Smart Pills – Is it Possible to Enhance Your Thinking?
Thinking – like any skill – requires practice to improve… right?
What if there were a way to make yourself smarter with no effort?
What if you could just pop a pill to increase cognition?
The smart pill idea was introduced to the mainstream by the movie Limitless in 2011 (and subsequently a TV show by the same name in 2015).
In the movie the main character, Edward Morra, is able to become hyper-focused, productive and perceptive through the use of a nootropic drug called NZT-48. He is able to write a book in four days, make rationale and spot-on stock picks and more. Believe it or not, there is some truth to this. Many ADD / ADHD medications are considered smart pills – not because they make people smart(er) but because they can help people to focus and concentrate – thereby being better able to take-in and process information. Just as a computer enhances efficiency by helping you to create and store information, a smart pill can increase mental efficiency and abilities.
The most commonly used smart pill in the US is Modafinil – which is used off-label for increased wakefulness and focus. The original purpose of the drug is to solve narcolepsy and certain types of sleep apnea. A 2008 article by TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington dubbed it an entrepreneur’s “drug of choice” as opposed to illicit drugs which might cause addiction (Modafinil has no side effects and is not habit forming), although he does question the wisdom of staying up 20 hours straight.
In addition to anecdotal evidence that nootropics work, a meta-analysis of 24 studies was conducted jointly by researchers at Harvard Medical School and Oxford, which showed that Modafinil does indeed increase cognition. What’s interesting is that the most benefits are derived in relation to complex tasks such as planning and decision making – as opposed to simpler tasks such as pressing the right button at the right time. Given today’s business environment, which requires quick and complex thinking tasks – Modifinil might be the next required “tool” in a company’s toolbox.
Increased Focus Isn’t Always the Best Outcome
The Harvard / Oxford study also cautioned that focused thinking is not always the desired outcome. There is evidence that divergent thinking is inhibited by the drug, so jobs and tasks that demand creativity and innovation may suffer.
Do Smart Pills Create an Ethical Dilemma?
The use of smart pills poses some questions for the workplace, such as: should stimulant-use be banned or approved? We do allow caffeine and nicotine which have similar effects.
How do we differentiate or draw the line for a drug such as Modafinil? The TechCrunch article joked that venture capitalists might require business owners to take the drug, to ensure their investment / company success.
Some colleges are already banning the use of these drugs (Duke University has revised its policy on drug-use to include banning “unauthorized use of prescription medicine to enhance academic performance”); but other “smart drugs” include Ritalin (which increases memory and retention) and Adderall, so aren’t schools then penalizing young people who need these medications? (Note: The percentage of young adults prescribed ADD / ADHD medication nearly doubled between 2008 and 2013.) Research suggests that cognition-enhancing drugs offer the greatest performance boost among individuals with low-to-average intelligence (Scientific American March 1, 2016). So banning the drugs could harm both those who need it and those who could most benefit from it.
We ask these questions because this is where the discussion is happening right now, but give it a few years and we’ll be having these same discussions in the workplace – either because everyone will be looking for an advantage in order to get ahead, or because the youth who have relied on these medications for success in childhood will graduate to working in business and may still be taking these cognitive enhancers.
The bottom line is – smart pills don’t increase the size of your brain or the number of neurotransmitters, or make you able to learn something you aren’t inherently able to learn in the first place; they simply help you to focus for longer periods of time, thereby increasing your abilities related to complex cognitive tasks.
When it comes to learning, one millennial cautions: While smart drugs allow for instant improvement, they overlook what can be learned from the process of improving.