Modafinil has emerged as the crown prince of smart drugs, that seductive group of pharmaceutical friends that promise enhanced memory, motivation, and an unrelenting ability to focus, all for hours at a time.
In the absence of long-term data, the media, particularly the student media, has tended to be relaxed about potential side-effects. The Oxford Tab, for example, simply shrugs: Who cares?
The novelist MJ Hyland, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, wrote a paean to the drug in the Guardian recently – understandably, for her, any potential side-effects are worth the risk given the benefits she’s experienced.
But should stressed students, tempted by a quick fix, be worried about what modafinil could be doing their brains in the long term?
Professor Barbara Sahakian, at the University of Cambridge, has been researching modafinil as a possible clinical treatment for the cognitive problems of patients with psychosis. She’s fascinated by healthy people taking these drugs and has co-authored a recent book on the subject.
“Some people just want the competitive edge – they want to do better at exams so they can get into a better university or get a better degree. And there’s another group of people who want to function the best they can all the time. But people have also told me that they’ve used these drugs to help them do tasks that they’ve found not very interesting, or things they’ve been putting off.”
How does the drug work? “We believe modafinil is a drug with multiple actions,” Sahakian says. “This is because it acts on several neurotransmitter systems in the brain. I suspect that because it’s got these multiple actions, you’re getting a number of things improving but not all for the same reason.”
It has been reported that modafinil improves memory, if taken during cramming sessions before exams, by 10%. That could easily be the difference between an A and a B, or a C or B. In business it could mean the difference between looking like a wiz to the boss or just average. Given the pressures to succeed, especially at getting a degree that can make a difference in earnings of a million dollars or more over a lifetime, there is no going back. Since there are also indications that long term chronic use of modafinil can cause some sleep and personality issues related to proper sleep patterns, the only practical solution is for people to be as informed as possible and hope they and their doctors respond appropriately. Credit to this writer for mentioning how modafinil helps someone suffering from multiple sclerosis. What is happening with mind enhancing drugs is the same thing that happened with anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs. Those drugs either did not work well for some people, or some had adverse reactions over time. That 10% of people made their issues known. Which was a good thing. Let others know about your experience. But that was not the same experience for most people. People almost crippled by depression or anxiety, suddenly felt better. They did better at work. Their personal relationships improved. So some filthy rich drug companies made more money. That is another issue. The arguments went mainly two ways. Bad experience means these drugs are bad for everyone. The other – derived from old Calvinistic cultural taboos about feeling good so easily, must be a bad thing. Somehow a moderate middle ground keeps getting loss. What is good for the individual.
Why am I not surprised that national security and the way people view it, operates a lot like high school, Do You Wanna Know a Secret?
Of course, outside the psychology laboratory, people do not have the benefit of directly comparing secret and public information, so they must accept at face value government officials’ claims about the value of secrets. In other words, they apply the secrecy heuristic, assuming that the government’s decision to classify a piece of information is accurate, rather than just an example of bureaucratic overreach or an agency’s allergy to public transparency.
Our study helps explain the public’s support for government intelligence gathering. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported that a majority of Americans thought it was acceptable for the N.S.A. to track Americans’ phone activity to investigate terrorism. Some frustrated commentators have concluded that Americans have much less respect for their own privacy than they should.
But our research suggests another conclusion: the secret nature of the program itself may lead the public to assume that the information it gathers is valuable, without even examining what that information is or how it might be used.
This is no less disturbing, of course. If people exaggerate the value of secret information, they may too readily cede privacy in the interest of national security, even if they value that privacy highly.
In high school or at the work place, if someone tells you something is secret, it is common to be a high value on that information. Even though if carefully considered it really is not all that important. Frequently it is information that is bound to be found out by everyone anyway.