Focused and Productive, But at What Price?

Also known as cognitive enhancers or neuroenhancing drugs, work-performance enhancing drugs are amphetamine cocktails such as Ritalin, Adderall and Modafinil. Originally intended for the management of conditions such as ADHD and narcolepsy, these concentrated stimulants help to improve focus and concentration while diminishing appetite and the need for sleep. Because they allow the user to concentrate for long periods of time, often to accomplish large work projects or studying for exams, they have become popular among students and professionals seeking to improve their competitive edge and diminish the effects of an unhealthy lifestyle (heavy drinking and/or drug use, unhealthy diet, insufficient sleep, lack of proper exercise) on academic and professional performance.

What Are They For?

These drugs were originally intended for those diagnosed with ADHD because they help to fabricate the focus and concentration that ADHD sufferers often lack. Because the drugs work to quiet “background noise” and limit the many distractions vying for attention, the individual finds him or herself able to concentrate steadily and work for long periods of time without the need for sleep, food or breaks. When, however, those who didn’t struggle with ADHD learned of the cognitive enhancing properties of these drugs, they began to gain popularity on college campuses and among young professionals. A portion of an Adderall pill could fuel the individual to complete the term paper without a break or to study through the night without running out of steam.

What Is the Allure?

It cannot be denied that amphetamines such as Adderall and Modafinil increase focus and the ability to stay on one task—often for many hours. They also help to decrease the “noise” and distraction that keeps so many people in our highly connected and technologically advanced society from getting anything accomplished. They suit the needs of our culture to be ultra productive, constantly busy and active—with no end of energy. And many, instead implementing a healthier lifestyle and more consistent work and study schedule, would prefer the ease of popping an amphetamine. But perhaps part of the problem is not that people are not intelligent or unable to work hard, but the distracted nature of modern life. How can one really think, concentrate and succeed with the constant allure of some flashing website, a blinking, chiming smartphone or the latest Facebook post? Today’s students, and many adults as well, are perpetually distracted. The mind is jittery; focus is elusive. Productivity is the main allure, but neither Adderall nor any other neuroenhancing drugs have the ability to produce intelligence where it is otherwise lacking. Yes, individuals can work for hours without sleeping or eating or blinking, but this does not guarantee that the work they produce will be of any significant quality. The work is sufficient, perhaps, to get by, but the drug is not a guarantor of success. Though nicknamed “smart drugs” these drugs do not actually produce or increase intelligence.

What Are the Risks?

Primary among the risks is the habit-forming nature of the drugs. Like any addictive substance or behavior, they increase the flood of the pleasure-inducing chemical, dopamine, to the brain. Over time, tolerance develops and a greater quantity of the drug is required to achieve the original results. Other side effects and risks include sleeplessness, loss of appetite, cardiac problems, psychosis, suicide and death. The long-term effects are unknown, as are the effects of drug mixing, which many do in order to get the most out of the drugs. It is also important to note that the drugs are only considered “safe” when under the supervision of a physician and in indicated recommended doses. One unintended cognitive side effect is in the area of creativity. Although the drugs fire the brain’s concentration, they can actually limit creativity. The brain gets on one track, and while it can accomplish an endless stream of activities in that track, such as studying for an exam or writing a research paper, studies have shown that the drugs can hamper the brain’s creative abilities. The creative brain needs open space to roam, but drugs like Adderall are committed to keeping it tightly focused. Others have reported that the drugs often cause disruptions in speech and thought—one is invariably moving faster than the other and the user is challenged to regulate the speed of thought and speech to match “normal.” Cognitive enhancers are drugs that carry health risks and the danger of dependence and addiction. They should not be used without a prescription or the care of a physician. If you suspect that you or someone you know has developed an amphetamine addiction, do not delay in seeking help.

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