Cognitive Enhancement

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.

More like this

Last week, Nature published an editorial arguing for the mainstream acceptance of "cognitive enhancing drugs": Today, on university campuses around the world, students are striking deals to buy and sell prescription drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin -- not to get high, but to get higher grades, to…
Johann Hari decides to take Provigil (aka viagra for the brain) and reports back on the results: I sat down and took one 200mg tablet with a glass of water. Then I pottered about the flat for an hour, listening to music and tidying up, before sitting down on the settee. I picked up a book about…
I posted before on Why scientists should do drugs (if they choose), via Tyler Cowen, a Jonah Lehrer article in The New Yorker: Many stimulants, like caffeine, Adderall, and Ritalin, are taken to increase focus -- one recent poll found that nearly twenty percent of scientists and researchers…
The brain is like a Swiss Army knife, stuffed full of different mental tools that are well suited to different situations. Sometimes, we want to flex the prefrontal cortex, and really exert our rational muscles. And then there are other situations (like picking a strawberry jam) where thinking too…

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.

Yeah - and look how that turned out. Not exactly a great advertisement.

The mathematician Henri Poincare talked about how he discovered things, which was to load up on information, then take a two week walking trip and let his subconscious mind come with the answer, which would appear on the bus home.
A very different, creative mode, where what he is doing is
discriminating and selecting. The "Eureka" moment described by Kantorovich:…

By David Kerlick (not verified) on 29 Apr 2009 #permalink

Maybe some other drug will solve the problem of creativity, allowing us to be both focused and creative (unless there is some unexplained neurophysical--not anecdotal--reason why the two are mutually exclusive). Marijuana may be a viable candidate. In order to solve the problem of munchies, one could add TrimSpa to the mix. Throw in a little caffeine, and you've got yourself the perfect neuroenhancement cocktail for an energetic, focused, creative and fit human being.

By Ryan Shewcraft (not verified) on 29 Apr 2009 #permalink

People using speed appear to be focused on their task at hand. Professor Alan Lightman, of M.I.T., cautioned "Each person who gets stuck-in-time, gets stuck alone". (Einstein's Dreams; 10 May 1905).

By OftenWrongTed (not verified) on 29 Apr 2009 #permalink

Sartre belongs on your list of benny poppers. Anybody else?

By guydetrop (not verified) on 29 Apr 2009 #permalink

you obviously haven't taken adderall or other cognitive enhancing drugs.

I have not experimented with Ritalin myself; however, my oldest son, now 25, has been on and off ADHD medication since he was a child. Three years ago, he graduated with a degree in music and he always claimed that while the drugs were extremely useful for getting essays completed, they had a negative impact on his ability to play creatively. As you would expect, he found he was greatly impacted in Jazz improvisations.

The effect may be different for people without an underlying condition, I have no idea.

By Canadian Curmudgeon (not verified) on 29 Apr 2009 #permalink

Paul Erdos the famous Hungarian mathematician used Benzedrine from age 58 and was apparently none the worse for it. He remained productive until his death at age 83, an astonishing feat as most mathematicians burn out before 40. An anecdote from his good friend Ron Graham states that in 1979 Ron bet him $500 that he couldnât quit taking amphetamines for 1 month and Erdos promptly stopped. After winning the bet he accused Ron of setting mathematics back by a month as he was unable to perform (mathematically) for the month sans his neuroenhancement fix.

I used to put myself to sleep by taking a page from my Scrabble calendar (anagrams are the best) and turning it around in my mind as I faded out. I usually solved the puzzle when I relaxed and focused, well before losing consciousness but after I had let go of the day's worries.

Had to stop doing this after a while, because when I couldn't solve the problem I got into an obsessive loop that would not let me sleep. Of course, that is probably related to the general anxieties that were making sleep difficult in the first place.

