Many years ago, while still an
undergraduate, I became interested in memory enhancing
drugs...otherwise known as Smart Pills. Was it possible to
simply swallow a tablet and add points to your IQ? Even
preliminary studies showed that there could be such an effect.
So how might this class of drugs – called nootropics - work?
Experimenting with Magnesium Pemoline I
had a result that was similar to amphetamines but without the
increase in heart rate. A wide variety of such stimulants were
already being routinely issued to combat soldiers who might need
to be awake for prolonged periods of time. Pilots required to
fly extended missions would be a good example.
But then the question was: Did the pills
make you more intelligent or just more alert? Since the caffeine
in a few cups of coffee could do the latter, I began to see my
Nobel Prize slipping away. Then, when some subjects experienced
aphrodisiac effects, I reached the end. Federal drug agencies
were quick to ban anything that even hinted at increased sexual
arousal. America still maintains its Puritanical roots though
compounds such as Viagra and Cialis are considered therapeutic
because they are seen as fixing something that’s broken and not
merely serving to create desire...therapeutic as that might be.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago when I
came across a book titled The Genius Within written by David
Adam. (You can read a brief summary by Jean Broida in her
on-line column The Health Edge.) Adam learned about a smart pill
– Modafinil – and was curious. Could taking it make him eligible
for MENSA, the international high IQ society? He decided to take
the qualifying test twice; once before and once after a period
on Modafinil. As it happened, he turned out to be bright enough
for MENSA (a score in the top 2%) on his first try but he
continued with his experiment and scored even higher the second
So are smart pills something for
everyone? Not really. They’re not magic potions as in you take
one and you start doing calculus or speaking a new language.
What they are can be better described as cognitive enhancers.
They bring you to your best...to your highest level when you’re
at your sharpest and most focused. You can recall facts you’ve
already learned and you can learn and store new facts a bit more
effectively. What’s more, you can do this more quickly than
usual which is what psychologists call the Power function. It’s
what contestants on JEOPARDY demonstrate when they get the
answer a couple of seconds before you do.
Look At It This Way
While heightened perceptiveness and
clarity of thought might help during JEOPARDY or a MENSA test,
such faculties will not otherwise contribute much to daily
living. Then have to consider the dollar cost and the
possibility of any untoward side effects. There may be a place
for cognitive enhancers as an aid for Senior Moments during
conversations and when they interfere with social activities but
that’s still being studied.
So unless you’re planing on a half hour
with Alex Trebek, you might want to skip any pills and just sip
a cup of coffee instead.