There is a great article in the New Yorker (via The Browser) about drugs that sharpen mental facilities and the generation of over-achievers they are creating.  It is definitely worth reading the whole article but here are some choice passages.

In 2003, a doctor gave him a diagnosis of A.D.H.D., and he began taking Adderall. Within six months, he had won $1.6 million at poker events—far more than he’d won in the previous four years. Adderall not only helped him concentrate; it also helped him resist the impulse to keep playing losing hands out of boredom. In 2004, Phillips asked his doctor to give him a prescription for Provigil, which he added to his Adderall regimen. He took between two hundred and three hundred milligrams of Provigil a day, which, he felt, helped him settle into an even more serene and objective state of mindfulness; as he put it, he felt “less like a participant than an observer—and a very effective one.” Though Phillips sees neuroenhancers as essentially steroids for the brain, they haven’t yet been banned from poker competitions.

Somehow I doubt that this kind of performance enhancer will be viewed with the same scorn as steroids.  Perhaps this is because poker players are not placed on the same pedestal as, say, baseball players.  Anyway, eventually the guy got bored of poker and moved on to Scrabble, which he also gave up but only after memorizing every 5-letter word in the dictionary.

The article also touches on the distinction between creativity, which some take to require passive concentration, and the kind of focused, active thinking that these drugs facilitate.

Jimi Hendrix reported that the inspiration for “Purple Haze” came to him in a dream; the chemist Friedrich August Kekule claimed that he discovered the ring structure of benzene during a reverie in which he saw the image of a snake biting its tail. Farah told me, “Cognitive psychologists have found that there is a trade-off between attentional focus and creativity. And there is some evidence that suggests that individuals who are better able to focus on one thing and filter out distractions tend to be less creative.”

Many of thee users interviewed for the article seemed to understand this distinction and integrated the drug use into their workflow accordingly.  First they would develop the main idea without the drug, then they would use the drug when it was time to do the focused work of developing the idea into a finished product.  They learned to do this the hard way:

“The number of times I’ve taken Adderall late at night and decided that, rather than starting my paper, hey, I’ll organize my entire music library! I’ve seen people obsessively cleaning their rooms on it.”

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