just very — on humans especially — are just hard, but yes.
KS: All right. Don’t take mercury, by the way. Not good.
LG: Would you like to read the next question?
KS: I shall. By the way, I just had a mercury filling taken out of my head.
LG: Did you?
KS: From when I was a kid. That’s what they used to do. They would put silver fillings in your head, and they had mercury in them. They thought it was fine. Not so.
LG: Not so much.
KS: Not so much. I think I’m fine, but still.
LG: Not so much.
KS: Anyway, it’s interesting how things change. That’s all I’m pointing out, like things they think are healthy may not be at the time. That food pyramid keeps changing, for example.
All right. “Hacking.” This is Liz Nasty Weeks, @LessThanLiz. “Hacking. How is this not rebranding of life coaching, fitness regimens, and diets, many of which are also backed by clinical review, peer review?” There’s been a zillion. Nothing better than a diet for Americans really, pretty much. Talk about that, because any chance at the Fountain of Youth has been going on forever.
Yeah, no. Again, the great question I think is referencing that in the beginning of this conversation around being quantitative here. Yeah, the way I look at it is that hackers, especially from the engineering context, are using engineering principles to look at systems. What the difference is like, we’ve looked at health and wellness as a very intuitive thing. I kind of feel better after doing a yoga session, and probably something is happening, but we’re not measuring it. The way we talk about biohacking is it’s not just about changing up input protocol, whether lifestyle or not, it’s just also measuring it and feeding that back into the inputs.
KS: It’s not unusual for people to be attracted to this kind of thing, correct? Someone always has an answer. You know that.
Yeah. I think people like celebrities and like following other people, because people want role models. Sure, in some ways, yeah, we want to define a new culture around ... I think in some ways, Silicon Valley defined the culture of having freaking snacks everywhere. I want to make Silicon Valley a culture having no snacks on certain days.
KS: No snacks. Do you know Sergey got rid of some snacks at Google, because he was getting fat.
Good. Good. They’re probably getting more productive on those fasting days.
KS: He was getting fat. It was just he was getting fat. I don’t know if he fasts.
LG: It was very self-serving, then. No more snacks for anybody because of Sergey. You know what’s funny about all this, too, is that there are, of course, fad diets. We’ve seen them through decades and decades now in the U.S. It’s really a math problem at the end of the day. Listen, there are certain things that certain people should avoid.
LG: Whether it’s dairy or whether it’s bread or whatever it might be because of their specific diet requirements. I believe that that is a serious thing that needs to be addressed, but if you’re just looking at losing weight, it’s a math problem.
KS: It is.
LG: Calories in and calories out.
KS: Calories out.
LG: You see people go on these juice cleanses.
Juice cleanses are the worst.
LG: They load your body ... I’m speaking not as doctor.
KS: Everyone was into them.
LG: It’s just ... Yeah.
KS: Everybody was into those for a crazy amount of time.
LG: You know what? We’re always willing to buy into the idea of self-betterment.
KS: To something. Yeah.
LG: Especially when it’s packaged.
KS: My brother, someone was asking, he’s a doctor. He said, “How do you lose weight?” He goes, “Stop eating.” That’s what he says. Like, “Well done, Dr. Swisher.”
I think the subtext is that in some ways, fasting was the original fad diet for thousands of years ago.
KS: It was. It was.
If you look at the bible, there’s Moses fasting, going through 40 days, 40 nights.
KS: They’re always fasting.
If you look at a lot of the verbal, oral tradition around ...
KS: Forty days is a long fast.
Yes, but there’s a study at Harvard where someone fasted for 380 days.
No, his biometrics were great. He just had water.
KS: All right, I’m going to look that up, because I know-
You can’t get ethics approval anymore to do that.
KS: Don’t do that. We’re not ...
He was morbidly obese.
KS: All right then. He ate himself, essentially.
KS: All right. Email question from Bill Keating. Okay, I’m not sure what this is. “It used to be fairly easy to find, aniracetam.”
