Nicotine: The Misunderstood Cognitive Enhancer

Nicotine, the unexpected brain-boosting god chemical, might just be the secret sauce your mind's been craving to level up your daily grind and tap into flow states like a zen master on steroids.

Apr 6, 2024

*cracks knuckles, puts 2mg NicNac in mouth*

My Experience With Supplementing This Mysterious God-Chemical

  1. Everything seems more interesting. A pair of nicotine-powered rose tinted glasses.
  2. Instant flow state. Time disappears and everything feels like ease. Churning out work with crystal clarity like a well-oiled machine.
  3. Wildly more creative. Connecting dots which I wasn’t able to see before.
  4. Significantly improved memory recall. No more “the word is at the tip of my tongue” moments. With Nicotine, I’m able to tap into my "Mind Palace” of memories.
  5. Presence and awareness. It’s like if meditation and psychedelic micro-dosing had a baby. I’m less anxious and my sensory experience of the world is more vivid.
  6. Enhanced verbal fluency. Likely a side effect of all of the above.
  7. Improved coordination. For example, skipping is much easier without breaking the flow. Others have shared similar experiences across golf, tennis and football.
  8. Appetite suppression. Useful when trying to loose weight. For me, I find my quarterly 72h fasts go by with more ease with nicotine in my toolbelt. As my ballerina friend used to say: “my diet consisted of caffeine and cigarettes” (n.b. I don’t condone this behaviour).

Mindsets For This Article: Nietzsche — “Try New Shit”

In Nietzsche’s "Thus Spoke Zarathustra," in classic Zarathustra prose, we’re told "You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame: how could you become new, if you had not first become ashes?" I love a good Phoenix metaphor — rise from the ashes! He’s telling us that to discover our true selves, we have to let go a part of us. Let our ingrained habits and beliefs about nicotine die away, so something new can take it’s place.

This is where we can lean into what Nietzsche calls "experiments in living".

In "The Gay Science", he lays it out: "We ourselves must be the experiments and sacrificial animals of knowledge". to put it simply, we’ve got to try new shit. New experiences, lifestyles, and ways of being. That way, we can test our values, push our boundaries, and learn who we really are.

Nicotine Is Not a Carcinogen

Alright, let's clear the air (pun intended) about nicotine. It's time to separate fact from fiction and dive into the nitty-gritty of this often demonised substance.

Nicotine is a psychoactive alkaloid found in various nightshade plants, including tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, and bell peppers, but it is most abundant in tobacco. Nicotine itself is not the same as tobacco.

First things first, let's address the elephant in the room: nicotine is not a carcinogen. The U.S. Department of Health’s list of 69 potential and known carcinogens in cigarettes does not include nicotine as one of them. It turns out that the real culprits are the other compounds found in tobacco and the endothelial damage caused by smoking or vaping.

These are the things that are wreaking havoc on your health, not nicotine itself. That's not to say it's completely harmless - similar to caffeine and sugary foods, nicotine is still an addictive substance.

*takes a final drag of my imaginary cigarette, stubs it out, and hits "enter" with a flourish*

Nicotine Endorsers

Let's face it, we're tribal animals. A bit of social proof is useful. I've curated a small list of some of the popular endorsements I've come across.

  • Joe Rogan, in a conversation on his podcast talks about his usage of nicotine in the form of Zyns.
  • Nicotine use is rampant in tech, finance and in high performing cognitive industries.
  • Mark Andreessen, co-founder of the first web browser and venture capital firm a16z which is one of the most influential VC firms with over $35 billion in management talks about (the lack of) nicotines use has negatively impacted culture as a whole. Mark: “And then you're pulling energy out of the system. And then especially if you're replacing nicotine with pot, you're going backwards because you're replacing a stimulant with a depressant, right?”
  • Philosophers, writers and thinkers: I reckon Mark's onto something with that observation above — throughout history, the sharpest minds created relying on nicotine. Nicotines impact on culture, creation and society might even trump caffeines. Writers including Hemmingway, Oscar Wilde, Jean-Paul Sartre and T.S. Eliot wrote with a cigarette hanging out of their mouth, and philosophers and psychologists with a pipe. Presidents and generals solving world level conflicts and problems did so with their trusty cigars.
  • Peter Attia MD, a leading voice in longevity medicine mentions that he used tobacco-free nicotine quite frequently as a focus enhancer.
  • Daddy Huberman talks about Nicotine here.
  • Andrew D. Huberman, Ph.D. on X: "Pharmacology & Focus: […] a (Nobel Prize winning [neuroscientist]) colleague told me he uses nicotine gum 3-4X/day (?!) to enhance his focus."
  • Alex Hormozi on X: "I still believe nicotine patch + caffeine is one of the all time greatest stimulant combos. Cheers to all the other gladiators on their grind today."
  • MLB players using nicotine pouches.

