According to research, around 16% of students at college and university are now using ‘brain pills’ to enhance their cognition and thereby improve their grades. The latest star attraction in the world of nootropics is ‘modafinil’, also known as Provigil and sold as ‘Modalert’. But can it really make you smarter?
What Is Modafinil?
Modafinil is a supplement originally designed to be used by those with narcolepsy, apnea, shift work and other sleep-related challenges. Specifically, it works by increasing hypothalamic histamine levels, one of the roles of which is to work as a neurotransmitter for regulating sleep. By reducing the amount of histamine, it is possible to increase wakefulness and focus and this can help to tackle a range of sleep related conditions. The precise mechanisms by which this is accomplished however aren’t fully understood which is a concern for long-term users and there are various other effects on dopamine levels, noradrenaline, serotonin and more.
While the intended recipients of modafinil are those with sleep disorders however, an underground movement of students and transhumanists have begun using it more and more as a way to boost wakefulness and thus enhance productivity. Currently it is completely legal to purchase modafinil which can be done relatively easily online.
Before we get onto the potential benefits of modafinil, we should first take a look at the side effects which commonly include:
- Stomach problems
- Difficulty sleeping
- Dry throat
- Shortness of breath
- And more…
Not everyone will experience these side effects however, indeed most people won’t notice any effects other than the desired ones. Serious adverse reactions are only really likely in case of allergic reaction and anyone with heart problems or hypersensitivity to certain drugs, or who is pregnant or on birth control should avoid using modafinil. Interestingly, a recent study has suggested a contraindication with alcohol which might lead to euphoria, increased blood pressure and heart rate and amphetamine-like symptoms when used in conjunction (speed being an example of an amphetamine). Overdosing can be a serious problem and is to be avoided unless you want to end up in the emergency room with an elevated blood pressure and heart rate.
But Can it Make You Smarter?
Perhaps the question you really want answered if you’re reading this though, is whether or not modafinil can really make you smarter or improve your cognitive performance? Well, according to studies, it seems that modafinil can indeed improve cognitive abilities such as working memory (improving digit span, digit manipulation, pattern recognition etc.) and potentially spatial memory and attention (the results are mixed here).
More to the point however, modafinil has proven very effective in combating tiredness and lethargy and many people describe hardly needing to sleep at all when using it. If you are someone who likes to work late into the night then, or who has a tendency to burn the candle at both ends as it were, then you might find that modafinil helps you to continue working when you might otherwise have trouble staying awake.
Reading around the web there are a lot of anecdotal tales of people using modafinil and finding that it enables them to focus extremely effectively on single topics, while also making them more alert and aware of external stimuli. Of course this could be very useful in conversation if you want to come across as switched on and attentive, and it may also be helpful for working through a list of relatively dull tasks that require a lot of attention. However the same posts and articles also explain how this can be a downside in some cases – as they can equally end up ‘focussed’ on an unuseful task, lose track of time and struggle to multitask. In one YouTube video a reviewer’s friends described him as being more ‘serious’ and focussed in conversation as well, which they mused could also impact on creativity.
The important point to remember then with modafinil – and with any nootropic – is that they will only improve certain cognitive abilities rather than improving your intelligence wholesale. Intelligence is a difficult term to define and some people would describe the most important aspects of intelligence as creativity or emotional intelligence – factors that are unlikely to be affected by modafinil. That said though, if you want to improve your ability to focus on a set of tasks and you’re happy to take a controlled risk, then modafinil may be of use.
But then isn’t working out and eating a better diet a safer and more proven way to accomplish those same things?