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Recommended Smart Thinking Books

Recommended Smart Thinking Books

If you want a good grounding in smart thinking, books are the best place to find it. I love reading and particularly love books on smart thinking, whether they’re about the brain, body language, politics or strategy. Naturally over the years I’ve read hundreds of books and decided to assemble a list of the books which have had the strongest effect on my knowledge of smart thinking and those which have impacted the way I think and view the world the most.

As I read and discover more I’ll add books to the list. See Recommended Smart Thinking Books


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The Memory Palace – Learn Anything and Everything – Summary

The Memory Palace

Memory palaces are one of the oldest memory techniques in existence – they were first mentioned back in Ancient Greece by the poet Simonides. Lewis Smile’s book is the best I’ve read on teaching about how to construct your own memory palace.

Our visual and spatial memories are incredibly powerful and by creating vivid detailed mental images you can remember a startling amount of information. Combined with mental journeys through a building or area you know well, you can dramatically improve the accuracy, depth and reliability of your memory. The technique can be used to learn and memories almost any type of new information.

While the book doesn’t break any new ground or introduce and new concepts, Smile takes you through 2 memory palaces which teach you to remember all of Shakespeare (in chronological order) and Dicken’s works. The writing is engaging and quite simply – very effective. I followed the journey in the memory palace myself and the works of Shakespeare are deeply ingrained in my mind.

If you’re looking for a no-nonsense and effective way to improve your memory practically overnight, The Memory Palace is the perfect book to read.

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Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships – Summary

Sex At Dawn

Sex is a subject that we’re all interested in, but most of us pretend not to be. This reserved approach to sex and human sexuality has existed for a few centuries, but isn’t our natural state. There is one particular narrative on human sexuality that has been drilled into us by religion, politics and society as a whole:

  • Men want as many sexual partners as possible in order to spread their DNA and so they often cheat on their partners to achieve this.
  • Women desire a caring, resource-rich father for their children, but also children with strong genes. So women will often form a relationship with a caring man and cheat on him with a more “genetically compatible” male to carry his child, but be looked after with the resources of the caring man.

This understanding of sex was created by the Victorians and driven by religion and other “morally-focused” institutions.

But this is a zero-sum game in which someone wins and someone loses. Surely humans evolved to try and screw over our partners we’d have become extinct by now?

In The Moral Animal, Robert Wright laments:

A basic underlying dynamic between men and women is mutual exploitation. They seem, at times, designed to make each other miserable.

Authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá disagree and said of the above statement:

Don’t believe it. We aren’t designed to make each other miserable. This view holds evolution responsible for the mismatch between our evolved predispositions and the post-agricultural socioeconomic world we find ourselves in. The assertion that human beings are naturally monogamous is not just a lie; it’s a lie most Western societies insist we keep telling each other.

Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships explores an alternative and more plausible idea of how sex used to be.

In short, Sex At Dawn proposes the idea that when we lived in small tribes and bands (max 150 people) all resources and child-rearing was shared among all members of the tribe and therefore paternity wasn’t important. Women would have sex with multiple men and men would have sex with multiple women. Relationships existed of course, but they weren’t monogamous.

Aggression and competition isn’t hardwired into us, but cooperation and sharing is. Men wouldn’t compete with each other for exclusive “access” to a woman, their sperm would do all the competition for them. The strongest sperm and therefore genes would win and only the best genes would be passed on, strengthening the human population over time.

This is how anatomically-modern humans lived for roughly 190,000 years and it’s only in the past 12,000 years or so that our sexual habits changed. It was the advent of agriculture which introduced personal ownership and inheritance – this meant that paternity suddenly became very important.

Larger societies where ownership and exclusivity are so important have twisted our natural state of cooperation and resource-sharing. Society has changed, but our biology and brains have stayed largely the same.

Sex At Dawn investigates not only the holes and contradictions in current theories but examines the issue from a social, cultural, biological and psychological viewpoint. It’s a thoroughly fascinating book that goes against commonly accepted theories. I encourage you to pick up a copy and explore this well-considered approach to human sexuality.

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Thinking, Fast and Slow: Summary

Thinking Fast and Slow

Thinking Fast and Slow is the international bestseller by behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman. The book proposes that there are two methods of thought that Kahneman refers to as system 1 and system 2.