Mechanisms and Benefits

Default Mode Network, Focus, Flow State and ADHD

*puts on science hat*

Scientists (Sutherland et al., 2015) have been peaking into brains after consuming nicotine.

Here’s what they found: nicotine turns down activity in something called the default-mode network (DMM) and lighting up the executive control network (ECN) like a Christmas tree.

So, what the hell are these networks?

DMN is what’s active when you’re chilling, daydreaming, remembering that embarrassing thing you did in high school, or thinking about what you’re going to have for lunch. It takes you straight out of the present moment, and into the ruminating mind. When you feel anxious or distracted by past or future thinking, this part of the brain is taking control. Researches have also found that practiced meditators have significantly reduced DMN activity, which partly explains why they’re so focused and calm.

On the flip side, a strengthened ECN improves focus and attention, provides working memory boost, better self-control, problem solving, strategic thinking and rational decision making.

By telling the DMN to take a back seat and letting the ECN take the wheel, nicotine is basically helping you focus on the task at hand and not get distracted by random thoughts. Basically, one of the most effective tools we have to get hard shit done. Very few other chemical has been shown to have this same dual effect.

*takes off science hat, leans back in chair*

Nicotine and ADHD

Multiple studies suggest shows promise in treatment for adults with ADHD symptoms.

After consuming nicotine, they found the subjects had improvements on overall scores on the continuous performance test (CPT), which is one of the most popular objective measures of ADHD-related inattention and impulsivity.

Conners et al 1996; or Levin et al 1996: “Results indicate significant clinician-rated global improvement, self-rated vigor and concentration, and improved performance on chronometric measures of attention and timing accuracy.”

Nicotine and Weight Loss

Nicotine suppresses appetite by activating POMC neurons in the hypothalamus. These neurons are central for regulating appetite. It also slightly increases metabolism.

Nicotine and Reaction Time

Improvements in:

  • Reaction time: how quickly you can respond to a stimulus.
  • Inspection time: how fast your brain can take in and process information.
  • Visual search: this ones interesting. It describes your ability to scan your environment for specific “targets” and filter out irrelevant info. It’s like trying to find your keys on a cluttered desk.

Nicotine and “Post-Covid-19 Syndrome”/”Long-Covid”

Researchers found “with a nicotine patch application, we witnessed improvements ranging from immediate and substantial to complete remission in a matter of days”.

Scientists think that SARS-CoV-2 binds to nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs), leading to impaired cholinergic neuromodulation. This could explain the long-list of symptoms of "long COVID" like fatigue, cognitive issues, sensory disturbances, and autonomic dysfunction.

This study provides initial case for nicotine, which has a high affinity for nAChRs, being an effective treatment by displacing the virus from these nAChRs receptors and restore cholinergic signalling.

There is still a lot of ongoing research on this topic, so keep your ear to the ground if you’re one who feels they have long-covid.

The Battle of the Brain Boosters: Caffeine vs Nicotine

Brain Networks: DMN vs ECN

  • Caffeine: Dampens the DMN (daydreaming mode), but doesn't quite improve the ECN (get shit done mode).
  • Nicotine: The ultimate brain puppeteer - tells the DMN to take a back seat while giving the ECN a double espresso shot.

Anxiety and Stress: The Jitters vs The Zen

  • Caffeine: Basically mainlines stress hormones into your veins, leaving you feeling like you're being chased by a lion after chugging a venti.
  • Nicotine: A bit more chill - it might trigger a stress response, but it also gives your brain's reward system a nice little tickle with some feel-good dopamine.
  • The real magic of nicotine: It's like a paradoxical zen master - both stimulating and calming at the same time.

Sleep: Caffeine vs Nicotine

  • Caffeine: That annoying neighbour who blasts music and blocks your brain's "sleep time" chemical, adenosine. Plus, it overstays its welcome with an 8-hour half-life.
  • Nicotine: A more considerate guest - it's out of your system in 2-3 hours and doesn't block adenosine like caffeine does.
  • The ultimate nootropic stack: Caffeine in the morning for a kick-start, nicotine in the afternoon for a focused boost without sacrificing your beauty sleep.

