Amphetamines have a long track record as smart drugs, from the workaholic mathematician Paul Erdös, who relied on them to get through 19-hour maths binges, to the writer Graham Greene, who used them to write two books at once. More recently, there are plenty of anecdotal accounts in magazines about their widespread use in certain industries, such as journalism, the arts and finance.
Those who have taken them swear they do work – though not in the way you might think. Back in 2015, a review of the evidence found that their impact on intelligence is “modest”. But most people don’t take them to improve their mental abilities. Instead, they take them to improve their mental energy and motivation to work. (Both drugs also come with serious risks and side effects – more on those later).
One consequence of taking stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin is the ability to stick with mentally taxing tasks, especially those with a clear reward in sight at the end. One study found that people considered a maths task “interesting” when they were on the latter.
If the entire workforce were to start doping with prescription stimulants, it seems likely that they would have two major effects. Firstly, people would stop avoiding unpleasant tasks, and weary office workers who had perfected the art of not-working-at-work would start tackling the office filing system, keeping spreadsheets up to date, and enthusiastically attending dull meetings.
And secondly, offices would become significantly more competitive. This fits with the general consensus about the long-term side effects of smart drugs more generally, though whether it’s a good thing is debatable.
“There seems to be a growing percentage of intellectual workers in Silicon Valley and Wall Street using nootropics. They are akin to intellectual professional athletes where the stakes and competition is high,” says Geoffrey Woo, the CEO and co-founder of nutrition company HVMN, which produces a line of nootropic supplements. Denton agrees. “I think nootropics just make things more and more competitive. The ease of access to Chinese, Russian intellectual capital in the United States, for example, is increasing. And there is a willingness to get any possible edge that’s available.”
But there would also be significant downsides. Amphetamines are structurally similar to crystal meth – a potent, highly addictive recreational drug which has ruined countless lives and can be fatal. Both Adderall and Ritalin are known to be addictive, and there are already numerous reports of workers who struggled to give them up. There are also side effects, such as nervousness, anxiety, insomnia, stomach pains, and even hair loss, among others.
Finally, a workforce high on stimulants wouldn’t necessarily be more productive overall. “One thinks ‘are these things dangerous?’ – and that’s important to consider in the short term,” says Huberman. “But there’s also a different question, which is: ‘How do you feel the day afterwards?’ Maybe you’re hyper-focused for four hours, 12 hours, but then you’re below baseline for 24 or 48.”
Given these drawbacks, it seems fair to speculate that prescription-strength stimulants aren’t likely to be changing the world anytime soon. But there is a milder version out there, which you can buy over the counter in nearly any café, newsagent, or supermarket: caffeine.
In the United States, people consume more coffee than fizzy drink, tea and juice combined. Alas, no one has ever estimated its impact on economic growth – but plenty of studies have found myriad other benefits. Somewhat embarrassingly, caffeine has been proven to be better than the caffeine-based commercial supplement that Woo’s company came up with, which is currently marketed at $17.95 for 60 pills.