From Margaret Talbot’s “Brain Gain” in this week’s New Yorker, on the rise of off-label ADD and ADHD drug use by college students (and others):
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.”
Does this “characteristic flaw” look familiar to you teachers out there who grade student essays? Maybe the drugs only make you thinkyou’re more focused than you actually are? (Or, as the article argues, they produce smaller improvements the higher up you are on the intelligence scale in the first place.) Talbot reports that “white male undergraduates at highly competitive schools—especially in the Northeast—are the most frequent collegiate users of neuroenhancers.”
Users are also more likely to belong to a fraternity or a sorority, and to have a G.P.A. of 3.0 or lower. They are ten times as likely to report that they have smoked marijuana in the past year, and twenty times as likely to say that they have used cocaine. In other words, they are decent students at schools where, to be a great student, you have to give up a lot more partying than they’re willing to give up.
So, it’s not the highest achievers who are using “neuroenhancers”–it’s those who are already in the habit of using drugs who are just using these drugs to squeeze more into their busy lives: it’s Bevis and Butthead, not Tracy Flick. (For some reason though, the magazine chose to illustrate Talbot’s story with an image of a young woman.) Strangely, although this data isn’t in my opinion a great advertisement for these so-called “neuroenhancers,” Talbot’s article was agnostic to even rather accepting of off-label use. The examples of non-college students she interviews are two highly effective but very strange men who are leading lives that I don’t find particularly exciting–but your mileage may vary, as they say.
(For those of you who don’t get the headline, just click here.)