March 9, 2008

Are you taking drugs to enhance your intellectual performance?

If they work and if you know some of the people you're competing with are taking them, will it even make sense to say no?
“I think the analogy with sports doping is really misleading, because in sports it’s all about competition, only about who’s the best runner or home run hitter,” said Martha Farah, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. “In academics, whether you’re a student or a researcher, there is an element of competition, but it’s secondary. The main purpose is to try to learn things, to get experience, to write papers, to do experiments. So in that case if you can do it better because you’ve got some drug on board, that would on the face of things seem like a plus.”
But there are all those the standardized tests that have so much impact on what schools you attend. And in law school, students are competing for grades that will have a huge effect on their employment options. And how other students do affects how you do, because the teacher is required to meet a predetermined curve.
Jeffrey White, a graduate student in cell biology who has attended several institutions, said ... “You can usually tell who’s using them because they can be angry, testy, hyperfocused, they don’t want to be bothered”....
Oh, great, we're all going to have to take drugs and the drugs will make us all assholes.
Mr. White said he did not use the drugs himself, considering them an artificial shortcut that could set people up for problems later on. “What happens if you’re in a fast-paced surgical situation and they’re not available?” he asked. “Will you be able to function at the same level?”
And your surgeon will be a druggie. That is, you'll have to hope he's on drugs, because when he can't get his drugs, he'll be terrible.
One person who posted anonymously on the Chronicle of Higher Education Web site said that a daily regimen of three 20-milligram doses of Adderall transformed his career: “I’m not talking about being able to work longer hours without sleep (although that helps),” the posting said. “I’m talking about being able to take on twice the responsibility, work twice as fast, write more effectively, manage better, be more attentive, devise better and more creative strategies.”
Or so he thinks. But he's an asshole, right? Or is he a stealth advertising agent for the company that makes Adderall? Because I feel like getting it now.

Imagine working extremely hard because of a drug. You had the will to achieve — that came naturally — and you chose to take the drug. But now the choices you make come from the drug, and you've lost the natural intuitions that would prevent you from descending into workaholism.

If that is the future, if you value your brain, your intellect, your soul, you must cede the intellectual fields to the drug-fueled superhumans who will dominate and domineer over you unless you take the pills too.

Timothy Leary said "Tune in, turn on, drop out." The slogan will need to be revived — but with a negative added to the middle clause.


rhhardin said...

Doing what interests you beats drugs.

So little comes from working hard, in the sense of the article.

So much comes from thinking about something for months on commutes, simply because it's interesting.

So there's something wrong with the competitive field being surveyed.

If your work isn't your hobby, change your work.

George said...

"The Defense Department, which distributed millions of amphetamine tablets to troops during World War II, Vietnam and the Gulf War, soldiers on, insist[s] that they are not only harmless but beneficial."

Then again, "Orexin A is a promising candidate to become a "sleep replacement" drug. For decades, stimulants have been used to combat sleepiness, but they can be addictive and often have side effects, including raising blood pressure or causing mood swings. The military, for example, administers amphetamines to pilots flying long distances, and has funded research into new drugs like the stimulant modafinil (.pdf) and orexin A in an effort to help troops stay awake with the fewest side effects."

P. Rich said...

"...being able to take on twice the responsibility, work twice as fast, write more effectively, manage better, be more attentive, devise better and more creative strategies."

A glowing self-evaluation performed while in a drug-induced state might be a little suspect. Or a lot suspect. The outcome from long-running tests conducted by someone other than the drug manufacturer would be interesting though.

PatCA said...

I think drugs would be appropriate especially for the type of people I've worked with over the years who are such severe procrastinators or so insecure they can't write a brief or turn in a journal article--it's got to be a physical thing. Careers are stymied or ended. I would take Adderall if it were me, and be followed by a good doctor.

Ron said...

we're all going to have to take drugs and the drugs will make us all assholes

The drugs will make us assholes in the same way car wax will make your car look more blue, or red, or whatever color it is...maybe we'll be shiny assholes!

dbp said...

It is all very Phillip K. Dickian:

I need to take the drug which makes me want to sleep and this will give me the impulse to take a sleeping pill...Is there a pill which will give me the decisiveness to enable me to decide which pill I ought to pop?

former law student said...

I think patca is right. Adderal lets people focus and concentrate on their work; it doesn't make them any smarter or more creative. I don't know if I'd want a surgeon taking it, but if I'm paying someone to work eight hours I don't want them to spend three hours surfing the net.

Meade said...

On the other hand, if I'm paying someone to surf the net for me and asshole A can surf twice as many pages in the same time as (less of an) asshole B, at the same salary, I guess I'd be a fool not to hire asshole A.

amba said...

