Humans are always seeking shortcuts. Medieval alchemists spent much of their time attempting to transform lead, a relatively worthless metal, into priceless gold. In more contemporary times, some people try to gain a leg up at work or school with the use of pharmaceuticals.
The intense popularity of so called “smart drugs,” such as Modafinil, which sells under the brand names Provigil and Nuvigil, to increase productivity, creativity, clarity, and “better living through chemistry” raises many questions.
Chief among these questions is the mental, physical and moral cost of a pharmaceutical shortcut to, allegedly, improve overall intelligence and productivity.
A wakefulness-promoting agent, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Modafinil in 1998 for treatment of the sleep disorder narcolepsy. In 2003, the regulatory agency added shift work sleep disorder and excessive daytime sleepiness caused by sleep apnea to the approved uses list.
For the past decade, however, an increasing number of physicians have prescribed Modafinil for off label reasons.
Citing research from Harvard Medical School and Oxford, the Harvard Business Review writes, “…Modafinil has significant cognitive benefits for those who do not suffer from sleep deprivation. The drug improves their ability to plan and make decisions and has a positive effect on learning and creativity.”
What are the Side Effects of Modafinil?
Advocates of Modafinil for use as a “life-hack,” a popular term for a shortcut, claim there are little to no side effects. In contrast, though, the medication is a schedule IV substance due to the possible potential for addiction. Some of its known side effects include the following:
- Headaches and nausea
- Difficulty sleeping
A very rare condition known as Stevens-Johnson Syndrome (SJS), which causes a very serious and life threatening rash, can occur in some people with a certain genetic disposition.
Microdosing and Non-medical Drug Use
The trend of taking certain drugs to improve productivity and creativity is not new, though it’s not widely talked about in the workplace. A 2009 article in The New Yorker reported that a university study conducted in 2002, “found that more than thirty-five percent of the students had used prescription stimulants nonmedically in the previous year.”
In the tech industry, microdosing, the practice of taking tiny amounts of psychedelics, such as LSD or magic mushrooms, have made even more recent headlines.
The use of “smart drugs” has its fair share of critics. Jonathan Crary, author of “24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep,” argues that these drugs are among “some of the ruinous consequences of the expanding non-stop process of twenty-first-century capitalism.”
Officials at Duke University have even taken a moral stance. The student handbook includes “the unauthorized use of prescription medication to enhance academic performance” as a form of cheating.
Not everyone believes, as is widely reported, that Modafinil is virtually non-addictive. A neuroethicist at the University of British Columbia, Judy Illes, told Wired, “At the moment, we’re starting to see [with Modafinil] addictive properties of a substance that was thought to be non-addicting. We’re no longer talking about a substance that easily meets safety standards.”
With so many unknowns regarding “smart drugs,” the image of that medieval alchemist, standing over a boiling cauldron of chemicals, comes to mind. Instead of turning lead into gold, he might have accidentally blown the lab into bits and pieces.