System 1 is rapid fire and helps us to make very quick decisions based on a myriad of previous experiences. It’s intuitive, associated and above all – it’s fast. The brain likes to chunk things together and so this can often be quite biassed and make judgements based on stereotypes or commonly held beliefs. System 1 encourages us to try to create meaning where there is none, extrapolating, often incorrectly from the smallest pieces of information. Because of this, we favour what we deem to be plausible over what is probable.

System 1 exists for one purpose – to keep us alive.  It is a very elegant system that has helped humans to survive for thousands of years. Your subconscious brain absorbs hundreds of thousands of stimuli every day – making hundreds of decisions and judgements. System 1 enables you to make these quickly without having to engage in the slower, deliberate and energy consuming System 2. However, due to the speed of calculation, System 1 judgements are based on biases in our thinking and our experiences of the world.  This means that we fall prey to mechanics such as confirmation bias, representativeness, correspondence bias, the halo effect, primacy, anchoring (heavily used in negotiations) and availability heuristics.

System 2 is slower, more logical and more accurate, but not immune to biases. In fact without deliberate and conscious effort, System 2 often ends up confirming the judgements of System 1. It’s too easy to be lazy and only work from the initial judgement that System 1 gives us (garbage in – garbage out).

The attentive System 2 is who we think we are.  System 2 articulates judgments and makes choices, but often endorses or rationalizes ideas and feelings that were generated by System 1

The book is based on Kahneman’s long career of research and observation. It’s chock full of information which requires reflection to understand fully. It’s my favourite smart thinking book and possibly the greatest psychology book written in the past 10 years. It’s not a book that can be easily summarised in only a few paragraphs; I highly advise you to check it out for yourself.


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NZT / CPH4: The Reality of Smart Drugs


Thanks to NZT in Limitless (based on Alan Glynn’s book) and CPH4 in Lucy smart drugs have been thrust into the limelight. I’ll begin this post by shattering the myth that both these fictional drugs and the premise of the films rely on.

Myth: Humans only use 10% of their brains.

The implication of this is that if you have the right training or drugs, you’ll be able to access all of it and significantly improve your memory, cognition and nearly any mental ability. While I’d love this to be true, it’s unfortunately very false. Neurologist, Barry Gordon stated that:

We use virtually every part of the brain, and that (most of) the brain is active almost all the time.

Further to this, Barry Beyerstein, also a neurologist, demonstrated why the myth was false by highlighting the following;

  1. The most important being brain damage sufferers experience significant adverse effects on their mental abilities. If we were only using 10% of our brains, then damage to the other 90% shouldn’t impact our mental performance at all. However, it’s been shown that damaging any part of the brain impacts our mental capacity – even the smallest damage can have significant negative effects.
  2. MRI scans show that we use the majority of our brain, most of the time, but different areas show increased activity depending on the situation. Even during sleep when our bodies are inactive our brain still shows activity throughout. Different sections of the brain are responsible for different functions and MRI scans haven’#t found a single area in the brain which doesn’t appear to do anything.
  3. Our bodies evolved to be incredibly efficient. The brain is the biggest resource hog, accounting for over 20% of the body’s energy expenditure. If only 10% of the brain is used, this makes it an incredibly inefficient organ and we would be throwing 18% of our body’s resources away – a sure-fire way to become extinct very quickly. Additionally, the large human brain causes the biggest problems in childbirth, larger brains and larger heads cause more complications. Natural selection would have quickly culled any unnecessary brain size hundreds of thousands of years ago.
  4. The brain has a “use or it lose it” policy in regard to maintaining synaptic links. If 90% of the brain were unused, this would have become obvious decades ago in post-mortems and autopsies as 90% of the brain would have degenerated.

So now we’ve got the myth out of the way, what are the realities of smart drugs, surely with our decades of medical and drug research we’d have designed something similar to NZT by now?

The Reality: Nootropics

These drugs DO exist, but don’t expect the god-like abilities that you’d get from following in Scarlett Johansson and Bradley Cooper’s footsteps. There has been significant research and development into drugs that seek to improve cognitive function, but none will have effects anywhere close to what is demonstrated in Limitless or Lucy.

Nootropics target neuron’s metabolism and oxygen within the brain. The effects are often minimal but noticeable. They affect mood, motivation, reaction time, memory enhancement, attention, excitability, alertness, and focus.

