Study drugs: When how you think is how you feel

Sociologist and former CNS fellow Scott Vrecko studies student use of stimulants as “study drugs,” which may work via emotional changes. Image from hellawella.com

The phrase sounds simple enough: cognitive enhancement. “Cognitive” more or less refers to thought and “enhancement” to improvement, so voilà — cognitive enhancement must mean improved thinking. And that’s often how the topic gets framed. But sociologist Scott Vrecko just published a paper suggesting that our current picture of enhancement is incomplete.

In a recent article for AJOB Neuroscience, Vrecko addressed what he saw as a big hole in enhancement literature: in-depth descriptions of how these pills change the way people feel, not just how they think. His study focused on the most immediate issue within enhancement, stimulant use by college students who don’t have learning or attention disorders.

To explore this topic, Vrecko — who was a CNS fellow last year — interviewed 24 former or current university students who take stimulants as enhancers. His results? Students didn’t describe the pills as making them brilliant thinkers. Rather, the drugs seemed to have their biggest impact in making tedious work less, well, miserable.

Based on their responses, Vrecko identified four emotion-related areas where subjects felt improved on meds. Those areas are “feeling up,” “drivenness,” “interestedness” and “enjoyment.” As their labels imply, all four seem to involve motivation. And as anyone who has ever worked or studied knows, different motivation levels can mean very different emotional experiences. Feeling unmotivated can be stressful, depressing and numbing — quite a contrast from the buzz we might feel when we’re ready to get things done.

For some students, that’s where stimulants like Adderall come in: to make boring work seem fun. Or at the very least, it makes them so driven they won’t so much as glance at their phones, email or Facebook accounts — a massive feat in our age group — until they finish everything. Being that focused certainly involves cognition. But even so, when these students explain why they take stimulants, it sounds like what they really rely on is the change in mood.

Long story short, we need to appreciate that emotions are a big part of the way cognitive enhancers work. And looking more at emotion might encourage clinicians to confront ethical issues beyond the ones that typically dominate discussions on enhancement.

When these pills are seen as strictly improving cognition, ethical concerns revolve around fairness. More specifically, we ask how we can ensure equal access to a resource that can make people think better. We also wonder whether academic achievement becomes less meaningful when aided by pills.

But in considering enhancement’s emotional side, other problems take center stage. Bursting with excitement over eight hours of astronomy homework sounds great. On the other hand, these academic “highs” can help facilitate dependence. Moreover, enhancement may represent a band-aid solution to deeper problems with our work culture. Should students use pills that make them complacent toward work they hate doing? Or should they be introspecting about the choices that make them take on unappealing work in the first place?

These are all worthwhile questions for future enhancement research. I’m also curious about the quality of the work students produce on stimulants, which this paper doesn’t cover. But regardless, Vrecko’s sounded an alarm.

And these findings might have broader value by chipping away at perceptions of cognition and emotion as two completely separate things. We have the intuition that the way we feel affects the way we think, and vice versa. It can’t hurt for the literature to better reflect that, and one place to start is rethinking what we mean when we say “cognitive enhancement.”

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2 comments

  1. Shawn

    This post is interesting. I used “cognitive enhancers” in college to improve my ability to focus while studying and it really did help at the time. I know that this can be a controversial issue for many different reasons. I really like the problem that you are focusing on with this one though. Is it good for the student to be making themselves “complacent toward work they hate doing?’ This is great. That seems to be what our society is focused on these days. Work hard long hours so you can achieve XYZ goal, whether it is something you want to do or not. It may be easy to get caught up on the process of learning instead of the goal of learning, which is to gain knowledge to be successful at creating something of quality in the world. Which was another one of your points. Great stuff to think about.
    The “cognitive enhancer” of choice for me now is brainwave entrainment. I would love to hear what you think about this form of “stimulant”.
    Thanks for the post.

  2. Yates

    Definitely an interesting read and concept. I’ve been looking into various ways of cognitive enhancement and had come across nootropics for the first time in 2012 when I first tried Piracetam, since then I have created a nice “nootropic stack” to help assist in various memory and thought training exercises. There is plenty of information regarding nootropics on the information and there is a downloadable PDF at http://www.smartdrugsforthought.com/piracetam-research that covers all of the Racetam nootropic chemical class.

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