Have you heard of modafinil? Until recently I hadn’t heard of the so-called ‘smart drug’ that is apparently in widespread use on campuses worldwide. In the UK it’s prescription-only and used to treat sufferers of ADHD and narcolepsy. The effects are subtle but it is shown to increase wakefulness over extended periods of time, improve concentration, and can make boring tasks seem more interesting because of its effect on dopamine levels in the brain. Unlike other stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin, modafinil isn’t an amphetamine and doesn’t produce the associated negative side effects such as jitters and anxiety. All this makes it popular as a study drug among students. It’s incredibly easy to purchase online through non-UK domains and while it’s illegal to sell it here, it isn’t illegal to possess. However, as there are no controls, you can’t be sure what you’re getting once you’ve clicked ‘buy’ and there are of course side effects. Most notably these include dehydration, loss of appetite, and it can reduce the effectiveness of contraceptive pills. Long term side effects are uncertain due to a lack of data.
The use of drugs to enhance study is a fairly recent phenomenon and widely different from recreational drug use. In America everyday drug culture is huge; people take all kinds of pills and supplements on a regular basis for ordinary problems. Modafinil use is reportedly rife in Ivy League universities where the workload is high and students feel intense pressure to do well. Informal surveys have indicated that in the UK, modafinil is particularly popular in Oxford and Cambridge with up to one in five students admitting to taking it before. However, given the lack of good research it is hard to gauge just how ubiquitous modafinil use is and whether or not it’s on the increase.
I wanted to find out how Durham fits into picture. Since I hadn’t heard of the drug before I assumed that either it wasn’t a thing or there was something my friends weren’t telling me. When I started asking around I was surprised at how quickly I came across either direct experiences or anecdotes about friends.
Given that it’s meant to be something students take due to work pressure, I was surprised to find freshers at it. One Economics fresher was very enthusiastic; he had been told about it by a postgrad in his third week at Durham and has been using it weekly during term time ever since. He admits to generally doing ‘no work’ but will be more productive on the weekend when he’s using modafinil. The longest he’s worked without a break is fourteen hours, and it can be useful to do boring tasks like his laundry. It’s important to plan what you’re doing though, last weekend his friend spent eight hours compiling a music playlist. He reckons it’s pretty common, at least among his friends, and he’s heard that it’s especially popular among computer scientists. The drug is meant to improve short term memory and he’s considering taking it during exams; waking up at 3am and cramming for a few hours before a 9:30am exam. When I asked him whether he thought this amounted to cheating he was adamant: ‘Absolutely not. Everyone could use it if they wanted to.’ He was very open, laidback, and eager to discuss the ins and outs of modafinil with me. For him it’s a ‘false taboo’ and he doesn’t think anyone really cares.
Experiences differ. A third year Law student was less comfortable about it as she ‘thought it would undermine [her] credibility’. She told me: ‘I still feel a bit embarrassed that I took it and would probably deny taking it to most people and wouldn’t want most close friends to know.’ False or otherwise, the taboo definitely exists. This student was concerned that people would look down on her and think she was cheating, but she’s also adamant that this perception is wrong. She insists that the effects of modafinil are largely exaggerated and in fact very minor: ‘It’s not some kind of magic pill that makes you automatically more intelligent; you still have to put in the hours to do well.’ She also compared it to ‘drinking five cups of coffee to keep you awake.’ Ultimately, she doesn’t think it enhances performance and she didn’t find any correlation between her exam results and whether or not she was taking modafinil at the time.
Why take it then? For her, it seems more an issue of self-perception than just sorting out a pile of laundry at the weekend. She says the reason she started taking the drug was insecurity: ‘It seemed as though everyone was achieving so much more than me and I felt inadequate. I felt slow and stupid and thought that modafinil could be a way in which I could keep up with my colleagues, get better grades and ultimately feel better about myself.’ Interestingly, among the reasons why she decided to stop taking it was the way it affected her attitude to Tinder. She told me that ‘I also tragically started taking it before going on Tinder dates because I thought it would make me more witty/ more intelligent/ more attractive. It didn’t. I felt very naïve for genuinely thinking that taking a pill could make such a difference to me as a person as well as my concentration levels.’
While I don’t think the use of modafinil on dates is particularly common (you never know), the various pressures of university life are certainly interlinked and I can easily see why a drug like modafinil might provide a way of dealing with these pressures. Although his workload is relatively light at the moment, the first year Economics student is looking ahead. When I asked if he would continue taking modafinil after university he said ‘if I work in the city, 100%’ as he feels it would help with the long hours. In a recent article for The Observer entitled ‘Students used to take drugs to get high. Now they take them to get higher grades’ Carole Cadwalladr describes study drugs as ‘capitalism’s little helpers’ and just another symptom of ‘a world in which everyone’s looking for an edge.’ We feel like we need to be at our best at all times and this is proving a big factor in the study drug trend.
This need, I’m sorry to say, will never be met. Though we might wish otherwise, we will continue having good days and bad days. Modafinil might help you concentrate for a few hours but taking it won’t solve all your problems and it certainly won’t guarantee a first class degree. For most people, modafinil is unnecessary; there are plenty of healthier ways to study better and sometimes using it can increase rather than decrease stress. However, although I would discourage it, I wouldn’t clamp down on it. Concerns about the use of modafinil as a form of cheating in exams have led to whispers of drug testing, similar to the kind of testing they do on athletes. I believe this would be completely unnecessary; it’s a mild drug and doesn’t replace intelligence. And I should know—I’m on it at the moment. It’s all very well having an opinion but I didn’t want to write about modafinil without trying it myself. Unfortunately I’m not providing a good case study because it’s incredibly difficult to distinguish between real effects and placebo. I have been quite productive, but then I have a dissertation due soon and my motivation is pretty high anyway. Thinking sharp is great but there are still things outside my control, like technology. My main thought over the past two days has been, if only you could feed modafinil to computers! Or maybe I just need to buy a better laptop.
Photograph: mattza via Flickr