Have you ever wanted to work for 12 hours straight with laser-like focus and without getting exhausted? Yeah, me neither, but for the sake of this article, let’s assume that we are all workaholics who would much prefer to be in the office than squarely planted on the couch in front of the TV.
Okay, so now that I’ve set up the hypothetical scenario for this article: do you feel like your body can’t handle your 18-hour workday? (I’m exaggerating, obviously). Well, there is a category of new “designer” drugs that will help you to not only blaze through your workday but also keep your cognition working in overdrive while doing so. These drugs are known as nootropics and are touted as drugs that make you smart, increase your cognitive ability, and keep you focused on your work for inordinate and practically superhuman amounts of time.
But do they actually work? Let’s find out!
When the elite professional stratus adopts a habit, diet or lifestyle, the masses of people that aspire to be like them usually follow suit. This is the story of a humble little orange pill that saw the same fame.
The drug modafinil was first produced in France in the late 1970s as a treatment for various sleep disorders including narcolepsy, a disorder which makes the afflicted constantly groggy and, in extreme cases, prone to randomly falling asleep. So, obviously, you can easily identify the first effect of this drug: it keeps you awake and aware. However, an unforeseen effect was later observed; much like Ritalin and Adderall, which were widely used for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and Alzheimer’s suffers, the drug also seemingly increased cognitive function and focus.
When word got out that modafinil makes you focus more than a cat chasing a laser dot, it was adapted by elite, high-stress and highly demanding (both physically and mentally) professions such as jet pilots, ER doctors, financial market workers, and Silicon Valley millionaire startup savants.
What Do They Do?
Okay, so as with any piece of technology, there is a caveat. Nuclear energy can produce sun-like levels of electricity but can also annihilate entire cities if it malfunctions, and it produces radioactive waste. TNT helped us cut through mountains, making the movement of people and products possible in the most efficient way – it can also be used to blow up said efficiently mobile people and products.
At the moment, nootropics are untested in regards to their long-term effects, and most physicians don’t even know exactly how they work. They actually don’t know how modafinil works, but an earlier nootropic drug called piracetam (used to treat dementia, initially) was speculated to increase neuroplasticity of synapses, essentially rewiring and even reshaping your brain which is vital for memory and executive functioning.
Even though these drugs have been available for over 40 years, how they increase brain function is still unknown. The good thing is that, unlike modafinil, piracetam has been proven safe for human use.
The Argument Towards
Our contemporary cognitive landscape is one of ceaseless information streaming, and our educational and professional demands in correlation reflect this. In the professional biosphere, we are treated like computational devices with targets, performance plateaus, and cognitive requirements never seen by humanity and society at large in the past. Pro-smart drug advocates cite this as the primary reason for the adaptation of drugs that increase focus and cognitive ability, further arguing that it could potentially take thousands, if not millions, of years for evolution to increase our cognitive abilities to the level that smart drugs can do now.
As I mentioned earlier, smart drugs primarily influence executive cognition which deals with planning, execution, task flexibility, working memory, reasoning, and problem-solving, which are all undeniably important brain functions. Do you see which aspects are absent from the list above? Yes, there is a complete lack of creative cognition. Smart drug opponents thusly argue that, although these substances increase processing brain power, they do so by restricting creative processing and free will, essentially nullifying fundamentally human processes in lieu of processing power. Without knowing the potential addictiveness of smart drugs, people fear that these pharmaceuticals could relegate people to being nothing more than flesh and bone processing machines.
Another concern regarding nootropics is ethicality; is using a brain-boosting drug the professional equivalent of an athlete using steroids or other performance enhancers? Will the people that are inherent risk-takers try supplementing their brainpower, creating a skewed perception of normal functioning people that will refuse to use said drugs? Ultimately, the modern job market has all the trappings of a (not so healthy) competition, with an unending pool of applicants vying for the same jobs, many employees competing for the same promotions, and people struggling to maintain their jobs as demands and targets constantly increase.
Added to those circumstances is the fact that in a post-recession economy, the balance between family/social life and work is being heavily weighted towards work, so the ability to increase and sustain focus to compress unreachable professional demands into a workday will be a highly sought-after commodity. This will lengthen workdays, increase workloads, and critically restrict human interactions with family and friends.
A Drug by Any Other Name
As with any drug, even smart drugs come with side effects. Although some of the nootropics have been proven to alleviate anxiety and depression, in other people it has actually caused depression and anxiety. I mentioned that specific side effect to illustrate a point: although in a basic context brains are similar, as you dive deeper into individuals’ brains, the differences become infinitely apparent. Every brain is different and thus the way nootropics work on each individual brain is very different. Some might experience extreme focus and concentration while others might perceive this hyper-perception as nervousness, anxiety, and tension.
On the other hand, many of the nootropic drugs generally don’t carry a feeling of euphoria (which is psychologically addictive) that other drugs have, like similar focus-increasing amphetamine drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall. Researchers at the University of Oxford sought to analyze modafinil’s ability to increase cognitive abilities and found that it, in fact, does but at the same time said that a healthy lifestyle that included a healthy diet and exercise would be just as effective as the drug… But let’s be honest: huffing and puffing in gym clothes is so much more tasking than just popping a pill.
So, what do you think about smart drugs? I’d love to hear your opinion in the comments section below!