Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

media. music. feminism. food. city-dwelling. story-telling. and other things.

Little Helpers 2.0

with 8 comments

Seriously, who is handing out all this Adderall and Provigil? Every few months it seems some publication or other is running an in-depth expose on the “new” recreational/professional use of prescription “smart drugs.” Our intrepid reporters gloss over how exactly they or their subjects get a hold of these drugs: Black market? Laissez-faire doctors? Mail order from Mexico? These are the things inquiring minds want to know!

The latest, “Can a Pill Make You Smarter?,” is from December’s Marie Claire.

Smart Drugs, or more precisely, cognitive enhancers, include a variety of controlled substances, available — if you insist on being legal about it — only by prescription. They include stimulants such as dextroamphetamine (sold as Dexedrine and Adderall) and methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta) for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). By mimicking the brain neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine, stimulants leave you utterly consumed with the task at hand until mission accomplished. Then you’re fired up to tackle something else, anything else, from organizing your sock drawer to grooming your cat. Smart Drugs also include a class known as eugeroics, meaning “good arousal” … The eugeroics modafinil and armodafinil (sold as Provigil and Nuvigil) treat narcolepsy and “excessive sleepiness” (ES) due to shift work and sleep apnea. But prescribed off-label, they’ve also been found effective for ES due to overbearing superiors, perfectionist tendencies, and not enough hours in the day.

After hearing from a lawyer who takes Focalin to manage 14- to 20-hour workdays, reporter Joanne Chen decides to try some “smart drugs” for herself. And guess what? She gets a lot of shit done!

Now in my younger years, I conducted—as Audrey Hepburn might say—“a comprehensive study of depravity,” which included no small amount of Adderall use. And I concur wholeheartedly with Chen’s description of the effects—it makes it easy to get done even the most mundane tasks, the ones you’ve been putting on your to-do list for weeks. What she doesn’t bring up is how much easier it also makes certain social situations. I can be quite shy (if you know me and think ha!, let’s just say I hide it well), and I’m absolutely horrid at the social nicety known as “small talk” (seriously, when I watch people do the small talk thing with ease I’m filled with confusion, jealousy and wonderment), but on Adderall, everything anyone says to you is fascinating!, and not only that, but you have the perfect reply, too. Office Christmas party? You’re a hit! Socializing with strangers? Done and done!

I know I’m beginning to sound like the alcoholics or potheads who insist they need a drink, or a joint, to take the edge off, but the beauty of cognitive enhancers is that it’s possible without any of the messy/embarrassing side effects—you remain lucid, coordinated, unchanged personality-wise, and sharp, and also devoid of the jitteriness or other weirdness that other stimulants (even caffeine) can bring. You are just … focused, be it on answering emails or writing a paper or cleaning your house or mingling at the office Christmas soiree.

Focused, and awake. It’s not as if you never need to sleep, you just need to sleep less. For those ‘there aren’t enough hours’ types, voila!

Of course, as a friend said the other day, “I really do need more hours in the day. Of course, what would I do with more hours? Probably just read more blogs.”

It’s funny, but, oh-so-sadly, also probably true. Keeping up with blog reading (and writing) is actually something that minorly stresses out me and a lot of people I know. That might sound silly at first blush, but it’s really just symptomatic of some of the many problems the Internet and self-publishing and the oft-maligned “24-hour-news-cycle” and all of that have created, isn’t it? There is so much that can be known, and there is no longer any excuse for not knowing it—it is all right there! There is so much to keep up with around the world, and there is no longer any excuse for not keeping up with it—it is all right there! There is so much to read, and you had better read it now, because by next week (or 3 hours from now) it will be passé. Even with music—earlier today, in saying that I was really enjoying Okkervil River’s album, “The Stand Ins,” I caught myself qualifying it with “I know I’m a big late to the game, but.” The album came out in September.

In Chen’s article—and every other I’ve read like it—the people using cognitive enhancement drugs aren’t doing it to tune in, turn on and drop out; they aren’t doing it to expand their consciousness, baby, or to escape, or even to have really awesome sex. They are doing it so they can get more done. Chen quotes a neurologist who asks, “Is this a dysfunctional way of living?”

Well, yes! Of course it is!

Now before you accuse me of having no historical perspective, I will state for the record that I realize people using productivity-enhancing drugs is not a new phenomenon. Benzedrine and mother’s little helpers and the cocaine 80s and all that. But I think there is something profoundly different about these cognitive enhancers, isn’t there? For one, they’re legal. And for another, they carry much less risk of addiction and side effects than their 1950s and 1960s counterparts. That’s not to say they’re harmless, but the risks are relatively minimal, and as Chen mentions in her article, a new class of cognitive enhancers already in the works contain even less downsides.

I’ve always been extremely ambivalent about the pathologizing and medicalizing of human nature. Phoebe sort of took up this question last week as it relates to Atzberger’s disease, and it was more or less a variation on the same discussion that has raged over ADD and depression for the past two decades or so, which is in itself just a variation on the age-old debate over how much variance we, as a society, allow in human behavior, temperament and relationships; how we decide on the outer-limits, beyond which it is not just unusual but unhealthy, sick, to be cured.

As it seems de rigueur to point out so as not to incur the wrath of those who take any discussion of the benefits of pharmaceutical cures as making light of this or that condition, I know there are many serious cases of serious conditions for which drugs are totally imperative, etc.