KS: Okay, you’re going to explain that, what it is. “It’s gotten much harder in the last six months. What has happened? I thought it worked well for me. Is there a good replacement?” What does this thing do?
Nice. A fellow Nootronaut.
KS: Oh my God.
LG: Nootronut? Is that a thing?
KS: Nut or -naut?
KS: I’m calling you nuts.
KS: Some of them are nuts.
Like an astronaut.
LG: Like an astronaut, but on nootropics.
But exploring the field of nootropics.
KS: What is this?
Aniracetam, so it’s an unscheduled compound. This is sort of the gray area field where it’s not an illegal drug, it’s not a prescription drug, but it’s not a GRAS supplement food. One of the original nootropics is a compound called piracetam, and there’s different variations of piracetam that people play with. There’s aniracetam, phenylpiracetam, a bunch of these things.
LG: Generally speaking, what do they do?
KS: What does this one do?
They work in similar pathways, in terms of being generally neuro-protective. There’s interesting rat studies where less neurons die given oxidative stress on the brain cells, and then elevates certain neurotransmitters associated with learning and memory.
KS: Make you smarter. This is another make-you-smarter one?
KS: Yeah. What’s happened to the supply? It’s dried up?
I think I know in the United Kingdom there was a law passed around psychoactive substances sort of clamping down on this gray area compounds. It’s interesting. I think regulation, it’s sort of a different thread, but I think regulation around compounds is evolving. Marijuana went from very, very bad to now it’s medically okay. Now it’s okay maybe to have fun for recreational in certain states.
KS: Yeah, January 1st in California.
MDMA was now approved in an FDA pharmaceutical trial for PTSD.
KS: That’s Ecstasy.
Yeah, Ecstasy. I think, short answer, you’re probably just feeling ... vendors, suppliers are feeling pressure from regulatory bodies as people are just scrutinizing more and more in depth into how things are regulated and enforcing the law. Then two ...
KS: They’re going to go through cycles on these things, too. They go up and down, up and down, in terms of how much regulation.
I think if you just look at regulation in general, medicine is very well defined as the prevention, diagnostics and treatment of disease, sort of deficient state to normal state. I think that increasingly there will be products that claim or talk about enhanced states. There’s not really a regulatory regimen that describes and talks about that.
If we’re talking about bringing people to enhanced state, that’s not medicine anymore. A robot arm that you can release a normal healthy human arm, that’s not a medical device, but you probably shouldn’t regulate that as a consumer device either. It’s not like an iPhone I can pick up. One thing that we think, I think, is going to happen is that there will be more and more discussion around how do we even talk and do safety and trials on enhancement products.
KS: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. Also, there’s a science fiction element to some of this. I love that Bradley Cooper movie. What was that thing he took?
KS: NZT. Oh, you know, see? I thought that was good. Then there was the Scarlett Johansson one.
Ah yes, the blue crystal thingy.
KS: She got too smart. Yeah, she got too ...
Yeah, she turned into a computer or something then.
KS: She turned into a computer ultimately. The Bradley Cooper one was great. The last scene was my favorite.
KS: Yeah. If you don’t see it, what was the Bradley Cooper one called?
I think it’s a TV show that’s on, too.
KS: Is it? I loved the last scene where he predicts everything and freaks out Robert De Niro. It’s a really good movie in that regard. Anyway, last question, go ahead, Lauren.
LG: Last question is from David Lindsley. He’s a fan of the pod. Thanks for writing in, David. He says, “My idea of human enhancement is that people need to get out and exercise more.”
KS: Say that with an old, “Get out and run, you kids.”
LG: “My idea of human enhancement is that people need to get out and exercise more. Probably do wonders for them physically and mentally.”
KS: I’m on his side. I agree.
LG: I don’t want to project and assume that David is shaking his fist at us right now.
KS: He is, but I like it. I’m good with it.
LG: However ...
KS: Talk about that.
LG: Yeah, talk about this.
KS: Ultimately, people would love to take a drug so they don’t get fat. People would like to take a drug so they’re smart. People would like to take a drug so they don’t die, whatever. There is some elements of actual physical activity that perhaps seems to have been proven out over time.
