A Drug to Improve Performance and Creativity

Do smart drugs result in unfair advantages and inauthenticity?

Posted Oct 16, 2016

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The film, Limitless, tells the story of starving writer Eddie Morra (played by Bradley Cooper) who gains access to an experimental drug, called NZT, which allows him to enhance his brain function to have an amazing attention span, impeccable memory and problem solving skills to die for.

While a brain enhancer of the sort portrayed in the movie has yet to be invented, drugs that enhance concentration and improve memory, also known as smart drugs, study drugs and nootropic, are becoming increasingly more popular, especially among college students. Researchers estimate that up to 30 percent of college students have used prescription stimulants, such as Ritalin, Adderall and Modafinil, non-medically, to optimize brain function. 

Most of these nootropic drugs work on the attention centers of the brain. They have a rather specific effect: they enhance our working memory and impulse control. They also increase wakefulness, thus allowing students to fit in more study hours without losing concentration and the ability to remember what is studied. 

Whether these drugs are more efficient that a few cups of coffee remains a topic of great controversy. Caffeine, like many of the smart drugs, stimulates the central nervous system, leading to the “speedy” feeling a user feels a short time after taking it. It also gives the user significantly increased alertness and attention span.

If, however, study drugs do give you a significant cognitive advantage, one might ask whether taking them is cheating and whether enhancing our cognitive performance is more properly achieved through hard work. The idea of giving someone a drug to improve performance and creativity is radical. We don’t like it when a cyclist or a bodybuilder takes steroids. But we don’t seem to mind when musicians smoke a bunch of weed or alcoholic writers drink gallons of booze to produce things that entertain us.

Would many of the Beatles’ legendary songs exist without experimentation with acid? It’s no secret that the lyrics of many of the pop legends’ famous tracks were inspired by LSD, including “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “I Am the Walrus,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and “What’s The New Mary Jane.” The Beatles’ creating during a hallucinogenic trip is hardly a rare case of acid-driven creation, invention, or discovery. What if there is a way to use compounds to promote optimal functioning and creativity?

One difference between using performance-enhancing drugs in science and sports is that in the case of intellectual abilities, you are merely facilitating access to capacities our brains already have. In bodybuilding you are literally building something new. So enhancing your brain seems less like cheating than popping muscles.

A further problem, though, may be that smart drugs may make us too narrowly focused on just a small range of interests. Or worse: they may make people feel comfortable engaging in studies and working jobs that don't really interest them without the drugs. The drugs may seem to destroy the potential for living an authentic life by discouraging you from doing something that really is you as opposed to the product of societal expectations plus brain mints to keep up the enthusiasm.

This line of thought is tempting, until we remember that few of us have the opportunity to do just what we really want or really have a true talent for. You might have an amazing talent within the visual arts but without being in the right environment to cultivate the talent and without meeting the right sort of people who can promote you and your work, your talent is not going to earn you a living. Fortunately, most of us have adaptive interests. At least those who are most resilient have interests that are shaped in part by the environments they find themselves in and the opportunities they have.

It's possible that some smart drugs can alter people's focus and interests to the extent where they become narrowly focused on, even obsessed with, a subject matter they would never have been interested in without the drug. But we should ask ourselves whether that is, in fact, in any way problematic. Consider people who develop extraordinary talents after a brain injury (described in further details in our book The Superhuman Mind). Jason Padgett, for example, started seeing the world in terms of complex mathematical figures after a mugging incident. Leigh Erceg began drawing and writing poetry with much acclaim after taking a fall in the mountains of Colorado. And Derek Amato became a talented pianist after diving into the shallow end of a pool. In each of these cases their brain injury changed their ability to access their hidden talents, their ability to focus on a narrow intellectual or artistic task and their interest in the respective subject matter. In none of these cases would we judge that they are not living authentically. We might even be inclined to think that they live more authentically now that they can access the potentials of their brains, something they were unable to do prior to their brain injuries.

Taking smart drugs is not altogether different from hurting your head in the right way. There are a number of side effects to worry about before taking any cognitive enhancers. But setting aside the negative effects, taking a smart drug is not the same as disguising your true interests and putting up with areas of study and lines of work that go against your ability to be yourself. Rather, they are better seen as a way to unlock part of the true you: a more focused, satisfied and talented you.