Smart drugs may dumb you down | Inquirer Business
All in the

Smart drugs may dumb you down

/ 02:10 AM December 14, 2023

I do fine at work, but I want to up my productivity and get a bigger bonus this Christmas,” says P, a Gen Zer. “My friend told me to take Ritalin, which he uses in school for exams. I believe in clean living, and I am scared to take it. But the bonus is tempting. Can Ritalin make me work better?”

My reply:

Do you have attention deficit disorder (ADD)? Avoid self-diagnosis from online questionnaires and consult a professional, who will prescribe medications such as Ritalin, if needed. Many of my students who are officially diagnosed with ADD, with or without hyperactivity, take Ritalin (methylphenidate) or Adderall (dextroamphetamine) under medical supervision. These drugs purportedly help them focus on complex activities (such as studying), improve listening skills (such as paying attention to class lectures) and control behavior (such as sitting quietly when needed).


You did not give details, but you admit that you are after the bonus (rather than suffering from a disorder). In this case, do not take Ritalin.


Even if these drugs are prescribed for those who have ADD, they are often taken by those who do not have this disorder, in the belief that they boost brainpower. Your friend takes Ritalin to do well in exams and unless he has ADD, the side effects, which range from insomnia to depression, are not worth it.

A recent study found that these drugs—when taken by those without ADD—not only do not work, but even harm problem-solving. Since you do not have ADD, these drugs do not make you work better—they dumb you down.

In June 2023, Cambridge University’s Peter Bossaerts, together with Melbourne University’s Elizabeth Bowman, David Coghill and Carsten Murowski, published the paper “Not so smart? ‘Smart’ drugs increase the level but decrease the quality of cognitive effort” in the journal “Science Advances.” Participants who do not have ADD were given either a drug or a placebo, without them or the researchers knowing who took which. Then they did several trials of the knapsack task, where they sorted items in a bag to maximize total value without going over weight. This task mimics the difficulty of everyday issues at work.

In terms of motivation, the drugs appear to work. Due to stimulating effects, participants who took the real ADD drugs exerted more effort to do the task.

But here is the shocker—their actual performance was far worse than those who did not take the drugs.

“Effort (decision time and number of steps taken to find a solution) increases significantly, but productivity (quality of effort) decreases significantly,” say the researchers. “Productivity differences across participants decrease, even reverse, to the extent that above-average performers end up below average and vice versa … [due] to increased randomness of solution strategies.”


Participants who took Ritalin were 50 percent slower in finishing the trials, because they moved items erratically, which Bossaerts likens to “solving a jigsaw puzzle by randomly throwing pieces in the air.”

You want to increase your productivity, and if you take Ritalin, you may feel more motivated to work. But this does not translate to results. “The Economist” puts it this way: “Although people tried harder, they became far less competent. Just how much the drugs hindered performance seemed to depend on how good a participant was without them. Star performers during the placebo session fell to the bottom of the pack when they had taken the drugs.

“This latest study adds to a growing pile of evidence suggesting that such drugs do little to improve cognitive performance in people who do not need them.”

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Continue clean living. Unless you have ADD, avoid drugs. Enhance productivity in other ways: manage your energy and time, do one activity at a time rather than multitasking, minimize digital distractions, prioritize tasks so you do not feel overwhelmed. You can earn the bonus without harming your mind and body. Stay well.

TAGS: All in the Family, Drugs

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