If you could take a drug that made you smarter, would you?

I found myself pondering this question after reading Johann Hari’s article titled My Experiment With Smart Drugs in which he tries out a drug called Provigil normally prescribed to narcoleptics, but which has been described by non-narcoleptics taking it as “Viagra for the brain.” Check it:

A week later, the little white pills arrived in the post. I sat down and took one 200mg tablet with a glass of water. It didn’t seem odd: for years, I took an anti-depressant. Then I pottered about the flat for an hour, listening to music and tidying up, before sitting down on the settee. I picked up a book about quantum physics and super-string theory I have been meaning to read for ages, for a column I’m thinking of writing. It had been hanging over me, daring me to read it. Five hours later, I realised I had hit the last page. I looked up. It was getting dark outside. I was hungry. I hadn’t noticed anything, except the words I was reading, and they came in cool, clear passages; I didn’t stop or stumble once.

Perplexed, I got up, made a sandwich – and I was overcome with the urge to write an article that had been kicking around my subconscious for months. It rushed out of me in a few hours, and it was better than usual. My mood wasn’t any different; I wasn’t high. My heart wasn’t beating any faster. I was just able to glide into a state of concentration – deep, cool, effortless concentration. It was like I had opened a window in my brain and all the stuffy air had seeped out, to be replaced by a calm breeze.

Once that article was finished, I wanted to do more. I wrote another article, all of it springing out of my mind effortlessly. Then I go to dinner with a few friends, and I decide not to tell them, to see if they notice anything. At the end of the dinner, my mate Jess turns to me and says, “You seem very thoughtful tonight.”

It seems the drug has become very popular on college campuses and has stirred up some debate on whether or not using it constitutes cheating in the same way steroid use by athletes is considering cheating. The drug isn’t a stimulant or an amphetamine and it doesn’t make you high or wired and it has only one known side effect in that it causes weight loss.

To many that may make it sound like the perfect drug. It makes you smarter and thinner? How could that possibly be bad? Hari seemed to be enjoying it:

The next morning I woke up and felt immediately alert. Normally it takes a coffee and an hour to kick-start my brain; today I’m ready to go from the second I rise. And so it continues like this, for five days: I inhale books and exhale articles effortlessly. My friends all say I seem more contemplative, less rushed – which is odd, because I’m doing more than normal. One sixty-something journalist friend says she remembers taking Benzadrine in the sixties to get through marathon articles, but she’d collapse after four or five says and need a long, long sleep. I don’t feel like that. I keep waiting for an exhausted crash, and it doesn’t seem to come.

[…] It’s hard to explain Provigil’s effects beyond that. Normally, one day out of seven I have a day when I’m working at my best – I’ve slept really well, and everything comes easily and fast. Provigil makes every day into that kind of day. It’s like I have been upgraded to a new operating system: Johann 3.0. On discussion boards, I talk to American student doctors taking the drug, who say they feel exactly the same way. “I keep thinking – where’s the catch?” one says. It turns out it is being given to US soldiers too.

It was then that I noticed: I just wasn’t very hungry. I am normally porcine; my ex once seriously considered having a trough made for me. But on Provigil, I was filled up by a bowl of soup and a piece of bread. I would feel stuffed half-way through my normal meals, and push the food away unfinished. One of my friends howled: “Who are you, and what have you done with the real Johann?”

The author goes on to note that we still don’t know what the long-term effects of the drug are. Who knows what toll will be exacted on healthy people using it when they don’t really need to? There’s also some concern that it could be addictive so Hari decides to quit for three days to see what happens:

It was easy. I painlessly sagged back to my former somewhat-depleted state, as though the Provigil had never happened. I worked in my usual stop-start bursts. I ate my usual portions-and-a-half. I stared sadly at the pack of Provigil, and every time I hit a mental stumbling block, I had to discipline myself not to crack out a Provigil.

It sounds like it might be psychologically addictive more so than chemically addictive, but that’s still an addiction. It’s at this point that Hari reflects on the ethics of the drug:

As soon as my three days were up and I started again, my brain revved back into super-speed and my stomach began to shrivel. But this time I began to worry about the ethics of it all. If this drug had been available during my A-Levels or finals, I would have been the first to guzzle it down. But isn’t that cheating? What’s the difference between Provigil for students and steroids for athletes? And if this drug becomes as popular as, say, anti-depressants or Ritalin, won’t there be a social pressure for workers to take it? Many parents feel intensely pressured by schools today to drug away their child’s disobedience; will they feel pressured by their bosses to drug away their natural fatigue?

Professor Anjan Chatterjee says, “This age of cosmetic neurology is coming, and we need to know it’s coming.” The use of Provigil and its progeny will be mainstream and mainlined in just a few years, he argues, and this made me feel excited by the prospect – and anxious. But all this raced through my brain as I worked faster (and ate less) than I ever have: it was hard to dwell on the drawbacks in those circumstances. As the end of my final five days approached, I had to decide what to do. Do I order another pack? Do I try to think all my thoughts at a faster pace from here on in with the power of Provigil?

You’ll have to go read the rest yourself to find out what Hari decided. I found I could relate to his experience quite a bit because I’ve had similar thoughts about my time on prescription drugs to offset my ADD.

I haven’t used ADD drugs since I was laid off the first time in 2005 because I no longer had the insurance to cover the cost. Since starting the current job I could probably afford to get back on them, but I’m not sure I want to. Again the long-term effects of using drugs like Adderall to treat ADD aren’t well known and using the drugs isn’t really a cure for ADD, it just helps a bit. That said the difference in my ability to concentrate while on the drugs and when off them was noticeable and there are days when ADD is really impacting me that using the drugs would be very tempting, but they also changed my personality and made it harder to sleep at times. There’s all sorts of things I’ve been meaning to do that I haven’t done that I probably would have done had I been on the medication.

The idea of a drug that would open up my creativity and productivity with weight loss as a “side-effect” is quite tempting. Think of not only all the work I could accomplish at my job, but all the blog posts I could write! Then I think about how Hari got so caught up in reading a book that he didn’t notice the passage of time. I already do that without the aid of a drug. Books, TV, and particularly video games have all drawn me in to the point that I look up and see it’s 2:30AM and I need to get up for work in the morning. I can only imagine what might happen if I were taking Provigil.

Then there’s also the realization that I’m not sure if I want to be more productive. I will probably never be rich because I goof off too much, but at the same time my stress levels are much lower than a lot of other people I know and that’s probably because I goof off too much. I go into work, do my 40 hours, come home and forget about the fact that I have a job until Monday morning. I put in a solid effort when I’m at work, but I also try to avoid busting my ass anymore than is absolutely necessary. I work because I have to, not because I want to. If I ever manage to win the lotto with an amount that would ensure that I’d never have to work again then chances are I’d never work again. There are enough places in the world I’d enjoy visiting and things I’d enjoy doing that I don’t think I’d ever get to a point where work would seem attractive.

In general I’m pretty happy with who I am. There’s a few details I wouldn’t mind improving, and I’m working on those things, but overall I don’t have a problem with myself that taking a drug that could potentially make me into a different person seems necessary.  Of course the idea that taking the drug might make me productive enough to develop enough wealth that I wouldn’t have to work anymore and, by extension, not take the drug is somewhat attractive, but it’s also a gamble as there’s no guarantee that being more productive wouldn’t mean I’d just put out more crap nobody would really want.

At this point in time I have no desire to go back on my ADD drugs so I’d be unlikely to consider Provigil either. But could I rule it out completely? I’m torn on the idea myself. How about you?