Prescription Meds Could Make You a Superhuman

Well, they could make you work harder for longer.

Photo by Geoff Greer

As if society wasn't already teeming with enough recreational and prescription drug users to keep Betty Ford's GDP equivalent to Luxembourg's for the next millennium, a report released last week might just encourage a whole new tribe of buck-hungry people to become stimulant slaves in the quest for cash.

"The Human Enhancement and the Future of Work" report detailed the many ways in which popping pills like Modafinil and Ritalin (used to treat narcolepsy and ADHD) might soon make us work harder and for longer, leaving our employers to profit from our heightened brain function and new Wolverine-worthy endurance abilities.

Using these types of drugs to increase performance isn’t unheard of – the military’s use of meds has been widely reported, with Modafinil used to help air force pilots maintain alertness and concentration over a 40-hour period. Also – and this might come as a bit of shock, you guys, I'm sure you've never indulged in Adderall or any of Modanifil's predecessors – students have been known to use similar drugs to get them through particularly stressful stages during university. In fact, a study of Cambridge students found that 10 percent use pharmaceuticals to help with their work and it's been claimed that other universities are looking for ways to screen students before exams in an attempt to cut out drugs they deem as unfair performance enhancers.

Professor Jackie Leach Scully told me that using these kinds of drugs "off-label" could potentially better workers in many different professions.

“The kind of drugs we're talking about are classically thought of as enhancing your competitive edge, making you focus better, reducing your need for sleep and keeping you alert. There are plenty of specific professions where people might want to use them – surgeons who have to focus for a long time in long operations, long distance lorry drivers, people like that – to up their game."

The risk here, however, is that if drugs like this become the norm, particular professions could see a major shift in attitudes around the working environment and a new, more labour-intensive work culture based on meds. Imagine how hard your boss would work you if they realised they could use your crippling Ritalin dependency to guilt trip you into working through the night.  

"There are a huge number of ethical issues raised. It should be the responsibility of the employer to have working conditions that are actually fit for human beings to work in, not for the individual to have to use drugs to make those conditions workable.

“One of the major ethical issues with cognitive enhancers like this are that we really have no idea what the side effects are of something you take for very long periods of time as an adult. We’ve got data on side effects for Ritalin in children and adolescents, but we don't really know about the long term for adults. Adults who are taking a mixture of drugs, which a lot of adults are, we don't have any data on how those drugs interact with each other."

It's pretty much a given that every gram or miligram or ounce of every drug we take is adding another teaspoon of cream to the lump of mash potato that is our brain, so I asked an anonymous Cambridge student (who regularly uses Modafinil as a study aid) if they've felt their mash potato getting creamier.

VICE: Hi there. How did you find using Modafinil?
Anonymous Student: When it gets round to the end of the year or near big deadlines, it's not uncommon for architecture students to work through the night and sometimes two days in a row if it's really bad. I basically used it as a better version of coffee. When it got to 3AM and I was starting to flag, I’d take a Modafinil and it would perk me up and help my concentration. As you probably know, if you’re really tired, your concentration goes downhill and it just sort of allows you to be a little bit more on the ball for a longer period of time.

Do you think the idea of taking it is addictive?
I heard about someone who was taking it every day, but I didn't really know them. I know a few people who take it basically whenever they had to work really hard, though, and they'd just use it to kick themselves into gear. It's also a good motivator. If you take one, then there's no point in not doing work, otherwise you'll just be sitting there doing nothing.

Did you ever take it during the day just for its concentration effects?
Yeah, probably a couple of times and, in my experience, it definitely works. The one drawback I’ve heard people say is that it hones your concentration, but the difficult part is focusing your mind on what to concentrate on. I’ve heard of people getting very distracted rearranging their iTunes or doing random jobs, then half an hour has gone by and they suddenly realise they’ve been super efficient at something they weren't meant to be doing.

Did you ever feel any side effects?
I would feel quite run down, which is to be expected after such little sleep. Also, if you’re on it for a long period – like 12 hours – you get really wired. It’s like too much coffee. Some people get a slight gurn on, too. Like speed or ecstasy.

So no mash potato brain as of yet. We’ll revisit our anonymous interviewee in 40 years to get the conclusive evidence. 

Follow Sam on Twitter: @sambobclements

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