How Can Nicotine Help Me?

Nicotine, when used responsibly and in moderation, might just be the secret sauce your brain's been craving to level up your daily grind. Let’s explore some different use cases:

  • Golf: Steady your hands and sharpen your putting game. Nicotine may improve fine motor skills and attention.
  • Reading: Grasp complex ideas faster. Nicotine could give your attention and memory a boost.
  • Software Engineering: Juggle complex code with ease. Nicotine might enhance problem-solving and focus.
  • Creative Writing: Fight writer's block and tap into your imagination. Nicotine could improve attention and memory.
  • Carpentry: Precision is key! Nicotine may help with fine motor skills and concentration.
  • Problem-Solving: Find creative solutions faster. Nicotine could enhance your attention and memory.

My Nicotine Protocol: A Connoisseur's Guide

*takes a sip of artisanal coffee in 1st Arrondissement de Paris, and continues typing...*

Dose and Delivery Form

Delivery Form

I don’t use “zins” due to their fast release, leading to a huge short lived “high” and get a big crash. These nicotine pouches have all sorts of chemicals which make me feel uneasy, for example to modify the pH of the mouth to increase rate of uptake. I predominantly use NicNac mins (no artificial sweeteners), which have a slower release and no crash with appropriate dose.


I break 6mg a NicNac mint into three giving 2mg doses. The cognitive boost of this dose usually lasts about 1h. Afterwards I experience lingering light, calm and attentive feelings.

But a word of caution for the newbies out there - start low and go slow. I'd suggest talking 1mg doses, especially if you've never touched a cigarette in your life. Otherwise you might feel light headed or sick (both of which I’ve never experienced).

On Vaping

I despise vapes. But I won’t go into that here, and at the end of the day, I value authenticity above all, so you do you. Andrew Huberman covers the case against vaping here, here and more comprehensively, here. The one thing I’ll say about vapes is that if you’re keen to try out nicotine, don’t get vapes with nicotine. De-couple them. This will allow you to dose nicotine accurately and use it as a tool, not a habitual crutch.

Timing + Routine

When I have challenging or creative work to do, I’ll typically break out the NicNacs. I’ve also found huge utility in those moments where my motivation drops and I still have a lot to do. Sometimes, I see it as a way to counteract the unnatural amount of mental load that comes with highly demanding work.

My typical routine? Caffeine in the morning, and Nicotine most often after 3pm. The research shows it’s cleared from your system within 2-3 hours, which matches my experience. For me, stopping 2h before I sleep doesn’t impair my sleep quality (quantified with Oura, Woop and subjective measures). I’ve found it causes lucid dreaming when used closer to bedtime, which you might enjoy at times.

Similarly with caffeine and alcohol, taking it on an empty stomach/fasted has a magnified effect. I like this, as it means I consume less for the same effect, but others prefer to line their stomach first.


Finally, let's talk cycling. Too much nicotine desensitises the alpha-7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor. So tolerance is an issue. But your receptors recover fairly quickly if you give them a break for a day. I'll take a random days off, and every once in a while, I'll do a deliberate larger period of abstinence. The best part? I’ve not experienced any withdrawal symptoms or cravings during these periods.


Alright folks, before you go rushing off to to stock up on your all natural nicotine mints, let’s talk about the potential risks and downsides.

Most importantly, nicotine isn't for everyone. If you're pregnant, nursing, or have certain pre-existing medical conditions like heart disease or high blood pressure, it's best to steer clear altogether. And if you're taking any medications, it's always a good idea to check with your doctor before adding nicotine to the mix.

Now, for you normal folk, we need to acknowledge nicotine is addictive. Period. Whilst not as dangerous as cigarettes, it can still lead to dependence. If you're not thoughtful about your consumption, you might end up in a situation where you’re craving it. I’ve personally found caffeine more additive, and has harsher withdrawal symptoms, so I treat nicotine with the same caution I do with coffee: monitor and regulate consumption.

Don’t let these precautions scare you off from trying nicotine. Remind yourself of the number of addictive things in your life that you have control over. The risk of giving it a shot for most healthy is negligible. The FDA: “although any nicotine-containing product is potentially addictive, decades of research and use have shown that NRT products sold over-the-counter do not appear to have significant potential for abuse or dependence” (U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2013b).

The main idea here is that if you find yourself using nicotine more and more just to feel "normal," or if it starts interfering with your daily life, it's time to take a step back, begin cycling and reevaluate.

Research + Citations

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