Better Living Through Chemistry: What’s wrong with cognitive enhancers?

Agnes Mazur

Agnes Mazur

The most interesting thing about the recent, uniformly skeptical media coverage of Adderall is that the very users journalists interview give the stuff near unanimous endorsement. Even so, the coverage emphasizes minor risks and ignores real benefits. In the slow news month before swine flu, a Fox affiliate trolled the University of Chicago campus for scary quotes about the drug while the New Yorker ran a lengthy and ambivalent essay about Adderall and other “cognitive enhancers.” Though there was plenty of fretting over how we might be doomed to keep the pace set by drug-enhanced workaholics, very little of the stories’ evidence supported that claim. Frankly, Adderall is a good thing, at least as beneficial as Viagra or whey protein. And if it’s as useful as its users claim, it’ll become as ubiquitous as cell phones.

For starters, there’s the unambiguous benefit of enhanced drive and concentration. Being able to focus on difficult work for three hours instead of one, as one letter writer to Science magazine raved, is terrific. Whether you go on to produce a brilliant novella or merely organize your refrigerator is a function of your skill and motivation. But if you’re in the mood, Adderall can help grease the wheels. There’s another class of drugs described by that metaphor, and in some states Medicaid ponies up for the older men who buy it over the counter. So if unnatural erections are so socially important that the government will provide them to men who can’t afford them, why can’t you buy Adderall at Intelligentsia?
For that matter, what right does Uncle Sam have to regulate our own blood-brain barriers? It’s no small thing that little Adderall scaremongering focuses on the health risk, simply because experience has demonstrated it’s not huge. In the nearly 30 years amphetamine-like compounds were widely prescribed, society didn’t crumble, even though pilots flew longer and writers met deadlines more comfortably. Since then, we’ve recognized their danger by prescribing them to children.

The real fear behind the new Adderall journalism is that if their use becomes widespread, we’ll all have to work harder just to keep up. The New Yorker’s Margaret Talbot addresses this with jarring clumsiness, invoking the specter of Chinese and Indians determinedly entering intellectual sweatshops. In an Adderall-honed future, the story goes, we’ll all be focused all day, with neither the time nor the absentmindedness to Google our names and refresh Gawker. Arguing that is a lot like grumbling that when premeds enroll in a class, everybody has to work harder. It’s probably true, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing when students read the novels they’re assigned instead of SparkNotes. Besides, isn’t the last 50 years the happy story of brains and hard work displacing good breeding and sharp dressing as prerequisites for success? The three-martini lunch is a thing of the past, and apart from “Mad Men” fans too young to have experienced one, it doesn’t seem to be missed.

More importantly, people can opt out of a career culture they deem workaholic, the same way that people who don’t want to memorize amino acids don’t have to take biochemistry. As comedian George Carlin put it when President Carter cut the business lunch tax deduction, the “two-joint coffee break” remains intact. The heart of Margaret Talbot’s fear seems to be that her own leisurely-conducted career might be in peril. If a fearsome new cognitively-enhanced, work/life-unbalanced intellectual caste had a mascot, who would it be but the hyperactive blogger?

Sadly, in hoping to keep Adderall from quickening the pace, Talbot never stops to consider what benefits widespread use would have. Though she cites a Wired column about a sociopathic workaholic as a tragic example, five paragraphs into her article she accepts that Adderall users aren’t typically grade-grubbers or boot-lickers–they’re people who, in a recent Harvard grad’s words, “are looking in some way to compensate for activities that are detrimental to their performance.” But if the nouveau motorheads are simply trying to make up for partying harder than elite university undergraduates or agribusiness geneticists otherwise should, who else is being harmed? Best of all, what happens if Adderall and the gang catch on with people who are already doing what they love? Black Flag was notorious for practicing five to six hours a day, and Talbot’s fellow New Yorker doyen Malcom Gladwell tells us the Beatles achieved greatness by playing marathon sets in Hamburg. It shouldn’t shock the reader to discover that the amphetamine-like stimulant Preludin was part of the latter band’s nightly routine.

There’s an argument that amphetamines suppress creative thinking, and Talbot illustrates it by suggesting that had he been tweaking, Jimi Hendrix might never have written Purple Haze. Fortunately, there’s not much experimental evidence to suggest that amphetamine-taking subjects are any less creative, though they do show improved working memory and problem-solving skills. Interestingly, few of the heavy users Talbot interviews endorse constant use. In the same way exercisers chug protein shakes to supplement other meals, most Adderall users, even the regular ones, see it as enhancement and nothing more. In the end, people will work as hard as they find rewarding. If Adderall makes certain professions unbearable, others are open. But no matter how much hand-wringing the drugs inspire, if they’re useful they’ll only become more prevalent. Instead of bemoaning the paring down of lunch breaks, journalists ought to consider the number of new stories–scientific discoveries, impressive debut novels, or brilliant artworks–a cognitive revolution promises.

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