Smart drugs: the nonchalance of getting ahead | #drugtrap | Life Links | DW | 30.10.2014
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Smart drugs: the nonchalance of getting ahead

Smart drugs may offer an easy way to do better at university. But first-hand experience remains a much better teacher, argues Life Links' Caroline Schmitt.

Woman drinks a cup of coffee in a hipster bedroom.

After filing her feature on smart drugs, author Caroline decided to opt for coffeee instead of Ritalin.

It’s 9.30pm and an aggressive fatigue is creeping over me. I hang up the phone after speaking to the last person of six about why they consume smart drugs. One of them even recommended that I take some, they’d really help “the deadline pressure”, after all.

Only narrowly avoiding a mini breakdown, I file the story 20 minutes later. The air of casualness that surrounds all six people makes me regret never having taken Ritalin or Adderall despite the said tight deadlines and occasional flings with procrastination.

At university, no substance apart from coffee and Ben and Jerry’s Cookie Dough ice cream grabbed my attention, but I did depend on getting great results and was willing to put in whatever effort it took to get to the top. Still, shortly before graduating that wasn’t enough anymore: despite a year of hard work and long nights, I didn’t end up getting the mark that I wanted (an utterly realistic A+++) in my thesis.

So I get Robin’s, Mark’s and even Anders’ point: why on earth would you remain below your supposed true potential when there’s a magic smart pill that solves all your academic problems and still enables you to party hard?

Except that it doesn’t.

How smart is turning into a machine?

You may think it’s a smart idea to pop a couple of pills the night before an exam, or 48 hours before the deadline for your 10,000-word thesis. You may think it’s smart idea to take those tablets to beat your jet lag before you’re scheduled to give an important lecture with an audience of 500 Columbia law students.

And you may think it’s a smart idea to trade your Starbucks coffee for 100mg of Ritalin when you wake up feeling chronically tired and unable to tackle your 18-hour-day - you may even avoid a lot of stress and the early onset of grey hair that way.

But what if your dirty and increasingly tolerated little secret turns into a habit and you find yourself resembling a machine that doesn’t even have time to reflect on its problems, let alone tackle them?

Occasional and targeted neuroenhancing doesn’t hurt anybody, you may argue. The underlying problem is that every exception sets a precedent. It turns doping into an appealing plan B you can fall back on in case something works out differently to the way you’ve planned, or in case you feel like you’re not enough anymore. Nobody wants to look that fear in the eye - but muting it through pills isn’t the most sustainable of all smart ideas.

Life hacking - shortcuts to efficiency

Writing about a new dimension of society’s self-optimization in the magazine “Pacific Standard”, Nikil Saval said: “Life hacking wouldn’t be popular if it didn’t tap into something deeply corroded about the way work has, without much resistance, managed to invade every corner of our lives.”

Saval said that although we initially just wanted to get the concept of work-life balance right, the constant search for apps that will track our sleep patterns or any daily habits has turned every aspect of our lives into “a task that needs to be managed”. Or, to extend Saval’s argument: taking smart drugs is arguably turning our brains into just another one of those tasks and we’re exactly not benefitting, but exploiting our brains’ capacities.

The truth is, there will be many moments where it will dawn on me that perhaps my human capacities weren’t made for perfection and 24/7 excellence. There is a certain fascinating something about imperfection and vulnerability.

Occasional rollercoaster phases (and by that I mean failing, either in life or falling short of your own expectations) and facing anything that contradicts our pretentious idea of “ordinary”, help us become the kind of resilient and bold badasses we want to be. Drugs can’t do that, experience can.

How do you define yourself?

If personal value is solely drawn from performing better than competitors on campus and in all areas of society, one cannot be surprised when doctors, academics and yes, even students, become addicted to the rush of feeling supernaturally productive and focused.

When ambition gets out of hand and leads to a collective reliance on substances instead of dealing with problems, then society is on exactly the right track to create a lifestyle that is far more destructive than students chowing down on a few Adderall pills in the library of their university.

Maybe experimenting with smart drugs feels like being the brave kid on the block again, but really, it takes a lot more balls to deal with reality. And besides… grey hair is sexy.


This article was written under the influence of two cups of coffee and 500mg of paracetamol.

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