Taking the 'Smart Drug' Modafinil Made Me Love Work but Hate People

In the rat race that is modern day life, it's sort of the only drug that makes sense. How awful is that?

by Sebastián Serrano
07 October 2015, 6:00am

Photograph courtesy of the author

This article originally appeared on VICE Colombia

Originally synthesised in France in the 1970s, Modafinil was approved by the US's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a treatment for narcolepsy and other sleep disorders in 1998. Recently, however, totally healthy people have began using it to stay awake for extended periods of time and to increase their cognitive performance. Medications such as Adderall and Ritalin – originally prescribed for attention deficit disorder (ADD) patients – and Ampakine – used for Alzheimer's – are also being used to improve the brain function of people studying and working. These drugs are known as nootropics, or smart drugs.

I decided to give Modafinil a try and see how it would affect my work. I had a good look at the side effects and, after making as certain as possible that I wouldn't just drop dead after taking it, I swallowed the neon orange capsule.

Arriving at work at 9AM, I began thinking it was funny that no one around me had a clue that I was on a drug taken by war pilots, ER doctors and Silicon Valley millionaires. They all take the drug for the same reason: to give their concentration a kick up the arse. After a couple of hours sitting at my desk, I was getting impatient. Was anything ever going to happen? Around 11:30AM, I noticed that I hadn't taken a cigarette break yet. I mean, I had plenty of cigarettes on me and knew that some of my colleagues were already outside the office smoking but, because of the pill, I didn't feel like it.

The kick arrived with all certainty at about noon. I was hungry for work and agreed to take on an extra task that my editor was trying to get done. For the next hour, I was completely engrossed in it, too. I was so into my work that I wasn't even that interested in getting lunch when my colleague asked if I felt like pizza, which was quite unusual for me. I still ordered some though.

Truth is, no one really knows how this drug works. It sounds absurd, especially considering you can buy it over the counter in Colombia where I live, but it's the same with widely used substances like general anaesthetics. It's broadly accepted that general anaesthetics are effective and safe (at least compared to chloroform), but science is still at a point where anyone who tries to explain how it works, will probably be proven wrong.

Some say that Modafinil stimulates the brain so it releases a hormone called histamine. You've probably heard of antihistamine, a compound that inhibits the production of histamine found in those anti-allergy medications that make you really drowsy. So, it makes sense: by increasing the production of histamine, Modafinil causes the opposite effect. It makes you way less drowsy.

However, other studies suggest that Modafinil affects the brain similarly to things like amphetamines and cocaine. They claim it increases people's levels of dopamine – the hormone we release when we eat, have sex or run into a friend. If this theory is true, it would mean that Modafinil use could lead to abuse and addiction. Something that – due to a lack of long-term research – nobody has been able to prove yet.

Back at the office, it took more than 45 minutes for the delivery guy to bring a pizza to my colleague Camila, but I couldn't have cared less. The thought of pepperoni was probably causing Camila's brain to flood with dopamine but mine had already received a shot of it in the form of that funny coloured pill. A few days later, I asked Camila whether or not I was acting normally during that lunch break.

"You were cool," she said.

Once I ate my pizza, there was no "walk around the block to digest lunch", no "let's have dessert to kill the pepperoni taste", not even the sacred "after lunch cigarette". I just sat right back down to finish my work. By the time my editor returned to his desk, it was done. "Already?" my boss asked with his eyes wide open. I nodded casually, as if it was completely normal for me to finish my assignments early.

Aside from Modafinil's effects – and side effects –, there is a rather interesting ethical debate behind medications that increase cognitive performance. Was using that pill unfair on my colleagues? According to an article by Rob Goodman, published in the Kennedy Institute's Ethics magazine, the use of medication to improve cognitive performance is acceptable, as long as it doesn't put someone else's job in jeopardy. Last year, employees at the Australian Department of the Treasury admitted (anonymously) to having had used the medication to help complete the nation's budget on time.

The debate surrounding drugs like these is full of ethical grey areas. Sure, as a website editor, if I took those pills on a daily basis I could probably churn out more articles per week. Something that wouldn't necessarily affect the other reporters' work, but it would pressure them into upping their productivity. Especially if I never mentioned that I was taking the pills. That said, I could argue that I'm free to take whatever medication I want because it's a part of my private life. Besides, unlike me, many of my colleagues consume energy drinks all day long.