Oh, 100 percent, yeah. I biked 10 miles before going to work today. If you look at our team, everyone’s pretty ... Our research lead, Brianna, she’s a two-time world champion rower. She resigned from ...
KS: You think that’s an important part?
KS: Because the physical element ...
Yeah. I think it’s the lowest-hanging fruit. These are some basic things that one should be doing, but okay, okay, you do all those things. Can you eke out more performance? That’s sort of on the margin. How do we optimize other parts of your protocol?
In some sense, I think that fasting will be looked upon the same way exercise is today. No one talked about exercising 100 years ago. It was just physical activity was part of our jobs. We were physical laborers as farmers or factory line laborers. Now we’re all intellectual workers, a lot of us are at least, or sedentary workers. We got to reinstall exercise. We talk about exercise as being super important.
I see the same thing happening with fasting where we evolved going through feast and famine cycles. Now we have overabundance. Now we can either sort of reprogram a fasted state.
KS: Yes, I agree with you. The three-meal thing is weird. You’re right.
LG: It’s interesting. I’m going to share a metaphor, which I don’t think really will connect with most people, but I’m going to share it anyway. There’s this great scene in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” where Paul Rudd is trying to teacher what’s his name, Jason Segel, how to surf. He’s like, “You’re doing too much. Do less. All right, now you’re doing too little. Okay, do more. Nope, less.” I always think about that when I think about sort of the push and pull between how much we as humans in a modern age are trying to just do. “Oh, I can’t concentrate right now, and my brain is not working optimally.” Why is it? We’re doing too much. We’re on social media. We’re trying to cram so much into our days. We’re super busy. Everyone uses the phrase busy. People really are that busy. Working moms, super busy, right?
I always think, “What if we just did less?” What if everyone did a little bit less? What if that is the ultimate life hack? What if the ultimate life hack is not trying to counteract what you do, but just doing less? Eating a little bit less, doing a little bit less, putting fewer things in your calendar. I don’t know, maybe that’s too Zen-like. Maybe that’s just not going to happen.
KS: What is the big complaints you get when people just look at you ...
LG: She doesn’t even respond.
KS: I am. I agree with you. What I’m wondering is what’s the biggest response people give to you when they’re dubious, because dubiousness is ...
Yeah, I think one, it’s safety. It’s like, okay, we look at only things that are FDA GRAS, where you’re pushing compounds through the GRAS status process, or two, how is it measurable? It’s like, okay, let’s do the clinical trials or look at compounds that I can show you in your blood metrics. Hey, I’m shifting something in your metabolism. You don’t even need to believe it. It can just prick your blood and show you something that’s happening. If those are the concerns, well, you can project how we’re going to answer them.
KS: What I’m saying is here you are talking about enhancement, getting more enhanced, but to Lauren’s point, why not get more ... What? Less stressed? Why isn’t the focus on that, I guess?
Sure. I think that, I don’t know, for better or for worse, I think a big part of humanity is a sense of progress and doing more. It seems to be a very human drive. Again, why are we ... Arguably, a lot of people are less happy today than when we were just hunter-gatherers, right?
KS: Yeah, that’s her point, I think.
LG: Right. Right. It’s like waking up with a chronic hangover, and then thinking, “How do I solve this? How do I solve this?” The answer is just drink less, right? That’s another bad metaphor, but why do we need to counteract something with this box when the solution may be not taxing our brains in the way that we are now?
Yeah. I don’t drink that often, maybe once a month. I exercise regularly. I think it’s on the margin, okay. Yes, you can be very much sort of making up for deficits, but I think there’s increasingly a big amount of the community that’s pretty healthy, in terms of a lifestyle, and just want more. I want to get better productivity out of my day to do the things I do on the side. I think it’s like, yes, don’t do stupid stuff, obviously. I think we all can agree to that, but then it’s like, okay, some people want to take it to the next level, in terms of efficiency.
KS: Yeah, so the productivity for you is to become more enhanced, rather than what Lauren’s talking about, which is more relaxed, is to do what? To make more photo apps or what? What’s the goal for you?
