Things that help focus – Part 1

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Every software developer has days where they start to think, if only “I were smarter, I could get so much more work done”. In programming this is something that might actually be true since a skilled programmer is much more efficient than a neophite. It’s true that skill is more about experience and less about just being smart, but an edge that lets you focus and retain information better would be a big deal. Not just in programming, if you look there’s a massive booming industry in things that are supposed to make us smarter; for every doctor that talks about fitness and good sleep the average cups of coffee consumed by an American shows that people don’t really have time for those things. Fitness, good diet and loads of sleep are an ideal that a lot of people never reach, instead they want a quick solution.

That’s why the inventor of 5-hour energy became a billionaire.

It’s obvious people want a quick solution to their problems. Now this next statement is going to be really shocking. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Life is already complicated enough, but it used to be slower, less efficient and in many ways more complicated and dangerous. Technology and human discoveries fixed these things and one of those discoveries was coffee, or at least modern extraction techniques. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be your best self and to get the most out of life, and there is nothing wrong with wanting these things quickly. It’s the cool thing to stand back, hold your head up high and go “you can’t have everything right now, stop being impatient and work for them”. Really though, there’s no built-in universal law why not, it might not be practical for you to get what you want immediately, but that’s not the same thing as it being fundamentally impossible.

My point, is that it’s perfectly natural and healthy for people to want to be their best selves, even if their lives make it difficult to achieve these things.

So let’s talk about concentration aids. Things that have been proven to improve concentration and some physical ability that are relatively easy to use.

Creatine

According to an Australian study performed in 2003. Creatine supplementation (at least for vegetarians) has been shown to boost memory by at least 7% for the small 5g dose / day. Not huge, but the study was very thorough by switching around the two groups and letting the creatine wash out of the test group between switches. It’s worth noting that the following study determined that creatine supplementation is safe in these levels.

For those who are unfamiliar with it, creatine is a natural product of the liver and kidneys that promotes the formation of ATP inside the muscle. ATP is what stores and releases energy created by the cells to fuel muscle contractions, more ATP means more time until you start getting exhausted. Creatine as a supplement adds more creatine into the blood, which means higher ATP in the muscles.

I note that the final statement in the article explains how creatine is not known to be fully safe and that you are better off studying for an additional 20 minutes a day if you want to improve your exam scores. So essentially you can improve both your mental and physical ability (Creatine is normally used for personal training after all) by buying an off the shelf supplement sold in every supermarket or you can study 20 extra minutes every day.

Of course I’m not a doctor and everything has associated risks, so you would definitely be safer taking the route of additional studying. Creatine related incidences are very rare, but they do happen when people consume vastly excessive doses for long periods since creatine also causes the muscles to swell slightly from retaining additional water.

That being said, my personal choice would be “Con-Cret”, the “Creatine-HCI” formulation that dissolves in water. It’s probably worse for your teeth since I can swear that I feel it coating them afterwards but it’s much nicer to drink than any other formulation, all of which feel like drinking sand.

Nicotine

No, this does not mean you should go out and take up smoking. However nicotine patches were shown to improve physical performance in athletes during sprints and a recent study showed that nicotine acts to protect the brain during stress, at least in mice.

Of course even nicotine patches will make you nauseous and throw up constantly, so they’re not exactly helpful and fun. Smoking has also been shown to affect the developing brain and cause issues during pregnancy. Still if you’re old enough that you’re not worried about your brain developing or not capable of getting pregnant, the idea of something that helps sustain your brain during stressful periods might be appealing.

It should go without saying that you shouldn’t suddenly take up smoking for the health benefits. You’ll be much worse off in the short and long runs, however a lot of those issues stem from inhaling cigarette additives through your nose and into your lungs. Patch wise, there are fewer studies showing it’s dangerous. Which may not mean anything.

By the way, the boost in physical endurance from nicotine patches in their test? It varied between 10% to 23%.

Bacopa Monnieri

It turns out that this plant, which has been used in traditional¬†Ayurvedic treatements for epilepsy and asthma also helps improve memory. Specifically studies have shown that Bacopa boosts… or more specifically slows down the rate at which people forget new information. The end result is that Bacopa significantly improves the retention of new information. Mind you that “significant” in scientific terms is usually around 5%. So a 5% change between the control and test groups is something that a scientist would describe as significant.

By the way, in mice Bacopa causes reversible decreases in sperm amounts. In humans in causes nausea and gastrointestinal upsets.

On the plus side, it’s easily available at many health food shops as a memory supplement, although the effects are only really seen after a few weeks of use. This means it will take some discipline and organization to see results, and I’m personally familiar with the feeling of forgetting a supplement when life issues start piling up.

Conclusion

Wanting to be better is something that’s been around forever, the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the first stories that we know of, is about a man who wanted to surpass himself.

It’s normal and healthy to want to be better than you are, not just more experienced, older or wiser, but to run around in a better body and for things to naturally come easier. I also don’t doubt that we’ll figure that one out more as time goes on too.

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