It’s one of the dirty little secrets of high-level academia: drugs. No, not hard drugs like cocaine or heroine (though don’t underestimate the use of LSD among geniuses). Just as we find at the highest levels of sport, many of the giants of intellectual achievement are using drugs to improve their performance. For a mathematician, that means one thing: cognitive enhancement. But is there any truth the idea that “smart drugs” can make a normal person better?
The easy answer is: yes… if you’re sleepy. Most drugs cited as enhancing cognitive function were actually invented and introduced for entirely separate reasons; modafinil is technically for treating narcolepsy, while other drugs like Ritalin are meant to ease hyperactive tension or anxiety. Each of these primarily addresses a deficiency, attempting to bring a patient back to baseline performance. That’s a distinctly different goal from enhancing performance, from increasing the baseline.
Provigil is the leading brand name for the drug modafinil.
However, there’s no doubting the sheer volume of anecdotal evidence: though it’s not prescribed this way, years of unapproved self-medication (along with a few real research papers) show that smart drugs can even help people who do not suffer from cognitive problems like ADHD or lack of sleep. Name-brand drugs like Provigil (modafinil) are becoming famously trendy with students, many of whom look forward to though competition for jobs upon graduation. The ability to simply purchase an edge in that race, even a slight edge, is understandably hard to ignore — and indeed, one study found that smart pills can enhance the feeling of mastery, sometimes without actually improving performance.
That they work at all can’t really be questioned — people generally see better results on certain tests while on the medication, though often only slightly. It’s not just alertness or response time, as test subjects have shown increased retention of data learned while on enhancers, even after the drugs have left the system. The issue seems to be that the drugs over clock the brain rather than enhance it, forcing it to run at peak performance even when such might not seem strictly necessary for survival. These drugs cannot make you smarter than you really are, but they do seem to be able to help you to get into your smartest state possible. Rather than brightening the sun, cognitive enhancers disperse the clouds that block it.
This principle is best seen in the fact that cognitive enhancers generally deliver diminishing returns for people at higher and higher levels of achievement. The greater the IQ, the less an enhancer tends to help, and in some cases drugs have been shown to depress extremely high functioning people. This could be because these people also tend to have very specialized areas of ability, esoteric brain processes that get mucked up by pharmaceuticals. It could also be that these people are so high-functioning precisely because they have so few clouds to clear, and the excess energy builds up in an unhelpful way.
This Nature poll asked respondents to report their use of “smart pills.”
In general, popping a pill will deliver results no better than a good night’s sleep — but that fact is only helpful the night before the big test. If you’ve already pulled the all-nighter, and there’s no time for natural cognitive “enhancers” like sleep or a nutritious meal, a “smart pill” will likely provide some benefit. Modafinil, in particular, bas been used in military training to allow pilots to fly well for as long as two days without sleep. The advantages tend to come in just a couple of flavours, however, affecting recall of arbitrary number but not, say, your overall attention span.
The issue with cognitive enhancers isn’t so much their use as a pre-test pop of mental energy, but as a go-to helper in normal cognitive tasks. As mentioned, some academics in more mind-bending fields of study tend to (anonymously) admit that they habitually take smart pills just to grapple with their every-day subject matter. For this, the evidence of benefit is much weaker. Not only are possible medical side-effects largely unstudied, but the benefits of cognitive enhancers for sustained use are questionable.
In the end, consider this: even the army doesn’t feed its troops these pills for too long. It will be a long and tumultuous road to legality for these drugs as voluntary brain-helpers, perhaps precisely because their effects are less pronounced in those who need them less. At the absolute highest levels, however, in advanced physics and long-distance bicycling, smart drugs will always hold the enticing promise of talent without hard work.
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