Pop, Look, Listen, Learn.

AIMEE-LEE ABRAHAM investigates the rise of nootropics (‘smart pills’) and the pressures that are influencing students to succumb to their dangerous charms

We have reached a point in higher education where courses intended to creatively liberate and intellectually stimulate risk being reduced to exercises in relentless memory retention. Even the attainment of a glowing First will not necessarily suffice in the current economic climate, but we are all aware that it helps. We are also aware that we can rarely rely on our natural talents alone to get one. And so we learn; we learn to distinguish ourselves, we learn to block out distractions, we learn the value of sacrifice. No matter how much we value their companionship, we learn to trample over our peers in a race to the top of the CV pile long before the graduation cap is placed.

Adopting these cold, corporate values puts us in good stead for the market, for the performance targets and co-worker comparisons we will face there. Even when we’re starting out as designated office coffee brewers, we channel our attention into remembering who takes sugar and serving with the brightest smile the office has seen, hopeful that this will land us a permanent (and possibly even paid) position. This drive to outperform ourselves and others is not necessarily a bad thing. It thickens our skins. It stretches our limits. It nourishes us and allows us to grow from fresh-faced first years into real adults. But it comes at a price.

Student under academic pressure
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Surrounded by machines, it’s easy to forget that we cannot compete with them. Technological advances often place us in a position where the office is omnipresent. We carry it in our pockets, we fall asleep thinking of what flashes upon the screen beneath the pillow, we let it interrupt our social conversations. We are made of flesh and bone, yet we are treated like information processors and told we’re only as good as the words we squeeze onto single sided A4. Academic excellence, extracurricular activities, internships, part-time jobs, relationships to build, social lives to keep us sane. How many plates can we juggle before something smashes?

The correlation between students and recreational drug use is well-established but the assumption often made is that teens and twenty-somethings experimenting with substances are doing so to escape themselves. Writing in The Guardian, Charlie Brooker’s description of his student years spent almost entirely playing video games stoned and ‘wandering around massively overlit convenience stores feeling jittery and alien’ embodies the cliché of the undergraduate spending more time with their head in a bong than in a book. His ingenious remark “I don’t want to get out of my head: that’s where I live” rings true for students who reject the more hedonistic side of student party culture. Nootropics, though, are engineered and administered to achieve precisely the opposite effect – to access closed components of the mind, bettering performance and sharpening focus. When all else fails, when competition is fierce, Students can look to nootropics as a solution. Searching for something extra that will get them to the library at the crack of dawn and keep them there until closing time, it is often the highest achieving and most perfectionistic of pupils who fall down the rabbit hole. Academic potential is so often lost to distraction, to basic human need, to the clock. Most users aren’t prone to lying under a duvet avoiding reality. Instead, they share a hunger to jump out of bed and get shit done.

One of the more widely used smart drugs, modafinil was first prescribed to enhance alertness in those suffering from narcolepsy, a rare, chronic sleep disorder that renders the brain of the sufferer unable to regulate sleeping and waking patterns. The tendency of narcoleptics to fall asleep at random times places them in danger. When it was discovered that modafinil also helped aid concentration and sharpen memory, the drug was trialled by pilots on long-haul flights. Then, in 2004, The Ministry of Defence were exposed by The Guardian as suppliers of modafinil following an investigation into MoD spending granted under the open government code. It was claimed they had purchased a staggering 24,000 pills over a six-year period, with orders peaking in 2001 (the year allied forces first entered Afghanistan), revealing an intent to keep soldiers artificially alert. Unlike more conventional pick-me-ups, like the precious flask of coffee considered a study day staple by many, modafinil does not keep users awake for unreasonable hours against their will. It mysteriously manages to remove the desire to sleep, but not the physical need. This means that users can stay awake for as long as they need to complete the desired task, yet drift off seamlessly as soon as they choose to hit the hay. How exactly this is possible remains a matter of debate for neurologists and pharmacists alike – users should consider this before indulging. The official site for Provigil (the brand of modafinil distributed by the MoD) lists psychiatric symptoms ‘including depression, anxiety, sensing things that are not really there, mania, thoughts of suicide and aggression’ as potential side effects – a haunting reality if troops were/are using them to maximise battlefield success. With the awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder rising, the concept of adding a mind-altering drug known to cause delirium to the mix is concerning to say the least.

