Illusion of Grandeur: The False Promise of Performance From Smart Drugs

If you’ve heard of smart drugs, you know that they enhance cognitive function. They make us smarter, sharper, faster, more capable. That’s why millions of students use Ritalin to study. That’s why talented young bankers replace cocaine with Adderall. That’s why hardworking adults increasingly turn to smart drugs to give them an edge. But what if smart drugs aren’t so smart?

A growing body of research suggests that Ritalin, Adderall, and other so-called smart drugs may not significantly enhance cognitive performance in people without ADHD. As Shaheen E. Lakhan and Annette Kirchgessner point out in Brain and Behavior, “Given the widespread belief that stimulants enhance performance, there are in fact only a few studies reporting the cognitive enhancing effects of stimulants in ADHD and nonaffected individuals.” For example, over half of studies designed to examine “aspects of [executive] control showed no effect of the medications at all compared to a placebo.”  When enhancement is observed, it is typically limited to specific cognitive functions such as “rote memory tasks, not complex memory, which is more likely to appear on college exams” and primarily occurs in subjects that have low baseline function. In other words, smart drugs may only enhance performance in a very limited capacity, and people with high cognitive function are less likely to experience those performance-enhancing benefits.

The Illusion of Performance


So if smart drugs aren’t truly giving you a significant performance edge, why do people believe they do? A 2010 experiment by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania set about answering this question by evaluating the cognitive function in 47 subjects without ADHD diagnoses. The participants completed a battery of tests that included assessments ranging from “working memory – how much information they could keep in mind and manipulate – to raw intelligence, to memories for specific events and faces.” The tests were administered twice – once after the participants were given Adderall and once when they were given a placebo. Upon analysis of the results, no cognitive improvements were observed as the result of taking Adderall. However, when asked whether the pill influenced their test performance, participants who had taken Adderall were significantly more likely to report that the medication had improved their test results; Adderall produced a psychological effect and “illusory feeling of benefit” despite the fact that it offered no performance enhancement.

The reason for this illusion is found in the neurological effects of smart drugs on people without ADHD. By flooding your brain with dopamine, your brain’s reward system is stimulated, and you experience a sense of well-being, confidence, and even euphoria. As a result, you believe that you are smarter and more accomplished; you believe you are your best self. Coupled with the neurological dependence on smart drugs, you become psychologically addicted to the feelings of elation and augmented performance, even if that augmented performance is simply a product of your chemically altered imagination. And that is one of the most dangerous qualities of smart drugs; you start to believe that without them you cannot achieve at the level you want or need and you cannot be the person you want to be. Without them, you are not enough.

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Healing From Smart Drug Addiction


Psychological dependency is one of the most pernicious qualities of smart drug addiction and acts as a significant barrier to admitting that you need help. After all, you’re not nodding off with a needle in your arm or calling in to work because you need to drink away your pain at 8am; you’re using to be better, you’re using to accomplish, you’re using to improve. But the destruction of smart drug addiction can be extensive and far too real, ranging from serious neurological damage to psychological disturbances to physical harm. Moreover, smart drug addiction can rob you of your trust in and appreciation for your innate talents and abilities; you lose touch with your authentic self and replace true confidence with a chemical crutch.

At Alta Mira, we understand the complex nature of smart drug addiction and offer specialized treatment to free you from your struggle with addiction. Our detox specialists can support you through safe, monitored medically supervised detox to make withdrawal from Adderall, Ritalin, or other stimulants as comfortable as possible. Through highly personalized treatment, you can begin to reconnect with your inner self, honor your unique gifts, and rejuvenate your confidence in your intellectual strengths. With the guidance of our expertly trained and compassionate staff, you can engage in a revitalizing process of personal transformation and recovery to break your dependency on smart drugs and begin a new life where your true self can flourish.

Alta Mira provides comprehensive residential treatment for people struggling with smart drug addiction. By combining the most effective evidence-based therapies with 12-step wisdom, we create extraordinary treatment experiences for our clients. Contact us to learn more about our innovative program and how we can help you or your loved one on the path to lasting recovery.