I also believe that in many, many cases the whole idea of medicating is silly; that it’s ill-advised that we’ve given up on human variance and ‘flaws’ so much. But if everyone else has given up on it, I don’t want to be left behind, the only poor sucker relying on my normal brain chemistry and energy levels and attention span.

So … I’d like to hear anyone’s thoughts on this. Do you think cognitive enhancing drugs will become more widely prescribed than they are now? Is there a not-too-distant future when we’re all going to be able to get this stuff as easily as aspirin? Or do you think there’s going to be a major governmental crackdown/backlash? Is more widespread use of these drugs something to be embraced, or feared? Are we getting too close to creating a weird society of super humans? And does anyone know a good doctor? 😉


Written by Elizabeth

November 23, 2008 at 9:54 pm

8 Responses

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  1. I think they should sell Adderall over the counter. If I had health insurance, I could probably get it prescribed pretty easily, but it is probably something I should be taking.


    November 23, 2008 at 11:20 pm

  2. To needlepoint but one tangent portion of your argument here, I’ve been tumbling, tossing, turning all around with the idea of the suddenly unnecessary nature of a year-end music list.

    Perhaps this is really just another sign that the Big Omnibus List Of The Best Things From A Particular Time is something of a relic, because consensus really is an impossible thing these days.

    I still think the biggest thing going against the “Best Of” lists now is the fact that judging this stuff on an ANNUAL basis seems completely absurd in this day and age. “Best Albums Of The Month,” or “Best Albums Of The Last 2 Weeks,” or even “Best Albums of Late This Afternoon” all seem much more appropriate for The World We Now Live In™.

    Anecdotally, a Unicycles Mix I made 2, TWO Thanksgivings ago popped into my car this weekend. MGMT appeared. Not some early MGMT, but Time to Pretend, Brooklyn’s Summer soundtrack.

    Which catches us on the hype/hate carousel. I don’t even know where I fall on the hype/backlash to the hype/backlash to the backlash to the hype carousel. All I know is that, looking back on the year that was, Vampire Weekend and Fleet Foxes both put out really terrific records. If only for the former to remind me how much I love Graceland.

    Jables Gully

    November 24, 2008 at 12:38 pm

  3. Call me a purist, but I have a lot of friends who take adderall, among other drugs. And while I would also like to focus more than I currently do (as I sit writing this at my job), I must disagree with your risk assessment of habitual use.

    I have one friend who takes it everyday basically because they need to. Most people, however, take it for the reasons you listed–and more often, to counter the effects of last night’s hangover. And the effects on mood for some of these people, are evident.

    I don’t disagree with the principle of OTC adult access to adderall, but that doesn’t mean I would recommend it as a lifestyle choice for self-medication. I know too many potheads that exacerbated their depression by smoking more weed and thus am somewhat skeptical of people self-medicating with prescription pills.


    November 24, 2008 at 1:15 pm

  4. It’s a good analysis.

    Why so many french world or expressionsion in your article ?

    (I’m french)


    November 24, 2008 at 3:57 pm

  5. Adderall is a mixture of amphetamine salts. Making this OTC would result in widely available easy to purify amphetamine, which could be relatively easily synthesized into methamphetamine. The only thing that prevents Adderall from having effects similar to street amphetamine is the nicely tuned metabolism of the individual salts which spreads out the effect over a longer duration.

    This goes to a particular hobby horse of mine which is that the drugs themselves are rarely bad, but street drug delivery mechanisms do not have the health of the user in mind. Adderall is legal speed – but much less addictive, dangerous and unpleasant. Nicotine is deadly by itself, but is packaged in a manner that doesn’t kill people immediately. I think most street drugs could easily be tweaked by major pharmaceutical companies to make them safer and less addictive. Wouldn’t it be healthier to drink tincture of THC instead of smoking pot?

    I’m not even advocating substance use – but from a moral perspective policy should be geared towards making all drug use as safe as possible.

    Ian M.

    December 4, 2008 at 5:09 pm

  6. Sigh. If you haven’t already read my thoughts on ADD as a fad/fake diagnosis, you can do so here: http://www.nazg.com/iqrai/index.php/2008/02/28/grooving-on-the-medicated-age/

    I’m beginning to suspect, though, that while occasional recreational use of Adderall et al. isn’t going anywhere, the new hot diagnosis is mood disorders: Asperger’s or, more likely, bipolar II. If our generation is going to end up the only one that grew up with ADD as its psychological spectre, we might find we have a unique attitude toward its remedies (though I hope that doesn’t mean we’re the last ones to care about recreational amphetamine-salt use).


    December 5, 2008 at 12:49 am

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    Christine & Josepha

    February 10, 2009 at 12:15 pm

  8. […] I had to pause here and tell the doc about a play a friend of mine is writing, about a near-future society in which a test-batch of people begins on The Regimen, essentially a drug that only requires humans to get about an hour of sleep per day, or one full-night of sleep per week. He’s focusing on what this would do to not only work expectations, but how it would affect the relationship between a couple where one person is on the Regimen and the other isn’t. I love this kind of hypothetical stuff, and it also reminds me of the very-non-hypothetical debate over cognitive enhancement drugs. […]

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