"Mom, all I wanted was a Pepsi!"

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.)

0 thoughts on “"Mom, all I wanted was a Pepsi!"

  1. The shitty part for me of this is that I can never get ahead. I have pretty bad ADHD and go on and off meds depending on my health insurance. If this becomes popular, becomes the usual, I’ll never be able to catch up. I become productive, they become people who never sleep and get some improvement.

    Can’t win, can’t even get in on the same game sometimes.


  2. Does this “characteristic flaw” look familiar to you teachers out there who grade student essays?

    Yes, though I’m not sure that the drugs alone are to blame. Mind you, one of my committee members is convinced that the general decline in her students since she began professing in the 1970s is the result of students being over-medicated as children, watching too much TV while not reading nearly enough, and a general decline of political commitment to intellectual projects. I tend to focus on over-work, perhaps due to my own experience of college, per Juliet Schor’s old *Overworked American*. I think the article gets at the connections between these two explanations.

    I was actually just thinking about how terrible student writing is (with some exceptions every semester, of course) as I was reading something one of the subjects of my dissertation wrote when he was 20 (in 1924) and marveling at his control over words. Then again, he published his first article at 16, admonishing his fellow Indian anticolonialists to read more philology, namely Ernest Renan; I probably shouldn’t imagine that he’s representative of anything. /digression


  3. But nuri–it’s the C- students who are taking the drugs, not the 3.5 students gunning for a 4.0. I’m skeptical that the drugs do much for people who don’t really need them. (Then again, I’m lucky in that I have always had excellent powers of concentration, and frequently enjoy “flow” when I’m writing. Then again again, I have never worked with music or TV on, unlike most of my college and grad school friends…)

    Buster: I think your professor is probably right, but I also think it’s because more kids today are encourage to go to college than were 30 years ago. Kids like your diss. subject still exist–he probably wasn’t normal in 1924, was he? I don’t think that video games and texting are in and of themselves harmful, but if they’re performed to the almost complete exclusion of reading and other forms of intellectual work that require individual initiative, I think they are part of the picture as to why students today find it more difficult to perform creative intellectual work. (That is, formulating an argument and collecting the evidence to prove your point, rather than answering a specific question about course readings.)


  4. It took meds to get me able to get higher than a 3.0, even with commentary that my talent was closer to that 3.5 area. For me, it’s a similar population. And it’s the population I have to contend with now outside of college. You do have a point, though, that these aren’t super achievers.

    I’d kill for flow like that, so consider me jealous. I got that once (once!) when I was in college, and it was the best paper I ever wrote.

    From my friends who are grading papers, by the way, it does seem a simiar trend. It seemed that way amongst my high schoolers as well.


  5. Yeah, probably not my best choice of words. But it does feel like that metaphor sometimes! Seeing attention span and productivity come so easily to other people gets so frustrating sometimes.


  6. Pingback: Friday 80s Music Nostalgia « Like a Whisper

  7. I am reminded of a Dilbert cartoon in which our hero pulls an all nighter to finish a report. His muse was a vision of an Incan monkey that narrated the final twenty pages to him. “Now all I have to do is translate his simple but beautiful language into English”

    I’ll need to read the article fully to see if there is any science looking at quantity and quality of the work produced as judged by the instructor. There might be some soul searching needed on the part of the faculty if standards and grading permit students who are using self prescribed methamphetamine to increase their grades.


  8. Prof Sussuro,
    Thanks for the luch hour treat, I had not seen the video before. I would however argue that,

    “My best interest?! How can you know what’s my best interest is?”,

    is a strong contender for the best lyric in the song.


  9. Good question, Historiann. A few observations from an academic with AD/HD (me, that is):

    I was not medicated as a child and wish that I had been (I had an ADD diagnosis by age 6, but anti-med parents). It’s really frustrating, as Nuri observes, to know you’re trying hard and have teachers assume you’re slacking because you seem smart but disorganized. Too, I think that with meds, a person could develop habits of organization, strategies that carry over into non-medicated life later, if someone chooses to later forego medication.

    I’ve been on meds as an adult at times and think I work better without them. ADD-ers can “hyperfocus”–concentrate very intensely,to the point of doing too much work and belaboring points. In grad school, channeling my hyperfocus compensated–mostly-for my natural disorganization. It made writing a dissertation pretty easy, for example. But since then I’ve tried meds and found I hyperfocused more. I didn’t get verbose, but I fould three sources where two would do and spent time tying up minor loose ends that could stay untied–kinda like Alex said in the article you cited. So I stopped taking them.

    However, everyone’s brain works differently. It could be that those 3.0 students have undiagnosed ADD (which also correlates with stimulus-seeking and impulsivity–hence cocaine, etc), that stimulants helps them, and that they’d be 2.0 students without the meds. I think one of the criteria for an adult ADD diagnosis is still that the person have a childhood diagnosis of it. And that’s stupid, since many people with real ADD figure it out when they’re grown up.


  10. Ignatz–that’s a really good point. How many people over the age of 30 or 35 now were diagnosed with ADD or ADHD as children? My guess is not many–unless we include the diagnosis “hyper,” which I think is what kids in the 70s were called if they had problems settling down and doing focused work. (Was that even a real diagnosis? Does someone out there have any grasp on the history of pediatric medicine in the 1970s?)

    I know ADD and ADHD are real problems–I just think that the root of many (although not all) of these problems is the expectation that mass education (education on the cheap) works for everyone, and that if it doesn’t, that’s the child’s or hir family’s fault, it’s not the fault of trying to do mass education on the cheap. If children had class sizes of no more than 15 students and teachers had the time to focus on just those 15 kids and to hold them to very high expectations–I wonder if we’d see as many children taking medication as we have today. But kindergartens with 30+ students in them? Who wouldn’t have ADD/ADHD after working in an environment like that, adults or children?

