Drugs that Make Us Feel Smart Are Ruining Our Lives

A recent study makes a compelling new case for why we shouldn't take drugs like Adderall precisely because they help us to succeed at things we otherwise wouldn't.

The objections with using artificial stimulants to get ahead in life, whether in sports, college, or at the office, have always been framed as the self-interested person going too far. Their intentions were in the right place, i.e., wanting to succeed, but their methods for achieving their goals fell outside social norms. They took drugs, so they cheated — they are the nerd equivalent of Lance Armstrong.


Rejoinders abound. Drugs like Adderall and Ritalin are just like coffee, say some. Others remark that stimulants are extremely safe relative to other substances like alcohol, cigarettes, and cocaine. And anyway, we should be free to do what we want with our own bodies, right?

A recent study makes a compelling new case for why we shouldn't take drugs like Adderall precisely because they help us to succeed at things we otherwise wouldn't, and why we might lay off the coffee, too.

The study, published in the American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB), points to the discrepancy between objective measures of Adderall's effectiveness and how the drug makes people feel. The results suggest that artificial stimulants do not objectively improve performance on tasks like standardized tests, but they give takers the sensation of having super mental strength.

"For instance, a study looking at the effects of Adderall failed to find cognitive-enhancement effects, but uncovered that users tended to believe their performance was enhanced compared to those given a placebo."

Another study reviewed by the AJOB found that college students feel amazing when they take Adderall:

“Everything seems better, and more doable.”

“It just got to where I felt like if I was staring at something I just couldn’t take my eyes away from it — it made studying more interesting.”

“You start to feel such a connection to what you’re working on. It’s almost like you fall in love with it — there’s nothing else you’d rather be doing!”

Herein lies the problem. These students are artificially interested in topics they otherwise wouldn't care about. So instead of finding their true, authentic selves, they bend their will to ace exams they feel no passion for. This isn't to say that self-sacrifice isn't sometimes good and necessary, but in college — where stimulant use is notoriously rampant — young people are meant to be discovering their true interests. A brilliant piece at Scientific American explains:

"Sometimes lacking motivation in life is symptomatic of a deeper problem: a bad career choice, a university major that does not interest you, or a lifestyle that does not suit you. In these cases, lacking motivation might signal an alienation from your life’s meaning — a sense of incongruity between your self and what you are doing with your life. Treating that alienation with a motivation enhancer, rather than re-evaluating the course of your life, seems like a bad idea."

When you fake it for too long, you wake up one day wondering where the years have gone.

Psychiatrist Dr. Julie Holland explains how the subjective feeling of taking psychotropic medications has resulted in people seeking out the drugs — and how over-prescription quickly followed.

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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

For most of history, humans got smarter. That's now reversing.

We were gaining three IQ points per decade for many, many years. Now, that's going backward. Could this explain some of our choices lately?

The Flynn effect appears to be in retrograde. (Credit: Shutterstock/Big Think)
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