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Neuroenhancers, Hamburgers and the Meaning of Smart

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Two years ago, I was not yet forty and still coming to grips with my recently diagnosed ADHD. I had just begun taking a medication called Adderall, which made me feel like a whole, different and better person. The first four to six hours of the day, which had always been wasted on ineffective nonsense, were suddenly at my disposal. This meant getting more done during the hours others normally do which meant that I had my evenings available, at least some of the time. As a result, I wasn't feeling depressed about my inability to get everything done or anxious about being 'behind the eight ball,' yet again. In short, the quality of my life improved remarkably. The only drawback was that I would occasionally get the feeling of electricity shooting out of my fingertips from time to time. (I have since switched to Vyvanse, which has the same essential active ingredient but a better release mechanism. With it, I don't experience the side effects.)

When I was diagnosed, I made the decision that I would be open about having ADHD as well as any and all treatments. Thus, I found myself sharing hamburgers with some friends one night at the Stanton on 12th Street in New York, describing my new state of being. They were all fascinated because people hearing about adult ADHD for the first time tend to assume that they have it themselves, and I'm not the sort of person who is generally associated with the disorder. But at least one of my friends was convinced that I was full of 'cattle excrement' and that I was just looking for an excuse to take the mental equivalent of steroids. None of this came out at the dinner. But months later he admitted that he had been angry with me for quite some time, before coming to understand that the medication was in fact helping me to overcome a real problem. We talked a lot about it and I credit him greatly with making the effort to understand. Many others would not.

What got me thinking about this was an article published in the April 27 issue of The New Yorker entitled "Brain Gain - The underground world of 'neuro-enhancing' drugs". In it, Margaret Talbot writes amusingly and cogently about students taking amphetamines to do better on exams. News flash: this may be news to mainstream adults over a certain age, but taking 'speed' is an age old and time honored tradition. And for those who have never tried it, I can assure you that taking Ritalin, Adderrall, or plain vanilla Dexadrine will help you to stay alert. It might even help you to memorize better. What it won't do is make you smarter.

Mind you, I'm not a neuroscientist, pharmacologist, psychiatrist or philosopher; I'm just someone with a substantial before and after experience. Here's what I've learned: being smart is a lot like being an Olympic bi-athlete. You have to be both a hell of a good cross-country skier, which is grueling, and a serious sharp shooter. No matter how much better you get at one, you cannot win the competition unless you excel at both. Well, the so-called neuro-enhancers can help you with one aspect of intelligence, but not the other. For the average person, speed will make you more alert and focused, but it will not make you smarter. The ability to memorize more phone numbers, should not, in my opinion, be confused with intelligence.

Truthfully, I wouldn't care about any of this were it not for the fact that articles like this further detract from the simple truth that these medications help a lot of us with problems like ADHD live better lives. Combine this with all the articles that lavish detail on the over-prescription of children -- an admittedly real phenomena -- and it would be easy to forget that there are legitimate uses for amphetamines. So to any of you reporters who are preparing to write an article of this sort, I implore you to get in touch with me or someone else who takes and benefits from this class of medication. For us, your so-called neuro-enhancers are life rafts and we're in no hurry to give them up.