The long-term risks and benefits of nootropics are widely unknown, but there is a lot of evidence to support the short-term advantages. Most brains are not fully developed before the age of 25, so nootropics are likely to be harmful to anyone under that age limit, especially young children.

I can’t stress how important it is to ensure you fully understand the laws and regulations regarding nootropics in your country/state and additionally, if you choose to test out some  nootropics, decide what area needs improvement: anxiety, mood, focus, attention, reasoning, etc. Do your research well and don’t just take anything and everything – have a specific goal in mind and only consider nootropics that directly affect that area. Also, make sure your nootropic of choice has a certificate of analysis (COA); this proves that it is authentic and pure. Some off-labels include toxic substances such as mycotoxin, so avoid those.

Stacking refers to using more that one nootropic at once. Please understand that nootropics and stacking will ultimately impact the neurotransmitters in your brain, which can have adverse effects of depression, anxiety, mania, and withdrawal.

Although you won’t have superpowers like those portrayed on television taking these can certainly provide some benefits. Here is a list of the nootropics to consider:


This is the most popular nootropic of all. In fact, most of us consume caffeine on a daily basis and we’re well aware of its benefits. It increases alertness, focus, attention, and energy. However as with all drugs, it has downsides. Caffeine consumption can increase anxiety, mania, blood pressure, give you a headache and make you feel nauseous. Long-term, moderate consumption of caffeine has been known to reduce the risk of dementia, depression, and diseases related to the heart. Caffeine can be found in found in soft drinks, energy drinks, coffee, tea, and chocolate.


Found naturally in tea since it performs best when stacked with caffeine. This reduces mild anxiety and enhances attention while promoting relaxed attention. The main side effect is headaches. It’s worth noting that you won’t build up a tolerance or get addicted to this. Give it 30 minutes to kick in.


Piracetam deserves the credit for the term nootropic: it was coined in reference to piracetam’s ability to boost one’s energy, focus, mood, and motivation. It’s the oldest nootropic and the most thoroughly researched. Studies have shown it may increase the memory of the elderly, but may increase decline in cognition over time. It may cause headaches or stomach pain. Some people choose to stack this with choline to reduce the headaches.


Bodybuilders and fitness fanatics are the largest consumers of creatine. Creatine enhances executive functioning best in those populations because the brain uses creatine to keep energy levels high. It helps the body to workout for longer. If you are sleep-deprived, a vegetarian, or vegan, this is the nootropic to consider. C Minimal side effects include nausea, stomach pains, or diarrhoea.

Omega-3 (EPA & DHA)

Seafood provides adequate amounts of omega-3, another nootropic you’re probably familiar with. These are considered cognitive enhancers because they are neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory. You can obtain these in your diet from plants, cottonseed oil, sunflower oil, or algae supplements.


Do you remember learning about this mineral in high school science class? It is found in nuts (almonds, cashews, brazil nuts), chard, and kale. If you have a magnesium deficiency, you likely feel fatigued, irritable, experience insomnia and have muscle twitching. Increasing magnesium can improve memory and learning abilities. Don’t go crazy with magnesium though, or you’re sure to experience dizziness, diarrhea, and stomach cramps.


Medicinally used in China and India, curcumin is extracted from turmeric. The many benefits of this have been intently studied recently: increased alertness, better working memory, improving cognition in the elderly, antidepressant effects, plus works as an anti-inflammatory. Be aware of body rashes, headaches, swelling, yellow stool, upset stomach, and tightness in your chest while using. It stacks best with piperine.

St. John’s Wort (hypericum perforatum)

Another common nootropic, St. John’s Wort’s active ingredient, hyperfornin, inhibits the uptake of multiple neruotransmitters, enhancing mood and acting as an anti-depressant. A recent study recognized that this sometimes works as effectively as traditional anti-depressants but without the many side effects.  Expect possible headaches, restlessness, anxiety, fatigue, irritability, upset stomach, or diarrhoea.

Bacopa Monnieri

After 8 weeks of use, this provides memory enhancement, especially in older adults. It was historically used as a medicinal herb but may cause nausea, cramps, fatigue of muscles, drowsiness, or lethargy.