You're commenting on these drugs seemingly only for non-ADHD users. These drugs have a different affect on those who need them. For instance, those who take these stimulants with ADHD often do not have the side affect of insomnia, though some do, but many don't. Drugs for those who don't need them, regardless of the rx, should keep from doing so, as you stated all have side effects. But it should be stated that these work differently in those who need them vs the normal population. Creativity often comes first nature to those with ADHD, yet need help keeping focus, or they may burn down the house while cooking dinner.

Just a thought...

By jlorraine (not verified) on 01 May 2009 #permalink

The short response is, "It depends". The longer answer is "it depends on you particular chemistry and wiring" -- that is, your "normal" condition that is being altered by the drug, and the particular drug (frex, meth-relatives have different direct and side effects than dex-related etc). And it also depends a lot on dosage levels. For non-ADHD users, I'd bet that increasing dosages yield diminishing returns.

It also depends on what you mean by creativity. Is it coming up with something that's "out of the box"? In that case, a drug that helps counter distractions might inhibit 'creativity'. Is it seeing more potential connections among items or thoughts? Is it following trails that at first glance don't look promising but lead to something when pursued further? Improved focus and ability to keep down a thought path, especially for folks easily distracted, can enhance types of creativity.

I've also found that in addition to increased mental energy and focus, low levels of adderall-type drugs can boost very-short-term memory, so you may be focused on something but things you were thinking about earlier in a work session are highly retrievable. Like having lots of chunks of text or thoughts right at your mental fingertips. So it can actually increase "manipulating" or "synthesizing" sorts of creativity.

If I were to generalize, I'd speculate that for non-ADHD users, cognitive enhancers aren't going to promote dreamy sorts of creative states. But at relatively low dosages, they can boost mental energy and sharpness that's consistent with lots of other sorts of creativity.

Playing with fire, here. Cocaine and opium were favorites of past eras and that didn't work out too well. Actually I find the medical cheerleading for these stimulants to be beyond annoying. They should wait a couple decades to see what happens long term as a result of these experiments in brain chemistry. Sheesh.

She was really struggling hard within that article to come up with some negatives, of which the three she cobbled together are: 1.) there aren't that many studies, 2.) they could be addictive, and 3.) they can get rid of creativity. She mentions a few cases where people came up with creative ideas while not on drugs, but you yourself talk about how W.H. Auden felt that drugs made him write better poetry. You're contradicting yourself here.

And why are poetry and songs the most creative things one can accomplish? Kary Mullis won a Nobel Prize in physics for inventing PCR and he said he came up with the idea while he was on LSD.

Adderall and Ritalin may be different, but Provigil is certainly not akin to "speed."

Saying that something is "addictive" and immediately banning it is a cop-out. The definition of "addictive" used in the article is that the drug produces dopamine. So does sex, exercise, or anything else that someone might do that's pleasurable. Should we ban exercise as being addictive? You can pull a muscle during exercise, after all. It also might give someone who exercises an edge over someone who's lazy and watches TV! Oh no! Ban it! Ban sex, too, you can get diseases from it.

Basically, the idea that people might not be as creative on these drugs is an opinion given in this article of two researchers who have not studied that precise subject. I'll wait for the science to see either way. A much bigger problem is the overmedication of Adderall to children whose brains are still developing.

"Actually I find the medical cheerleading for these stimulants to be beyond annoying. They should wait a couple decades to see what happens long term as a result of these experiments in brain chemistry. Sheesh."

The biggest cheerleader for Provigil is actually the United States government, which wants Army/Air Force pilots to be able to stay alert and awake all night for flying missions, etc. They've funded many studies on its effectiveness.

Taking drugs is not the best solution - we know it as we hear it every day, again and again. The problem is not the knowledge what we shouldn't do but what we CAN do instead using such 'helpers'. And we need to change this way of thinking 'the quicker/easier, the better'.
So what can I suggest? Working in particular condition can be better idea, I believe. If you need to focus try to sit in empty, quiet place (if possible) or use stoppers at least. And if you need to be creative it is hepful to open window widely to get some fresh air and play some music in background, try to solve some crosswords or sudoku.
It may sound weird and out of date but those are really good ideas that always help me (and not only me) to achieve goals without drugs.

