The study drug debate

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You’re staring at the white background of a blank Word doc. Somewhere in your mind you had a vague outline, but now you can’t remember it. What was it again? Something about a guy? And a thing? And … another thing? The effort to concentrate is almost physically painful. What would you be willing to do to bring everything into focus, right now, effortlessly?

People try everything from memory exercises to Ginkgo biloba to prescription pharmaceuticals to try and improve cognitive performance. Methylphenidate, known familiarly by such names as Ritalin and Concerta, increases levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. Dexedrine, a component of Adderall, does the same. Other drugs that do this include cocaine and speed. And while the street drugs do it much faster, there should be no doubt that Ritalin or Adderall is a hell of a drug.

Students who take these as “study drugs” to improve their academic game are getting a serious cognitive boost. While they don’t make you smarter per se, at least not by most people’s comprehensive definition of smartness, they do improve concentration and focus ridiculously. Say you take Ritalin and start typing. You might not necessarily write something brilliant, but you will type for a long-ass time. Not many people would turn down improved concentration; you can apply it to anything that matters to you.

You could also find yourself in a 12-hour YouTube loop or suddenly fascinated by Tetris. All night. Before a midterm. The institution and your peers would likely have little sympathy for your cheating gone awry. They may take greater issue with a perceived unfair advantage, if the study binge does go as planned.

So do study drugs call for caution? Probably. Norepinephrine is a form of adrenaline. Study drugs stimulate the adrenal system. And for people who are already running on minimal sleep and maxed out on stress, this extra stoking of adrenal fires can run them all the sooner into burnout.

But people constantly weigh risks to benefits and still decide to pull all-nighters, binge on energy drinks or alcohol, jump out of airplanes. People risk life, limb and freedom just for fun, let alone over pressure to perform academically. If we’re not dissuaded by health risk or illegality alone, maybe study drugs sound fantastic. Remember Bradley Cooper’s character in Limitless? Who didn’t want to be that guy? A few pills take him from bathrobe writer’s block to genius CEO.

However, if everyone uses Adderall, it becomes the new baseline that folks with ADHD may once again be challenged to reach. Although, this is kind of like arguing that only the least healthy people should be allowed to improve, for example, the nutritional value of their diet. Illegal trade in ADHD medication may lead to stiffer regulation, so folks who depend on it have less. There’s also the problem of diminishing returns; the more you use, the less effective you may find it.

Ultimately, whose decision should it be whether students use substances? It may seem arbitrary that alcohol and energy drinks are okay, while Dexedrine and Provigil are taboo. If it’s based on the latter being dangerous, a simple medical screening could clear people for elective use, like cosmetic surgery. University is either like competitive sports, to be regulated for safety and fairness, or it’s an opportunity for individual learning and pushing limits, exploring your max potential by whatever means deemed valuable. If you don’t agree with non-prescription use of prescription medication, do you support post-exam drug testing?

Perhaps the value judgment depends on your individual worldview. Easing our passage through life using science and technology is a defining characteristic of humanity. But don’t people with challenges find alternate routes to success, and isn’t the journey enriching? Do we build character doing it the hard way?

Or is it survival of the focused?