Smart drugs/nootropics used to enhance concentration
Photo Credit: Alamy

In spite of this, modafinil is frequently compared in the media to NZT-48, the fictionalised ‘genius pill’ that formed the plotline for the 2011 Hollywood hit Limitless. In the film Bradley Cooper plays a man plagued by the writer’s block that prevents him from finishing his novel and achieving the literary success he feels he is capable of. A chance encounter with an old school friend turned pharmaceutical rep sees him popping a transformative, top-secret ‘smart drug’ that allows him to instantaneously become the best possible version of himself. Overnight he is elevated from his lowly existence as an unemployed, overweight layabout to dizzying heights of success personally and professionally. Although the effects are highly exaggerated to fit the requirements of a blockbuster thriller, many claim that ‘limitless’ is perhaps the most apt word to describe how modafinil makes the user feel.

In 2011 a survey on the topic of nootropics was conducted by BBC Newsnight in collaboration with New Scientist. Of the 760 respondents it attracted, 38 percent had dabbled – with a staggering 92 percent of the latter figure claiming they would do so again. One respondent spoke of the experience so many unmotivated students yearn for, admitting;

“I was able to write a 22-page paper in one day. I revised it over the next couple of days and got an A. Normally, I wouldn’t have even been able to get a rough draft done in a week.”

John*, a young man who has been taking modafinil intermittently for the last two years, agreed to speak to Quench about his experience. The interview began with a walk-through of the first stage; the ordering process. John had explained with a wry smile before the meeting that his source was ‘quicker than Amazon’ despite being based on the other side of the world, following the same standard of professionalism you’d expect from major distributors. This seemed hard to believe, but a quick Google search brought up the exact supplier John uses within seconds. There was no re-wording to be done, none of the endless trawling you’d expect. It was right there on the very first page and it was as legitimate as John described, its webpage almost indistinguishable from that of high street pharmacies like Lloyds or Boots. It only becomes apparent that all is not well upon closer observation. The sidebar includes links to antidepressants, cancer treatments and slimming aids banned in several countries and all of these can be added to a virtual basket in seconds with no questions asked.

John explains orders come with a tracking number and pass promptly through border control with ease, arriving in ‘plain cardboard boxes with no references whatsoever to medicines or pharmacies’. All medicines are ‘genuine branded products’ unless stated otherwise and come with a 30-day guarantee. A free helpline operates within local office hours to deal with any queries, although the extensive FAQ section of the site proves capable of handling the majority. Such high levels of customer service allow UK users of nootropics to steer clear of the dark net, avoiding the cliched underworld where Silk Road dealers lurk and transactions are paid in untraceable bitcoins. Despite this, it’s worth remembering that not all sites will be as professional as the one featured here. Pharmaceuticals purchased online will of course come in varying qualities. As with all drugs, unless you were somehow able to run clinical tests on your purchase, you cannot be certain of its purity.

Pills on keyboard
Photo Credit: Bliss-tree

Although morally questionable, sites like the one John frequents are not doing anything wrong from a legislative standpoint. Although it is illegal in the UK to sell drugs like modafinil without a prescription, the importation of non-controlled substances from overseas remains legal (if intended for personal use). The off-shore nature of the site places it firmly in the grey and while the company stresses the importance of consulting a doctor before taking new medication or altering pre-existing dosages, stating this achieves little in deterring the curious and the vulnerable who make up the majority of their 100,000 ‘regulars’. Safe in the knowledge that they won’t face repercussions and stigma of legal action, loyal buyers are free to experiment and self-medicate at their own will.

When dependency crops up, John insists that he is not addicted. When he stops taking modafinil, he reports none of the physical reactions associated with withdrawal; there are no night sweats, no jitters, no excruciating pains. A moderate smoker, cigarettes haunt his dreams soon after cessation, whereas quitting modafinil induces a kind of quiet nostalgia. He notices its absence but there is no biting, omnipresent yearning. Rather, things simply return to ‘normal’ and a lull ensues. But while there might not be a dramatic come down, returning to a normal life seems rather anti-climatic and mundane. John explains how ‘stacks of work see to themselves’ under the influence. It’s hard to adjust to life in slow motion. Modafinil, taken consistently, he says, is like living off ‘really good cake’ for a while and finding to your surprise that you feel better than ever and haven’t gained any weight. Returning to a diet of leaves is the sensible thing but you’re constantly hungry and lethargic and you just really miss cake.