    Prof. Susurro–thanks for the link! Everyone, go check out the video she’s posted. Very cool–like it’s 1983 all over again, with the big bandanas and everything.


  11. I would second Ignatz’ points. I have long had the “hyperfocus” thing going on. I was diagnosed later in life (i.e., as an assistant professor) with ADD, although one of my professors in grad school gave me an unofficial “diagnosis” when I was in my course work. In my case, these tendencies increased my productivity, so it wasn’t until later that I or anyone else saw it as a problem. But yes, my earlier publications and my dissertation reflect a great deal of verbosity and numerous examples of what one friend called the “over enthusiastic footnote.”

    Thinking of this in intellectual terms brings up larger questions of meds, writing, and academia. People don’t talk about it, but I have been surprised to learn over the years how many professors are on meds–for depression, bipolar, what have you. (My understanding is that more academic types take these drugs than the general population.) It must affect our work somehow; I’m just not sure how.

    I think there is some stigma about it because our brains are our jobs, so to speak. But this is part of our experience, and not just our students’.


  12. Earl, I stopped listening to rock music sometime after 2000, when the strummy guy bands that all sound the same took over (except for the White Stripes), and most of what I still enjoy today was made from 1977-1992. It’s pathetic, but “punk” is basically an oldies genre, isn’t it? (My favorite album from the era in which they were called albums: a compilation called “Let Them Eat Jellybeans,” where I first heard of the Dead Kennedys, the Bad Brains, and Black Flag, etc.) Loved the DKs. They were very meaningful to alienated suburban youth in the 1980s.

    And Fratguy: thanks for the Dilbert memory. Is that along the lines of 1,000 rooms with 1,000 monkeys typing in them? (“It was the best of times, it was the BLURST of times?!?! You stupid monkey!!!”)


  13. I love that song!

    And Fratguy, at one point I had that Dilbert cartoon stuck up over my computer monitor!

    For the papers …. I would need to be handed an example paper. Most of the “so-so” papers I get have a weak, basic argument, run along that track fairly well, and then, with about a page to go, go completely off track adding random biographical info about the author, for example, and then have a bizarre, meaningless conclusion that isn’t tied to their (pretty obvious) thesis.

    I always took that to mean that my students finished their arguments (because the initial thinking-through was undeveloped and too basic) before they hit the paper requirement, and instead of trying to revise or rethink their outline, they start padding (this is the paragraph where I see plagiarism too).

    When I make fun of this tendency in class on their peer review days, I get fewer of them, so I’m thinking it is a case of laziness/unwillingness to really commit to the writing process instead of being medication-related. But I’d be interested in seeing some examples of self-declared Adderall papers.


  14. When my daughter was a toddler in the late sixties/early 70’s I was concerned that she was “hyperactive” as she was so busy and into so many things. (The term above was used but never just hyper. That came in about the late 70’s I think.) Anyway, the doctor assured me she wasn’t after asking a great many questions about her daily activities. I do recall that there were some boys in my childrens classes who were termed “hyper” and were on meds. Someone suggested at the time to just give them a cup of coffee before school as it would have the opposite effect on them that caffeine has on adults. Don’t know how scientific that is.


  15. Sis, my experience with essays is very similar to yours. That is, I *wish* my students were interested enough in getting good grades that they’d juice themselves. The essays I read for the most part show evidence of laziness and inattention, and once they hit the minimum number of pages, they wrap it up whether or not they’ve really completed their analysis.

    John S., a former roommate of mine (who was herself a Chicago alumna) used to say all of the time that Hyde Park’s zip code was the zip code with the highest use of antidepressants in the U.S. In my posts on bullying last spring and summer, it became clear to me that one of the typical “stations of the cross” of Assistant Professors was a trip to therapy and a go-round with antidepressants (Paxil, Wellbutrin, Prozac, Zoloft, etc.) Those aren’t ADD/ADHD drugs, but rather another angle on your point about the medicated academic brain (although possibly a similar point about the depressed and overextended academic brain). (But drugs or no, I’m sure that you’re not the only person who can say that “my earlier publications and my dissertation reflect a great deal of verbosity and numerous examples of what one friend called the ‘over enthusiastic footnote.'” Who among us is innocent of these charges?


  16. Mother of ALL–that’s how I think Adderall et. al. work–they’re actually stimulants. Kids with ADD/ADHD are under-stimulated, so they move around and interrupt others as a means of keeping themselves interested in what’s going on.

    I hope your daughter settled down!


  17. That is exactly how they work. They provide stimulation to the executive organizing areas of the brain that would otherwise require daydreaming, running around or fidgeting to run given the lack of the intended natural stimulating chemicals. It looks physically painful for these kids to force themselves to sit still


  18. Hey, I had that Jellybeans record! (The title is a jab at Ronald Reagan…) That was good stuff.

    I caught the Suicidal Tendencies reference immediately, but I hadn’t heard or thought about that song in many many years. Fun.


  19. Historiann, I’m an occassional reader who has long been jealous that you live in Ft. Collins, home of the Descendents and ALL.

    As the Descendents once intoned,in their 1986 classic “Kids on Coffe,” “Thanks to modern chemistry sleep is now optional.”

    And if you are looking for good music, be sure to look for Karl Alvarez (Bass player for Descendents and ALL)playing with his 60s soul band, The Vextations, around Ft. Collins.

    ALL Best,

    A history professor in the East

    P.S. Jello Biafra surely warped my yopung mind as a teenager.


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