For me, I think it’s ... Personally or broadly?
KS: Mm-hmm. I’m just curious.
I think for me personally, that’s a good question, what is your objective function of life? I think for myself, it’s experiencing rarer and rarer experiences. Being on this podcast is a cool experience. I want to do more.
It is. I just want to basically just stack on more interesting problems to solve or just more interesting experiences. If you’re just doing your typical 9-to-5 job, that seems to be a human experience a lot of people live. I kind of gravitate toward things that less people live. I guess in short, I want to just do crazy shit. I don’t know if I can curse.
KS: You can curse.
LG: You can. We do all the time.
I want to do crazy stuff with my life.
KS: You can say crazy, fucked-up shit.
LG: Yeah. What I’m saying I don’t think should be conflated with a lack of ambition either or a lack of drive. I just think, I don’t know, I just wonder about all of these solutions for problems that in a modern society we have essentially created for ourselves.
KS: Lauren wants a full stack box that makes her calm.
LG: Yeah. Well, I’m going to listen to Kara’s meditation app when she goes over the Headspace to work for them full-time.
KS: There is that alternate thing with this stuff, and then there’s the meditation thing, which is also taking off, which is interesting, which is not medical.
KS: It is medical.
LG: It’s mental.
KS: A lot of people think meditation is medical. Actually, people think meditation is medical, but it’s an interesting thing that they’re not making boxes of things for that. Maybe they are, but it’s more in the meditation space. It’s equal.
Yeah. I think it just inputs into the body, right?
KS: It’s an interesting time.
Yeah. It’d be like a brain state that you’re inputting into as a protocol or something you consume.
LG: Yeah. By the way, I find this whole area completely fascinating, because I think the idea of consumers taking more control — and we talked a little bit about personal responsibility earlier — of their health in a way that they want to experiment a little bit. It’s their lives. It’s your body, right?
KS: Yeah, just don’t do it unsafely.
KS: Crazy gray envelopes and all that.
LG: We want to be smart about it, but I think in some cases this is how true innovations or enhancements are discovered. Yeah, I guess I just wonder about the drive behind it and ultimately what we as a society are trying to solve with some of these hacks.
KS: They’re eventually trying to get rid of bodies is what they’re trying to do.
LG: Some of these hacks, right.
KS: We’d put our brain in some cyborg.
LG: Right, yeah, or maybe death. Maybe we’re trying to solve death.
KS: No, but there’s ... all the sci-fi movies are all taking your brain, downloading it to something. There’s so many movies like that.
We’re just solving biological death.
LG: Right, right, exactly.
KS: Biological is the problem.
LG: This is where we’re going.
KS: Biological is the problem.
LG: We’re all going to be holograms in the future. In the future, Kara, you may be gone, and I’ll be here running Recode, and I will put on a VR headset and visit with you. We’ll just have all of you downloaded so that I can just turn to you and I’ll be like ...
KS: Here’s what’s happening. I’m going to be gone. There won’t be any more of me left, and I’m going to haunt everybody, just haunt them, like a real bad time. I’ll push glasses over at your house, I’m going to freak you out. I’m going to open and close doors. That is what I’m doing.
Anyway, we’re roping into ...
LG: She’s going to throw your nootropics in the trash.
KS: Geoff, you’ve moved into the dysfunction of Too Embarrassed to Ask. This is a really interesting area, and it’s really interesting that you’re doing it. We’ll see where it goes from here. There’s a lot of efforts in Silicon Valley doing this. There’s lots of different types of people trying to do it, but it’s all a really interesting trend. Again, it’s been another great episode. Geoff, thank you for joining us.
Cheers. Thank you.
LG: Thank you very much, Geoff. If you all enjoyed this week’s episode as much as we did and you’re feeling alert ...
KS: Alert? I’m not. I’m going to take the Sprint in a second.
LG: ... and better than you have all day ...
LG: ... be sure to subscribe to the show. It’s better than a box of nootropics. Leave us a review at iTunes.com/TooEmbarrassedtoAsk.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.