Margaret Talbot has a thorough and thought-provoking article in the New Yorker on the potential pitfalls of “neuroenhancing drugs”. At this point, enhancement essentially consists of taking uppers (Adderall, Ritalin, Provigil, etc.) to improve concentration and focus. These drugs might have fancy new brand names, but the underlying concept is as old as caffeine and nicotine, which work by tweaking our neurons (often through the activation of excitatory neurotransmitters or, as in the case of coffee, by inhibiting our inhibitory neurotransmitters). Furthermore, there is a lofty literary tradition of modern writers who relied on benzedrine, the Red Bull of the mid-twentieth century. W.H. Auden, for instance, began every day with a cup of coffee and a little benzedrine, which he credited with allowing him to write precisely honed poetry for hours at a time. (“It makes me think faster,” he said.) Philip K. Dick also took the drug to increase his focus and help him pump out prose. And then, of course, there’s Jack Kerouac: he got hopped up on Benzedrine so that he could write On the Road in an epic twenty day writing session.
So shouldn’t we all be on speed? What could possibly be wrong with these mild amphetamines? For starters, benzedrine is addictive, an unfortunate consquence that many of these writers would later discover. (Auden tried to quite when benzedrine was no longer sold over the counter for bronchitis.) But such uppers might also come with a more subtle side-effect: reduced creativity. Here’s Talbot:
Both Chatterjee and Farah have wondered whether drugs that heighten users’ focus might dampen their creativity. After all, some of our best ideas come to us not when we sit down at a desk but, rather, when we’re in the shower or walking the dog–letting our minds roam. Jimi Hendrix reported that the inspiration for “Purple Haze” came to him in a dream; the chemist Friedrich August Kekule claimed that he discovered the ring structure of benzene during a reverie in which he saw the image of a snake biting its tail. Farah told me, “Cognitive psychologists have found that there is a trade-off between attentional focus and creativity. And there is some evidence that suggests that individuals who are better able to focus on one thing and filter out distractions tend to be less creative.”
Farah and Chatterjee recently completed a preliminary study looking at the effect of one ten-milligram dose of Adderall on sixteen students doing standard laboratory tests of creative thinking. They did not find that this low dose had a detrimental effect, but both believe that this is only the beginning of the vetting that must be done. “More and more of our young people are using these drugs to help them work,” Farah said. “They’ve got their laptop, their iPhone, and their Adderall. This rising generation of workers and leaders may have a subtly different style of thinking and working, because they’re using these drugs or because they learned to work using these drugs, so that even if you take the drugs away they’ll still have a certain approach. I’m a little concerned that we could be raising a generation of very focussed accountants.”
It makes perfect sense that such a cognitive trade-off would exist. Paying attention to a particular task – like churning out run-on sentences about a road trip, or cramming for an organic chemistry test, or crunching numbers – requires the brain to ignore all sorts of seemingly unrelated thoughts and stimuli bubbling up from below. (The unconscious brain is full of potential distractions.) However, the same thoughts that can be such annoying interruptions are also the engine of creativity, since they allow us to come up with new connections between previously unrelated ideas. (This might be why schizotypal subjects score higher on tests of creativity. They are less able to ignore those distracting thoughts, which largely arise from the right hemisphere.) Here’s what I wrote in my New Yorker article on the anatomy of the insight moment:
While it’s commonly assumed that the best way to solve a difficult problem is to focus, minimize distractions, and pay attention only to the relevant details, this clenched state of mind may inhibit the sort of creative connections that lead to sudden breakthroughs. We suppress the very type of brain activity that we should be encouraging. Jonathan Schooler has recently demonstrated that making people focus on the details of a visual scene, as opposed to the big picture, can significantly disrupt the insight process. “It doesn’t take much to shift the brain into left-hemisphere mode,” he said. “That’s when you stop paying attention to those more holistic associations coming in from the right-hemisphere.”
I think this is also supported by a peculiar neural twitch observed by Jung-Beeman and Kounious when they studied the moment of insight using EEG. Just before the insight appeared, the scientists saw a sharp drop in activity in the visual cortex, as if the sensory area was turning itself off. At first, the scientists couldn’t figure out what was going on. What does visual sensation have to do with insights? But then it occurred to them: the visual cortex was going quiet so that brain could better focus on its own, interior associations. The outside world had become a distraction, so the brain was blocking it out.
This doesn’t mean that “cosmetic neurology” is a bad thing – people should simply be aware that every brain “enhancement” is going to have side-effects. Increased focus, for instance, makes it harder to eavesdrop on those remote associations that are often the source of new ideas. So if you want to write like Jack Kerouac, your words rushing out in an inchoate stream, or if you need to spend hours tinkering with a few lines of poetry, or analyzing some obscure data set, or staying awake on an assembly line, then maybe you should pop some amphetamines. Just remember that increased attention isn’t a universal panacea and that just because you’re thinking differently doesn’t mean you’re thinking better.