Despite John’s assurance that modafinil does not induce dependency, one cannot help but question if users of modafinil are too captivated by its apparent magical powers to consider the long-term consequences. If it feels great and shows no immediate physical or mental signs warranting alarm, it can seem just too good an opportunity to refuse. This is where the danger lies. Anonymous online forums contain hundreds of testimonies from modafinil users and the verdict is unanimously positive, with the exception of a few reviews claiming that it exacerbated pre-existing anxiety and tips advising users to designate tasks before taking the drug. Failing to do so means wasting boundless enthusiasm on pointless activities. John relates; beforehand he had lost days binge-watching Netflix with the infallible concentration of a meditating monk. One anonymous contributor to an online forum became completely engrossed in a game of Halo, unaware that the lecture she had taken the drug to get through had ended nine hours earlier. Many users who have learnt to administer it ‘properly’ refer to it as a ‘wonder drug’, ‘miracle worker’ and ‘life saver’. Some ‘cannot remember how (they) functioned without it’. Euphoric reviews make the drug seem tempting to those yet to experiment but completely sidetrack the element of risk. Throughout the forum pages are endless hints from those obviously dependent from the outside of the “I CAN give up but I don’t WANT to yet” mentality so many smokers adopt to avoid pain and inconvenience.

cigarettes cessation
Photo Credit: Stuart McClymont / Stone / Getty Images

The blinkered effect of modafinil can further add to elements of denial. The same induced focus it brings can make users unknowingly nightmarish to be around, meaning that it poses a real threat to personal relationships if used for extended periods of time. One student blogger wrote online of his observations having spent a semester surrounded by friends using it to get through finals. A quiet, courteous, painfully shy roommate had obliviously transformed into a confrontational, visibly agitated mess right before his eyes. When the fact that cognitive enhancers could be viewed by some as a form of cheating in the same way that performance-enhancers would be in a professional sporting setting was mentioned, he erupted in public, red faced and screaming in the middle of the silent library. As with any drug which alters the natural neurological state of the user, unpleasant and uncharacteristic personality changes can set in, in some chronic cases proving almost impossible to reverse.

John tells me that he stopped taking modafinil one day because it was out of stock at his usual suppliers. The dry spell lasted for three months – a significant period for someone accustomed to taking 1-2 doses a day, everyday, for the two years prior. Untrusting of other sources, he had no choice but to go cold turkey for far longer than he had before. Things did not go as swimmingly as he anticipated.

During that time, John was rushed to hospital following signs of cardiac arrest. Driving down the motorway, he was struck by a sudden and overwhelming tightness in his chest. Palpitations, breathlessness and blurred vision followed and he soon found himself pulling over on the hard shoulder, dialing NHS Direct with trembling hands. They insisted on sending an ambulance immediately. Exhausted by his work schedule, John had taken a gram and a half of caffeine ‘to get out of bed’ that morning. To put that into context, a single Pro Plus tablet contains 50mg, meaning that John had ingested the potentially fatal equivalent of thirty Pro Plus pills in one sitting.

rushing ambulance to help someone suffering cardiac arrest
Photo Credit: The Telegraph.

The incident would never have happened, John claims, had he not run out of modafinil in the first place. It was a silly decision, one that he regrets and admits is impossible to rationalise with the benefit of hindsight. Vowing never to touch caffeine again (with the exception of a recreational coffee here and there), he has now resumed his routine of taking modafinil every morning. The God complex and sense of deep-rooted confidence it gives him in otherwise stressful situations was too soothing to give up

However, his immediate resumption of old habits following a scare suggests that there could be some sort of disconnect in his mind. Although the absence of modafinil caused him to behave in an irrational way, it was the caffeine that caused him to become ill. If anything, then, the incident has served to reinforce his belief that modafinil works for him and cannot be substituted. He uses the analogy of a car engine to describe the difference between the two and how they interact with his body: “Caffeine is like putting your foot down in first gear” he begins, “…the engine is going at 9000 rpm but you’re barely moving. There’s an initial buzz but before long the engine starts playing up and you know it’s getting damaged in the process. You’re destined for a crash. Modafinil is cleaner… it takes you straight up to fifth gear, where you can coast along smoothly at 80 mph.”

graduation day se se of achievement
Photo Credit: Urban Education Center

The attraction of a pill that can make us better and stronger is one that will never wear off. It’s in our nature to seek growth and to hope for miracle makers. Similarly, the economy may appear paused in a perpetual state of recession. The job market may not be as kind as we hoped it would. Emails will be ignored, applications will be binned before they have been read, opportunities will be missed. For some, nootropics can bring some sunshine to a rainy day, clearing brain fog and brightening prospects. For those opting to stay clean, there will always be a nagging worry of being left behind. But, ask yourself this; do you still consider Lance Armstrong to be the groundbreaking, world-class cyclist he was once held up to be, now that you are aware of the means to his ends? Would you feel the same sense of pride and achievement as a completed degree scroll is placed in your hand if you knew that a chemical had done a significant amount of the work for you? And are you willing to risk your health and relationships in the process? Under-researched and anecdotally personality-altering, it’s a gamble. Place your bet wisely.

*Source’s name has been changed to protect their identity