Can Adderall Save the Boomers?
For me, the real question is: Will Adderall make me better at pickleball?
Pickleball is what tennis players play when age or infirmities—like my arthritis—keep them from covering the court the way they used to. It’s played on smaller courts, with oversize ping-pong paddles and Wiffle balls. I play twice weekly at my YMCA, against a bunch of middle-aged people just as hyper-competitive as I am. For decades, a scientist named Bob Goldman has been asking high-level athletes if they would willingly take a drug that guaranteed them an Olympic gold medal but would kill them within five years. More than half say yes. Any one of my pickleball buddies would say the same.
So I have high hopes as I swallow my last Adderall in the Y parking lot. And as our round-robin games get started, I realize I’m on to something. No wonder Carlos Ruiz has been caught more than once with this drug in his system: Wiffle balls coming toward me seem to hang, Matrix-like, and wait for me to get to them. I make shots I never could have without amphetamine’s spring in my step.
And yet, overall, my win rate is the same as usual—about 50/50. That’s the paradox of this drug. Penn researchers have shown that when non-ADHD subjects take Adderall, they report doing a better job on tests than do subjects taking a placebo, even though their scores don’t actually improve. Maybe it’s just a self-confidence drug.
That would explain why so many athletes take it. Adderall gives me swagger—precisely what time has robbed me of. So much of sports, and life, is a head game. Does it matter if I’m a winner as long as I feel like one?
“You know what I’d really like to have? A drug to make my arthritis stop hurting,” I told the friend who took my vital signs. I was joking, but Adderall did that, too. When I played pickleball on it, when I went about my frenzied cleaning, my ankles didn’t bother me at all. It was better than the waters at Lourdes.
Clearly, the scientists who study this stuff don’t suffer from arthritis, because they’re busy working on drugs that improve memory and cognition without amphetamine’s accompanying high. Adderall only speeds up brain functions that already exist; the holy grail in this quest, as that incredibly dense journal article I read explained, is drugs that can “create cognitive structures of a type that do not occur within the range of normal human experience.” Our brains evolved to be wired one way; there are lots of possibilities for “novel cognitive architecture,” the journal article says, that would produce, quite literally, “a new way of seeing things.”
How you feel about that depends on your view of human nature. In an interview with the Atlantic magazine, Duke University professor Allen Buchanan described two such perspectives. On one hand, there are people who see human beings as the triumphant pinnacle of evolutionary potential. Such folks consider messing with our current cognitive structures a Frankensteinian enterprise sure to lead to disaster. Then there are those who view humans as “cobbledtogether beings,” accidental by-products of mutation and selection who might, but for a few quirks of environment, have sported horns or wings. These people tend to be more open toward what medicinal cognitive enhancements could do for the human race.
By and large, neuroscientists fall into the latter category. That’s why Anjan Chatterjee, for example, is way beyond the question of “Should we” and on to “What will it mean when we can?”
He’s also beyond Adderall. “When people talk about side effects,” he says, “they should expand the idea to include cognitive side effects. There are trade-offs. What cognitive trade-offs are made with stimulant drugs?” There are, he notes, different stages of the creative process: a beginning part where you have to learn your craft—to play an instrument, say, or acquire mathematical knowledge. Then there’s the stage where you address a problem: “You’re in a quiescent mood, letting your mind wander, and you make connections. This is where insights happen.” After that, in the final stage, you have to get those insights down on paper (or your laptop), so you can pass them on.
“The requirements of these stages are different,” Chatterjee says. “Stimulants might help you acquire and focus on information, and help in the end, when you write up your story. But they’re not helpful in that magical intermediate stage where the connections are made. That’s precisely what these medications don’t let you do. They help with productivity, but it’s productivity based on mundane things.”
Which was exactly my experience. Adderall was hell-on-wheels for housecleaning and reading thorny articles on psychopharmacology. When it came time to sit down and write, though, I poured a glass of wine.
The young people in the office may be gunning for me, but the latest research says their insistence on multi-tasking is fracturing their attention spans. Go ahead and laugh at my flip-phone, kids; University of Michigan psychology professor David Meyer has said there is “nothing magical about the brains of so-called ‘digital natives’ that keeps them from suffering the inefficiencies of multi-tasking.” Martha Farah fears that Adderall is turning you all into “a generation of very focused accountants.” Ha!
So I’ll take my chances without it. Anyway, I have a secret weapon. Remember Losartan, that medicine I take for high blood pressure? It happens to be a cognitive enhancer that improves memory. So don’t think I’m going to forget who didn’t come through for me when I needed drugs.