These medications do not function differently on different types of people. ADHD people and normal people alike become more focused etc on the medication. ADHD is just a description for people that are normally destracted enough to need some form of med or therapy to be reasonably functional.

Yes. Some people may experience increased productivity and focus and some may not. That is why they should be legal and educated adults should decide for themselves.

By Mike in Texas (not verified) on 04 May 2009 #permalink

I often think of focus and specialization as being very similar. We have had 100 years or more of very specialized thinkers. It is rare that people work in several areas of science, let alone in science and arts. This is natural as the need for concentration in order to understand completely modern concepts is required. I do think that we are entering a potentially different era though. As I write this, I have 10 windows open on my computer. On those windows are theater reviews, a patent I am writing, a lecture I am preparing, and your wonderful blog among others. I think that reading this blog helps me with the other activities I am doing. A lack of focus is actually useful for me. I don't want to be enhanced, I want to be free to wander around the digital world, and my own thoughts and dreams.Technology makes this more possible now than it was in the past. As far as being an Auden or a Karoauk, I think that more than concentration was inspiration. My guess is that much of that inspiration occurred not while on Bennies, but rather over a beer, or driving alone in a car. The stimulant was just a way of completing the job.

These medications do not function differently on different types of people. ADHD people and normal people alike become more focused etc on the medication. ADHD is just a description for people that are normally destracted enough to need some form of med or therapy to be reasonably functional."

The difference is of course what you stated. ADHD are looking for an additional stimulant. They are looking for an aid to achieve normal attention. The ADHD brain works 5 times harder to preform everyday tasks. So let's not act like the outcome is equal. One is looking for normal functioning, the non-ADHD user is looking for an amphetamine as a drug seeker. The outcome IS different.

By jlorraine (not verified) on 07 May 2009 #permalink

How silly. Of course these drugs limit creativity. That's the point. They aid in focus. But you don't have to be on them all the time.

The individuals cited as examples took these drugs, not to be creative, but to get things done, to implement creativity.

The article argues that cars are bad because they may get you where you want to go quickly, but they don't help you pick where to go.

adderall does NOT reduce creativity.

Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2009 Jan;202(1-3):541-7. Epub 2008 Nov 15.Click here to read Links
When we enhance cognition with Adderall, do we sacrifice creativity? A preliminary study.
Farah MJ, Haimm C, Sankoorikal G, Chatterjee A.

Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Pennsylvania, 3720 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA.

RATIONALE: Adderall (mixed amphetamine salts) is used by healthy normal individuals to enhance attention. Research with healthy normal participants and those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder indicate a possible inverse relationship between attentional function and creativity. This raises the possibility that Adderall could decrease creativity in people using it for cognitive enhancement. OBJECTIVE: This study was designed to find out whether Adderall impairs creativity in healthy young adults. MATERIAL AND METHODS: In a double-blind placebo-controlled study, the effects of Adderall on the performance of 16 healthy young adults were measured on four tests of creativity from the psychological literature: two tasks requiring divergent thought and two requiring convergent thought. RESULTS: Adderall affected performance on the convergent tasks only, in one case enhancing it, particularly for lower-performing individuals, and in the other case enhancing it for the lower-performing and impairing it for higher-performing individuals. CONCLUSION: The preliminary evidence is inconsistent with the hypothesis that Adderall has an overall negative effect on creativity. Its effects on divergent creative thought cannot be inferred with confidence from this study because of the ambiguity of null results. Its effects on convergent creative thought appear to be dependent on the baseline creativity of the individual. Those in the higher range of the normal distribution may be unaffected or impaired, whereas those in the lower range of the normal distribution experience enhancement.

do us all a favor and pubmed search your speculations before subjecting us to them.

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By Brunner Markus (not verified) on 16 Jan 2010 #permalink