Yeah, I am. It's called caffeine.

amba said...

The way that guy describes working on Adderall (what a voracious-sounding name! Add-er-all makes you a human calculator; "addict" is in there, also "adder" -- you become a regular viper) . . . anyway, it sounds like bipolar people's description of mania. (See e.g. Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind.

amba said...

"Adderall" also sounds like someone who can't stop talking -- "Natterall" -- and who is completely addled to boot. They gave it a frightening name!

You know the stories about people taking exams on speed who wrote an exquisitely brilliant essay in their blue book -- ALL ON ONE LINE ...

amba said...

patca -- that sounds a lot like stage fright, which responds to, I think it's MAO inhibitors.

John Lynch said...

This is funny. Everyone else is trying to be like me- angry, testy hyperfocused, and wanting to be left alone. I'm like that naturally.

Speed is not as dangerous as made out to be (especialy if made in a factory instead of a sink), but it isn't exactly good for you. Just the social side effects make it a bad idea. Being an arrogant asshole isn't good for your career. Or for keeping friends. Tweakers are annoying.

Zach said...

A few thoughts:

First, take claims of huge enhancement with a grain of salt. People tempted to beat the system are also tempted to believe they've found a foolproof method to beat the system.

Second, athletic careers are over in a few years. Would you really want to sign up for taking prescription drugs for what might be decades at a time?

I'm inclined to think that strategies to get ahead by working impossible hours or foregoing sleep are intrinsically short term, whether you do it with chemical aid or sheer bloody-mindedness. You may be able to turn off the little switch in your brain that says "I've been working too long today," but you can't turn off the million ways in which your body can say "You've taken terrible care of me and I will now procede to break down in various unexpected ways."

I've never personally encountered any of these drugs in physics. In high school, a couple of the chess players swore by their Ritalin prescriptions, but a) they weren't the top level players, and b) they most likely did have ADD, certainly had legitimate prescriptions, and chess is an activity that uniquely punishes a short attention span.

Beth said...

amba owns this thread and proves caffeine will suffice for an already bright person.

CJ said...

I'm a law student, and this is my biggest fear. People are always trying to get ahead even if that means cheating. But if you cheat in a traditional way there's a chance you'll get caught. Many people use these drugs for 2 weeks during finals or a big project. They don't have to use them all the time or for many years. My hard work and natural ability can't really compete with someone who is able to sleep 2 hours a night without a short term effect on brain function. I'm not ready to advocate drug testing for law students, but I think this will be a huge problem over the next 5 - 10 years.

Christy said...

Damn, I hate it when people use drugs to catch up with me.

I'm old enough that when I was 13 the doctor wrote me a script for diet pills, a.k.a. speed. I don't remember how long I was on them but I remember being really weirded out by them. I gave them up cold turkey the day I was on a high diving board and my spatial senses went bye-bye. I've never liked anything that messed with the way my brain functions.

Random said...

I don't think abuse of these drugs is a terrible thing, even though it's not likely to be as useful as folks think. Who do you prefer in your profession: The thoughtful older slower type or the younger quicker aggressive type? By prefer, I mean who do you actually think contributes more. In some jobs its good to be a robot, but mostly not in the sciences, even though it is often good to be a robot for some specific tasks. What these drugs actually suggest is that testing of professions often use rather crude proxies for what we really want. But a good math course in university requires no memorization (if you're a good student). I suspect this is less true of law and medicine, but the tasks these drugs help with are ones that aren't very valuable anyway (machines take over some grunt work, etc).

It's even sorta true of writing papers in the sense that I bet drugs liket this only help with writing papers because most papers are terribly written.

For my part, I'd prefer to be more thoughtful, but I suspect there's no shortcut to getting there (too much feedback and intricacy to just flip a switch).

Elliott A said...

The question here is, "What will be the long term effects of these drugs?" Does it pay to be No. 1 instead of No.5 if your mind is fried by the time you are in your 50s? Whether or not it makes for a fair playing field, the enhancement of abilities by drugs always shortens your longevity in your field whether it is physical or intellectual, and will probably shorten your useful life. Most of us have already killed enough brain cells to make the killing of any more have dire consequences. As "smart" as these drugs may make people, using them is pretty stupid.

Daryl said...

How much will you pay me to go on Adderall and blog about it?

David said...

"If your work isn't your hobby, change your work."

What crap!

That comment made me pop an Adderall, and now I can act like a real asshole again.

What if your hobby is butterfly collecting, or--like me--being a bad golfer, or writing unpublished short stories (also a hobby of mine), or blogging or any of the millions of nonremunerative fun activities at which we do not excel?

