The April 27 issue of The New Yorker features a long article by Margaret Talbot on the drugs Adderall, Ritalin, monadafinil, donepezil, and Provigil. All are brain drugs. They are prescribed for various disorders such as ADHD, but they are also increasingly taken -- especially among college students and twenty-something fast-track professionals -- as part of "cosmetic neurology." That's the practice of using drugs developed for recognized medical conditions to strengthen ordinary cognition. In other words, to think faster, longer, and with more memory.
This raises a number of questions, the first of which is: Does it work? Apparently so. The article cites studies in which donepezil strengthened the performance of pilots on flight simulators and Provigil increased memory. Because these are "off-label" uses of the drugs (contrary to what the FDA has approved), the drug companies themselves are not running large clinical trials on their products' use as neuroenhancers. But the anecdotal evidence exists, as well as a growing corps of people who are convinced through experimentation on their own brains.
The next question is: Is this a good thing? The users apparently think so. Poker champion Paul Phillips attributes much of his success at increased concentration while on first Adderall and then Provigil. Talbot, however, points out a future possibility for society as a whole: Are we about to be split into two sectors, those that perform better because of neuroenhancers and those without access to them? An interesting aspect of this is that the drugs seem to work much better on those with more distractablility and lower IQs to begin with. If true across the board, that would lead not to a split between the two groups but rather to a levelling of the playing field. Says the British Medical Association: "Universal access to enhancing interventions would bring up the baseline level of cognitive ability, which generally seems to be a good thing."
On a personal note, I have tried both Ritalin and monadifinil, not to enhance cognition but to stay awake at cons. They certainly succeeded in helping me do that. They also made me jumpy, slightly nauseated, and way too talkative, and I don't plan to repeat the experiment. Also, an interesting side note for writers: these neuroenhancers help with concentration, mental stamina, and memory, but they seem to have a slightly negative effect on creativity. You'll write your book faster -- but it may not be as good.