This is best known as an anxiety reducer that was found in India over 3000 years ago. There is only one known side effect: hyperthyroidism.


Known in the southern Pacific for years, this may help to reduce anxiety, benefit sexual functions for women, with few side effects such as drowsiness. A link between kava and liver toxicity has been discovered so caution should be taken if you have a liver condition or drink alcohol regularly.


This increases norepinephrine and dopamine within the brain and works best as a memory enhancer, often prescribed for people with ADHD. Be cautious of the addictive qualities, insomnia, loss of appetite, heart palpitations, nausea, anxiety, and irritability.

Mixed Amphetamine Salts (Adderall)

Another commonly known nootropic, Adderall enhances cognition for those needing improvement, but actually impairs high-performers. Like methylphenidate, be aware of its addictive qualities, insomnia, loss of appetite, heart palpitations, nausea, anxiety, irritability, plus changes in mood, euphoria, increased blood pressure, paranoia, mania, and tolerance.


Associated with treatment for Parkinson’s disease by increasing dopamine and phenethylamine. It may improve learning and lift your mood, plus it is also suggested that it could reduce mild depression. Rodents had a longer lifespan when taking this, but unfortunately, there isn’t evidence of this in humans yet. If stacked with tyramine, it may increase blood pressure and get flagged on drug tests. High doses could require dietary restrictions. The short-term side effects are dry mouth, euphoria, insomnia, and an increase in libido. Note: the mixture of oral contraceptives and the standard dose of L-deprenyl may be dangerous.


Tyrosine naturally occurs within the body, plus in turkey, avocados, and some dairy products. It’s known to improve energy, creative thinking, and decrease symptoms of depression. It works best when you are under stress, but the effects are not typically long-lasting. May increase risk of side effects if taken with MAO inhibitors.


This increases available dopamine and energy (ATP) within the brain. Some evidence suggests that attention is increased in the elderly and teens, attention increases in low performing individuals, and performance is impaired in normal or high functioning people. It’s neuroprotective properties make it extremely safe and helpful to those with cerebral disorders. Leg swelling, headaches and anxiety could be expected as side effects.


Best known for stimulating wakefulness and improving effects of sleep deprivation. May also improve reaction time. Possible side effects include increased blood pressure, irritability, or anxiety. If you’re a high performer, then this is likely to work best for you.


One of the oldest known modafinil drugs for providing energy, alertness, increased concentration, and productivity. But the risk of harming your liver (plus anxiety, increased blood pressure, and irritability) may outweigh the benefits, which is why it is not allowed in many countries.


If you’re a big time fitness guru, then phenylpiracetam may interest you. It’s on the Olympic sports banned substances list because it seems to be the most stimulatory drug in the Racetam family. It has the potential to increase your stamina and tolerance during workouts, enhance cognition functions, improve your memory, or alleviate symptoms of depression.


This may help executive functioning in healthy individuals, but it mainly prescribed for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. Unusual dreams, depression, nausea or diarrhea may be side effects.


Known for enhancing memory, attention, learning capacity by increasing alpha and beta brain waves. Headaches, irritability, high blood pressure are the slight symptoms one may experience.


Want to increase your joy and improve your mind? Ampalex allows for a long-term state of excitement that enhances memory. Side effects include insomnia, stomach pain, heartburn, fatigue, and rashes.


This is used to treat major depression and promote a sense of well-being and mental clarity. It can include symptoms of abuse and withdrawal. It is recommended not to exceed proper dosing, as this can cause significant effects, such as nausea, vomiting, hepatitis, dizziness, abdominal pain, weight loss, liver toxicity,  anorexia, itching, loss of appetite, and possibly death.


This is a compound found to be a cognitive enhancer and antidepressant. Because of it’s combative effect on hippocampus atrophy, it may be of benefit to soldiers post-war.

Alpha Brain

Based on two studies, Alpha Brain has been shown to improve verbal learning, and claims to enhance memory and learning. Headaches, irritability, and anxiety are possible side effects of this well-known and safe nootropic.


On the whole, Nootropics are considered safe when taken properly. The negative side effects are often minimal and few, but the benefits are generally noticeable and beneficial. So, although you may not end up like the characters in Limitless or Lucy, you will probably end up with a better version of yourself that can think clearer, remember better, and be more excited about life.

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