Hope the spouse and children are understanding, or that you have inherited wealth.

Here's a better idea: if you aren't any good at what you do, change your work.

If you are, be grateful, collect the rewards and enjoy your hobbies.

Daryl said...

Whether or not it makes for a fair playing field, the enhancement of abilities by drugs always shortens your longevity in your field

That's nothing more than a stereotype, or more accurately, a syllogism.

Athletes take all sorts of supplements (drugs!) that make them perform better and allow them to live longer, healthier lives.

Here's an example: Gatorade. Is that a "drug"? The only reason it isn't classed as a drug is because it doesn't have nasty side effects.

Once you define "drugs" as "chemicals with nasty side effects that catch up with you in the long run," then and only then can you say with any sort of confidence that drugs always reduce the span of a person's career.

And if people don't get enough of a certain chemical that we expect everyone to take, and that negatively affects their performance, we say that they are suffering from "malnutrition."

There is no baseline as to what is "normal" for people to consume, and there are no magic distinctions between morally good chemicals and "drugs." Do you think somebody's fairy godmother flew down, waved her magic wand, and blessed certain substances while declaring others to be verboten?

All performance-enhancing drugs inevitably reduce someone's career span? What a joke. What a facially ridiculous statement. I would expect that from a priest, not a scientist. We have enough religion interfering with our lives as it is.

Bruce Hayden said...

I didn't know until recently why Gatorade is called what it is. But found out that it was apparently developed working with the Florida Gators, or at least their track team (according to a member of the team at the time).

Some 20 years ago, when I was in law school, I had a prescription for Dexedrine, due to my commute, etc. I cut the hits (oh, sorry, pills) in half, and was fine. I kept the dosage low enough that there was no real withdrawal. I still have half a bottle around somewhere, but haven't seen them for years. On the other hand, I have seen first hand the devastation of Meth...

I, for one, probably would have taken Adderall if generally available for SATs, LSATs, Bar exams, etc. A lot of people seem to score lower than they might otherwise, due to their inability to work really, really, fast.

The place where I really expect to see this drug used is in Medicine, and maybe even pre-med (the only place where we saw cheating in college). Maybe law school too. Doctors already self-medicate more than probably any other profession (esp. since they can prescribe the meds), and this would just be one more med to them. We can just hope that we are the patients when the drug is working properly, and not when they are blitzing out.

Freeman Hunt said...
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Sloanasaurus said...

It seems to me that if you have a deficit compared to others, such as ADD, taking these drugs puts you back into normalcy for competition. Therefore, people would not necessarily be enhancing their performance when compared to the total pool of people.

Some atheletes state they have the ability to see things almost in slow motion. Maybe their brains see at 50 frames a second while the normal person sees at 25. In this sense they have a natural chemical imbalance in their brain which gives them this skill. Is it wrong then for someone to try and reach that same chemical imbalance?

Same with drugs like adderall or ritalin. If your brain has a chemical imbalace which causes the brain to process information more slowly than the average person (thus causing inattention), it seems fair to bring your brain to a normal state of attention.

Sloanasaurus said...

How much will you pay me to go on Adderall and blog about it?

There is a natural supplement called "Attend" that supposedly works without the side effects of stimulants like adderall. We should all try it and see if it works.

Sloanasaurus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
former law student said...

The year after Gatorade was developed, the Florida Gators went to the Orange Bowl and won. The year after that, kids in my high school's team were drinking it. Drinking Gatorade instead of water and orange wedges became a sign of professionalism, like eye black.

Elliott A said...


Gatorade is not a "drug" because it contains only materials which are readily available naturaly, and most importantly, cannot cause your body to ever contain an overabundance of any chemical or product that can enhance any ability, function, etc. "Drugs" will mediate metabolic processes to otherwise unattainable levels. We have anabolic steroids in our bodies, but can never have the concentrations possible with injection. Same with HGH. Adderal doesn't exist in the body at all. All physically enhancing drugs cause shorter longevity, more injuries, and with long enough usage, shorter lifespans. My point about the adderal was that it is likely to burn out the processes it is accelerating in the same way. We just haven't seen the results yet, but I am sure they are coming. This is not streotypes, these are hard data.

If the drug is used to correct a deficit, it is probably worth the trade-off. When used to supercede normal ability, it probably isn't.

Freeman Hunt said...

It seems to me that if you have a deficit compared to others, such as ADD, taking these drugs puts you back into normalcy for competition.

Of course, this also hinges on the extent to which you believe that ADD exists and whether or not it is over-diagnosed.