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Smart as You Wanna Be : Can Vitamins, Amino Acids and Prescription Drugs Really Make You More Intelligent?

December 22, 1991|JEFF GREENWALD | Jeff Greenwald's most recent book, "Shopping for Buddhas," was published by Harper San Francisco. He reported on Chinese labor camps in the June 16 issue of the Times Magazine

AT 2 O'CLOCK ON A SUMMER MORNING, THE Smart Lounge pulsed like a human brain.

Flashes of light strobed through the cavelike cellar, and computer-generated music throbbed from enormous speakers. Mobiles and Day-Glo planets hung from the ceiling, dancing in the air currents like elusive thoughts. In one corner, a silky dome tent filled with pillows served as a kind of collective id; in another, a table overflowed with trappings of the higher mental functions: wind-up toys, kaleidoscopes and picture books.

People clustered around the lounge in cells, clasping clear plastic cups full of bright orange liquid, shouting at each other above the music. Sometimes part of one group would spin off toward another, quick as a neural impulse; but the largest cluster hovered around the bar, where a hand-lettered sign cautioned prospective drinkers: "WARNING! YOU MAY WAKE UP!"

Flitting among these groups--a plastic starfish covering each breast--Neysa Griffith, alias Earth Girl, deftly avoided the TV cameramen and sound technicians who had descended upon the event. A statuesque woman of 21 with auburn dreadlocks, Earth Girl--along with her friends and business partners, the Foxy Seven--had set up the lounge, a sort of counterculture chautauqua, beneath Big Heart City, a giant discotheque on San Francisco's Mission Street.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 2, 1992 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 4 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
In "Smart as You Wanna Be" (Dec. 22), vasopressin was misidentified. It is an anti-diuretic synthetic hormone used to treat diabetes insipidus.

"We're evolutionary agents," Neysa announced to me, "who are here to help fix the planet. We're here to seed new thoughts and assist humanity through its waking-up process. The drinks"--she held out a goblet of orange fluid--"are just a small part of that process.

"This is Earth Girl's Energy Elicksure," she said, handing me the cup with a smile. "We call it 'the activation formulation for the communication generation.' "

The Smart Lounge, along with a handful of similar venues in England and the Bay Area, represents the cutting edge of a new phenomenon: smart drinks and smart drugs. While the drinks consist mainly of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients intended to stimulate brain function, the drugs--including Hydergine, Piracetam, vasopressin, vincamine and Dilantin--are more complex compounds, with more specific (and supposedly more dramatic) effects. Popularized by a few recent books on the subject--such as "Smart Drugs & Nutrients," by John Morgenthaler and Ward Dean--the drinks are available over the counter, but the drugs are available only through physicians or through medical outlets abroad.

Opposed in principle to the '60s rallying cry of "turn on, tune in, drop out," proponents of this new version of chemical consciousness-raising say it is intended to increase intellectual acumen, sharpen memory and improve concentration. Lacking the rush or buzz associated with alcohol, pot, LSD or cocaine, the smart drugs and drinks are taken for their purported "clean windshield" effect: a supposed ability to clear away the cobwebs in our cluttered, muddied minds.

The claim has many scientists shaking their heads. The evidence that any of these drugs or nutrients can really make anybody smarter, they say, is highly questionable, and often based upon misconceptions about how the brain actually works.

But like many people who first hear about these "cognitive enhancers," I had one initial question: Where can I get some? As a kid, I had heard that the average person uses only 4% of his or her brain; for years, I wondered what it would be like to use 5%, 10% or even more. The Smart Lounge, I decided, might provide a chance to find out.

Certainly, no amount of professional nay-saying could dampen the mood beneath Big Heart City. Couples danced under pulsing strobe lights, smart drinks steady in their hands. A man with green hair pored intently through a book about space travel, pausing now and then to inhale from a glass atomizer. Neysa's formulations, meanwhile, were selling like franks at a ballpark. I finished my Energy Elicksure and ordered a cup of Psuper Psonic Psyber Tonic, which glowed like yellow neon. Both tasted of citrus with a slightly metallic tang.

"Drinking is such a social icon," Neysa observed, looking around at her customers, "that it's probably bred into in our genetic codes. From soma to Stoly: Drink something and alter your consciousness! But the way people are altering their consciousness now is killing them--or putting them deeper into sleep than they were before.

"These drinks are the first time that anyone has offered an alternative to alcohol that actually takes you to another state," she said. "They're not beer without alcohol, or wine without alcohol. You can feel them; but they're healthy and they have lasting effects on your well-being. They help you increase your perceptions enough so that you don't blindly follow the haggard patterns of your forefathers."

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