I Tried to Hack My Brain with Special Coffee Cubes. Here's What Happened

Credit: Nootrobox

For the first five minutes after drinking a strong cup of coffee, I’m a fount of story ideas and profound plans for the arrangement of my desk toys. But it's not long before that energy deteriorates into Twitter-scrolling and frustratingly jittery languor. I’d go as far as to say I’m usually worthless on coffee. At least, I was, until I discovered a hacked, cubed coffee from a Silicon Valley startup.

In 2015, I reviewed the Nootrobox GoCube preceding its Indiegogo campaign. The GoCube was marketed as “chewable coffee” and a nootropic — an umbrella term for chemical compounds (sometimes called smart drugs) with alleged cognition-enhancing effects that, when used responsibly, can be taken long-term. In this case, the compound's main two ingredients are a simple and proven pair: Caffeine combined with l-theanine, an amino acid found in tea that, at high enough doses, relaxes your mind and makes you more alert.

"Caffeine and l-theanine are both psychoactive," says John Foxe, professor and chair at the University of Rochester Medical Center Department of Neuroscience. "Both of them have modest, but statistically significant, effects on attention tasks." In other words, the combo works — just not in an Earth-shattering way.

I had a decent experience with the cubes on the first go, so I reached out to Nootrobox again for enough cubes to last a month. Here’s what I learned.

I became crazy focused. I’m my most productive self if I cut caffeine with l-theanine, and that's probably because, as Foxe puts it, l-theanine smooths out the scaffolding, or the spikiness, of caffeine. My work is fast and pointed. My tedious to-do lists are clean and lack doodles — or, if they have doodles, they’re fucking great. Only downside: Intense focus meant I couldn't hold a conversation, because I just wanted to keep working.

I’m wildly efficient. Since I don’t get distracted very easily when I take the cubes, I get my main work done faster and can tackle bigger, tougher projects that I'm usually too gassed to hit at the end of the day.

I get irritated faster. Something I learned from taking caffeine and l-theanine before: I hate being interrupted when I’m in the zone, or when any thought-processing gets interrupted for something I think is dumb. Also, when you’re taking these, you think a lot of things are dumb.

I built up a tolerance pretty quickly. Since each cube has 50mg of caffeine, a regular coffee-drinker might want two cubes at a time. Toward the end of the test, I found myself eating three cubes. Which worked just fine, but set a bad precedent: I probably couldn’t continue taking these steadily for another month without needing to step up to four cubes, or 200mg of caffeine, a sitting. However, if you’re starting to wane halfway through the day, taking just 50mg is a hell of a lot better than going for another full cup of coffee.

I get headaches here and there. Maybe it was from taking more caffeine than I'm used to, or from not drinking enough water (caffeine is a diuretic, after all), but whatever the cause, a headache can really exacerbate that hating dumbness thing. "I've never had someone report a headache," Foxe says, which makes me think I probably took too many cubes.

I miss the coffee ritual. Entrepreneurial Californians, which the Nootrobox team is, are all about maximizing efficiency and streamlining productivity (now I’m just stringing words together). So it makes sense that they’d rather pop a supplement than get down with a cup of cold brew, like grabbing a breakfast bar or a Soylent shake instead of real food. However, starting your day with emails and coffee is a ritual a lot of people don’t want to give up — especially when it means your ritual is now coffee gummies and, I guess, water.

Overall, I’m into the GoCubes. I think they’re a hard sell for coffee-ritualers — ritualeers? Ritualiens? Sorry, I had a third cube — and anyone who just wants caffeine the way they’ve had it forever, especially since the flavor isn’t a tastebud-for-’bud remake. But for the price — a box of 20 four-packs, or about 40 cups of coffee, sells for $39 — I’m more than happy to overlook both of those snags in the name of a more-productive workday.