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The Seduction of Cognitive Enhancement

Posted Mar 19 2011 12:10am

“My Adderall helps me think so much clearer.” [From an ADD forum.]

Who wouldn’t want that? It’s easy to be lured by the promises of a smart pill or cognitive enhancer that could help us not only think more clearly and access more memory, but feel good about ourselves and be tireless and endlessly confident.

Steven Zeitchik says in his article about the movie “Limitless” that “down-on-his-luck New York writer Eddie (Bradley Cooper)” takes a magic potion – a “miracle street narcotic in the form of a translucent pill, NZT that enhances mental performance beyond any reasonable expectation. (Yes, it’s fictional.)”

As film reviewer Roger Ebert notes, “it is a pill that suddenly puts his entire brain online. He finishes his novel at typing speed. He wins at poker, invests in the market, and runs it up to millions. He fascinates a woman who had rejected him as a loser.”

Zeitchik notes that as much as “Limitless” concerns “the emotional and ethical implications of a mental-enhancement drug…its real preoccupation is the value and cost of success.

The director of “Limitless” Neil Burger made the acclaimed movie “The Illusionist,” but was involved with many projects that never got produced.

“I definitely would get to the point where I felt like this is never going to happen, and I didn’t quite get what’s wrong,” Burger said. “Or how to make it right.”

Zeitchik commented, “A suburban Connecticut childhood spent drawing fictional worlds — space colonies and the like — led the director to a fine-arts education at Yale University.

“It might seem like a charmed life, but soon after graduation he had moved to Los Angeles and found himself, like many struggling young filmmakers, in a dismal existence, living next to people like a “washed-up makeup artist who’s in the business, but not really.”

Burger comments on one of the underlying ideas of the movie: “There was something I responded to about an artist with this dream of success, and it’s just not happening and it’s never going to happen. And you never know: Is it that you don’t have it, whatever it is, or lightning just hasn’t struck?”

[From article 'Limitless' director Neil Burger's career reality has plenty of ups and downs, By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times March 17, 2011.] [Click image to view larger.]

That sort of existential angst is one of the things I liked about the movie, along with the seductive idea of chemically defusing that anxiety with a drug (even one that is definitely not FDA-approved) like speed or Adderall, that also boosts cognition and performance and enhances creativity. Pretty hot stuff.

More on psychostimulant medication Adderall

It may help people with ADD/ADHD, but according to psychiatrist Ronald Ricker and psychologist Venus Nicolino, “Estimates are that somewhere between 20-30 percent of college students regularly abuse Adderall. Calling it an ‘upper’ is like calling a hydrogen bomb a grenade.”

They also warn, “Overdose with Adderall is nasty. Results include Cardiac and/or pulmonary arrest, death, severe and lasting mental effects/defects. Which one happens to you is a matter of chance. If you’re in an Emergency Room and still alive your chances are relatively good. If you overdose at your apartment and are alone, the chance of your living is slim.”

From their Huffington Post article: Adderall: The Most Abused Prescription Drug in America .

Joshua Foer explained in an article about Adderall: “Usually prescribed to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (read Sydney Spiesel in Slate on the risks and benefits), the drug is a cocktail of amphetamines that increases alertness, concentration, and mental-processing speed and decreases fatigue. It’s often called a cognitive steroid.” [From "The Adderall Me - My romance with ADHD meds" Slate, May 10, 2005.]

But the appeal of a cognitive steroid is strong, especially for people in high-demand jobs. A couple of decades age, I used speed occasionally to stay “energized” for work on 12-18 hour a day film production jobs.

And many talented people of different ages have a “rage to achieve” as therapist Belinda Seiger, PhD notes in her articles The Special Challenges of Highly Intelligent and Talented Women Who Are Moms , and Weed Girl – numbing her “rage to achieve” .

Aside from potentially dangerous drugs, there are other choices for cognitive enhancement.

Programs such as Lumosity Brain Training have been shown in some research studies to improve cognitive functions like working memory, processing speed and fluid intelligence. A testimonial on the site reads: “Lumosity helped me get my brain back in shape to focus on finishing my last year, hopefully with honors.” – Achim Enthaler

Cognitex (a supplement from Life Extension Products ) – contains Phosphatidylserine (PS), “a crucial building block in the brain” (the site explains).

“Aging causes a decline in the PS content of cells throughout the body including brain cells, which can lead to cognitive decline…Cognitex contains a compound that mimics the naturally occurring PS in the brain.”

Obviously, this topic of cognitive enhancement is very complex and extensive. I read every once in a while about research progressing on nutraceuticals and nootropics; maybe some day there will be a safe smart drug.

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