According to Professors Mirko Garasic and Andrea Lavazza, if you choose to take these medications, the ethically correct thing to do is to be honest about it and tell your coworkers and bosses. You could also simply not take them but that's apparently pretty unrealistic. According to Vince Cakic, Psychology Professor at the University of Sydney, we could learn something by looking at how hard it's been to control doping in sports. He has called on academics to start focusing on researching these drugs and informing people about their side effects, rather than declaring war on them.

My suspiciously productive workday began to crumble when I drank a cup of coffee. Almost immediately after, my heart began racing and I started feeling pressure in my chest. The mental effects were even more worrisome. I began getting extremely angry anytime my coworkers asked me for a synonym, sent me a video or showed me a meme. The casual desk chat that I usually enjoy and promote suddenly seemed offensive – not against me, but, even worse, against my work. I found myself wondering why they couldn't all just be full of drugs, too.

I got it into my head that the desk I shared with six others wasn't a healthy work environment and I chose to head over to Bogota's Pontifical Xavierian University library. On my way, my bike wheel punctured and I was forced to take a detour and swing by the closest mechanic. The artisanal process of fixing a tire had never been so infuriatingly slow. When the chap was done, I raced towards the university as if my life depended on it. Right before walking into the library – and several hours later than usual – I had my first cigarette of the day. My heart, the only object in the universe that seemed to be able to keep up with my newfound rhythm, began racing again. I sat myself down in front of a computer in a quiet, dark room and somehow managed to enter my password incorrectly a bunch of times. I was sweaty and my hands were shaking but, as soon as I saw my screen loading, I was filled with the same satisfaction and enthusiasm that usually fills me when I complete a task.

According to Dr. Scott Vrecko, nootropics might not increase a person's ability to receive, remember or process information; instead, they will have a positive effect on a person's mood while performing these tasks. Vrecko spent a few weeks at an American university collecting testimonies from students that took Adderall and many said that the pill made them feel more capable of performing their tasks – even before they got started. Another study points out that Modafinil could induce a state of excessive confidence.

My second task of the day was to transfer data mapping out the effects of robbery in Bogotá (by time and location) from a PDF file into an Excel worksheet. That's exactly the kind of mechanical task that usually sends me – an easily distracted person – straight to Facebook. But this time, it was different. Typing cold, flat figures became the highlight of my day and I felt better and better as I inserted numbers into that worksheet. Before long, I stopped sweating and my shivers all but disappeared. I won't lie: I did login to Facebook a couple times, but when I did, something inside me convinced me to get back to the task at hand.

The pill works, there's no doubt about it. But, at what cost? Doctors Kimberly Urban and Wen-Jun Gao fear that we could see long-term damage in healthy individuals under 30. Apparently, Modafinil can fuck up a thing called brain plasticity. Brain plasticity refers to the brain's ability to adapt to different situations and different contexts across a period of time.

What worries doctors are the effects of increasing the amount of dopamine in a developing brain. Modafinil and other smart drugs can affect brain receptors that consolidate short-term memory and regulate brain flexibility when it comes to responding to diverse stimuli – such as social situations. Researchers suspect that, in the long term, young individuals that take Modafinil – and similar medications – may end up with an increased ability to concentrate for longer periods of time but their short-term memory could decrease. Something that would lead to a disadvantage in social situations or when it comes to performing tasks that require cognitive flexibility – like being a journalist or driving a car. However, Urban and Gao's research is filled with speculation, not-yet-proven hypotheses and, just like every study about Modafinil, has a distinctive lack of long-term studies.

The day after my initial experiment, I decided to take another pill. The effects were basically the same – pleasure and well-being in the library. Sweating outside. I even decided not to buy a water bottle at the cafeteria because I couldn't stand waiting in line. I had another mishap with my bike: this time I just left it and walked to college. Usually, I love walking but because of the drug, it suddenly seemed like a complete waste of time. Getting home after a long day, turning off the light, smoking a joint and watching a comedy show didn't give me half as much pleasure as it usually does either.

Modafinil may be the least fun drug there is (at least of the ones I've tried) but in the rat race that is modern day life, it's sort of the only one that makes sense. It's weird, isn't it? The same generation that enthusiastically welcomed love drugs like MDMA and pills, are now into taking things like Modafinil – which, ironically, only makes you love work.

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Kennedy Institute
Australian Department of the Treasury
Mirko Garasic
Andrea Lavazza
Vince Cakic
Scott Vrecko