Brain Strain

Young people, Adderall, and sleep

Image: Evan

In 2009, The New Yorker published an article by Margaret Talbot about “neuroenhancers”—supposedly brain-enhancing drugs like Ritalin, Adderall, and Provigil, which are known to many millennials as stimulants you ingest to keep you awake long enough to finish writing a paper. Some people actually need modafinil (the generic name for the wakefulness drug) because they are narcoleptic and literally cannot stay awake and do life properly. But for those of us who are largely normal, amphetamines feel dangerously like some kind of super-powered version of coffee, and they might make you wonder—have I been half-asleep this whole time? Is there a higher level of wakefulness that I can unlock that feels oddly like hyperconsciousness? Are there hours of the day I haven’t been using productively?

Brain Gain – The New Yorker

Who among us has not wished for more time? The allure of the neuroenhancer (the Gibsonian portmanteau cannot be coincidence) is vast and extremely common. The New Yorker piece included anecdotes from a recent Harvard College graduate, pseudonymized as Alex:

He was ingratiating and articulate, and smoked cigarettes with an ironic air of defiance. Alex was happy enough to talk about his frequent use of Adderall at Harvard, but he didn’t want to see his name in print; he’s involved with an Internet start-up, and worried that potential investors might disapprove of his habit.

This week, the New York Times Magazine published a very good first-person essay by Casey Schwartz (author of a new neuroscience book, In The Mind Fields, and the daughter of the most divisive voice on New York radio) about the experience of basically what happens AFTER you’re Alex—reckoning with an addiction, coming down off the drug, and asking yourself what it was doing for you, if anything.

Generation Adderall

The confessional-as-diving-board genre is a tricky one to pull off but Schwartz does it gracefully, lucidly, and humbly. Schwartz must have been a feverishly productive student in the first place—she attended Brown University, University College London, and worked in the Yale neuroscience lab—but on Adderall she felt superhuman.

Adderall wiped away the question of willpower. Now I could study all night, then run 10 miles, then breeze through that week’s New Yorker, all without pausing to consider whether I might prefer to chat with classmates or go to the movies. It was fantastic. I lost weight. That was nice, too. Though I did snap at friends, abruptly accessing huge depths of fury I wouldn’t have thought I possessed. When a roommate went home one weekend and forgot to turn off her alarm clock so that it beeped behind her locked door for 48 hours, I entirely lost control, calling her in New York to berate her. I didn’t know how long it had been since I’d slept more than five hours. Why bother?

The Times magazine piece is a good bookend to Talbot’s 2009 article. Casey is Alex seven years later: another incredibly high-functioning and self-aware Ivy League kid who snagged a prescription for Adderall by parroting back symptoms of A.D.H.D. One of the most worrisome things about what Schwartz calls “Generation Adderall” is that we don’t yet fully understand the long-term effects of moderate to heavy use of these drugs. What if all those hours of sleep you missed were crucial to helping you form a certain kinds of memories? And did the short-term gains in cognitive enhancement of a very limited kind really have any overall effect on these overachievers’ lives?

Both pieces conclude that Adderall helped a certain kind of young person deal with my generation’s vague endemic of existential and intellectual FOMO. The best thing that seems to have happened to them is giving themselves most of the ultimate credit for the work and tasks they completed on the drug. It’s an alluring concept, that a little blue pill could give you the gift of time, but it turns out that time is warped in its own way. As Alex told Talbot:

“It only works as a cognitive enhancer insofar as you are dedicated to accomplishing the task at hand,” he said. “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.” Alex thought that generally the drug helped him to bear down on his work, but it also tended to produce writing with a characteristic flaw. “Often, I’ve looked back at papers I’ve written on Adderall, and they’re verbose. They’re belaboring a point, trying to create this airtight argument, when if you just got to your point in a more direct manner it would be stronger. But with Adderall I’d produce two pages on something that could be said in a couple of sentences.” Nevertheless, his Adderall-assisted papers usually earned him at least a B. They got the job done. As Alex put it, “Productivity is a good thing.”

I wonder where Alex is now, and what he makes of his blue-pill days. It’s heartening to believe that Generation Adderall can grow up, if only because they just got so tired. Indeed, the symptoms of sleep deprivation and A.D.H.D. are often one and the same.

Attention Problems May Be Sleep-Related

It is my very uninformed and anecdotal opinion that sleep is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child, after food, shelter, and adorable clothing. It’s still an enormous mystery, but we’ve known forever that sleep is necessary and vital. Sleep-deprived lab rats die, sleep-deprived humans snap and seize and hallucinate. It’s long been theorized that sleep is somehow related to memory, perhaps helping us consolidate and organize it. But new data suggest it does quite the opposite—sleep may help us discard the extraneous information, pruning back synapses and paring down to just the stuff we need. As Giulio Tononi, a sleep researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison put it, “sleep is the price we pay for learning.”

It makes an elegant kind of sense when you think about it, this letting go. The Life-Changing Magic of Going to Bed! It’s something we do every single day and it’s vitally important: go figure.