Underground World of Neuroenhancing Drugs

Margaret Talbot wrote a long, comprehensive, and insightful article in the New Yorker about the underground world of neuroenhancing drugs such as Adderall. Anyone who's been to college recently knows that the use of these drugs on campuses is rampant and that everyone and their brother seems to be obtaining A.D.D. diagnoses in order to snag the latest thing which will help them focus and work more productively. Therefore the piece should have particular resonance for people under 30.

What makes this topic tricky — and Talbot does a good job at conveying as much — is that neuroenhancers are not categorically bad. For some people they're essential to being a functioning person. Plus it's hypocritical to dismiss the whole lot. Coffee is a neuroenahncer, and we don't seem to have any problems it. What makes coffee okay, but the next rung up not okay?

I have never taken these drugs. (Nor have I ever had a cup of coffee!) They "facilitate a pinched, unromantic, grindingly efficient form of productivity," in Talbot's words. They do not spur creative sparks; in fact, I suspect they might even blunt creative verve, or in some other way have a flattening effect. Hence I've stayed away from the pill-popping bonanza, even if I'm as keen on improving my focus as anyone.

As I wrote two years ago in my post about performance enhancing drugs for the mind, I think neuroenhancers and the larger domain of cognitive improvement raise ethical questions that are more important and broadly impactful than doping in baseball or cycling.

11 comments on “Underground World of Neuroenhancing Drugs
  • I’m always fairly suspicious when creativity is talked about in mystical terms. It’s seems to be perceived as last bastion of human superiority to machine and therefore the mysticism is defended with more vigour than it deserves.

    After all, creativity is essentially making connections between disparate pieces of information. There seems to be two important steps in being creative; gaining the information and then making the connections.

    Whilst it may be true that drugs prevent you making connections particularly well (although i don’t see why this should be the case) it can’t be denied that any additional power of concentration will make the intake of a greater amount of information possible.

    Worst case, take the drugs whilst learning, come off them for creating. Best case, drugs improve every part of the creative process.

  • I feel you Ben. When I was in college and strangers saw me awake studying hard for exams, they would immediately assume I was on Adderall and they would ask me to sell them some!

    I think there will be no way around the issue going forward, and there will either be full-scale regulation of nootropics in all sectors of society or full approval and/or encouragement of their use.

    The troubling part is that not enough time has passed to determine the long-term effects of their use. The pharmaceutical companies need to man up, admit who their users really are, and start sponsoring long-term studies because this is not going away.

    I used to think my mind was foggy, but then I fully dialed into the things we all come “equipped with from the factory” and I feel my mind is as sharp as ever. I’m talking about such “boring” advice as sleep for 7.5 hours in a dark room; good diet and nutrition; exercise; meditation practices. You know, any Mom’s advice. No pills.

    Even Ray Kurzweil – well-known for taking 250 pills a day and planning to live forever – has decided not to take these neuroenhancers until more can be determined – and he is in his mid-fifties. (He does however have a good list of natural supplements you can take to enhance focus in the Fantastic Voyage book).

  • In terms of creativity, I like the traits outlined by Michael Murphy.

    He says that creativity is promoted by personal traits such as: tolerance of ambiguity, openess to expierence, nondefensiveness in relation to strong feelings or unusual ideas, independence of judgemnt, attraction to complexity, capacity for creative regression, flexibility of perception and ego boundaries, the capacity to perceive obscure figures, psychological risk-taking, ability to create order from disorder and make connections, unusual capacities for intuition, psychological risk-taking, emotional sensitivity, a strong drive to find pattern and meaning, and feeling of oneness with others.

    Perhaps not such a comprehensive list, but this is why, at this moment in time, I agree with the assessment that they may impair creativity. My thinking at the moment is that the neuroenhancers may “enhance” one or two of these – when it relates to information intake or making connections – but this focused state of being probably blocks out other more interesting connections that could be made.

    When you’re focused on a task at hand, you are dissuaded to zoom out of your perspective and develop all the other traits outlined above.

  • This is, as most readers here probably know, pretty old news to undergrads. I just graduated last year and I had 4 or 5 people just within my fraternity who I could get adderall from. And I had a few friends who went and got bogus prescriptions for adderall, mostly to sell to other people but also to use themselves.

    All you have to do is look up the typical symptoms of ADD on WebMD and spout them off to the right doctor, and you get a prescription. Its painfully (painlessly?) easy.

    Anyway, I don’t think its bad. I work now and drink two cups of coffee a day. At least if I took adderall instead my teeth wouldn’t turn yellow, right? There aren’t any real signs of bad side effects unless you take wayyyy too much adderall, but taking too much of anything has side effects – everybody knows that and acts accordingly.

    Some people will do thinks like crush up adderall and snort it on Friday and Saturday nights as a cheap sort of speed, and this obviously is a lot worse. But for the vast majority of people, just trying to concentrate better in class or grind through their jobs faster, I don’t have any problem with it.

  • These things usually have a way of coming back to bite people. Although not well understood, it seems that sleep plays an important role in long-term memory formation. There isn’t much soil for creativity without memory. Personally, I think people systematically overestimate the importance of winning whatever competition they happen to have in front of them on a given day. It isn’t what we do on one day that people remember us for, it’s what we do over the course of many days in our lifetime.

  • An awful lot of
    modafinil is consumed “off-label” although you could say this is because the regulators haven’t kept up with how even responsible doctors are prescribing it. I agree the competitive pressures in many fields will drive interest in and use of these medicines. And a lot of it is generational.

  • If Newton and Einstein didn’t use that stuff why should I?
    “(Nor have I ever had a cup of coffee!)”
    +1 me too

  • You make a good point that it would be hypocritical to regulate concentration enhancing substances other than caffeine more harshly. The debate is far more nuanced and complex than the debate over steroids. If you’re not feeling pressure to drink coffee today, you’re probably not going to feel pressure to use modafinil or adderall in the future.

    It’s also worth noting that almost everything of worth that’s accomplished is done through sustained effort over a period of time, so you have to log a number of hours considerably longer than the effect of the drugs lasts to really get anything done. If you’re more productive while on the stuff, but less while you aren’t, you aren’t gaining any real advantage. Just staying on the drug isn’t an option, as anyone familiar with how the body adapts to stimuli can immediately appreciate.

  • I think it’s quite interesting to read the comments of people who haven’t ever tried a neuro-stimulant, nor have made a reasonable effort at learning about them from a medical point of view, nonetheless feel qualified to postulate on how their use might affect an entire society.

    I find it equally interesting that the discovery that students are using drugs which temporarily enhance focus at the expense of creativity and inductive reasoning causes questions about the drugs, rather than questions about whether our educational system may be over-rewarding certain kinds of work…

  • For all you druggies, if you get caught call Attorney Melvin Black in Coconut Grove in Florida

    Mel handles undercover Narcs and reports to the Justice Department. If your a small fish you’ll get off, they are only interersted in the big fish.

    So, give Mel a call the next time you get busted. If your just a small time type of guy you’ll get a free ride, if you can give up some one up the line.

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