Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Enter Provigil — Exit Adderall


Even This Story Was Written #OnProvigil: Why I’m on the Latest Brain Drug

A startup is considering hiring a teen hacker for a critical project that must be completed in one week. The teen hacker confidently assures the company’s founder that he can complete the entire assignment in just two days. “You think you can do our whole job in two days?” the founder exclaims in disbelief. “I know I can do it in two days,” says the teen. “I pound Mello Yello, Oreos, and Adderall, and I don’t sleep ‘till I’m done.”

That’s a scene from HBO’s hit show Silicon Valley, and you can tell that it’s fiction because, in the real startup world, that budding hacker would be taking Provigil. Step into any of the coworking spaces, incubators, or shared offices that house young tech companies of the new new new economy, and you’ll be shocked to see how many Provigil pills the startup kids are popping. Trust me, I’m one of them.

Provigil is one brand name for modafinil, a drug that was developed in France in the eighties and helped treat sleep disorders like narcolepsy. It was approved by the FDA in 1998, but it wasn’t until 2008 that TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington published a post, saying that Provigil had become the “‘entrepreneur’s drug of choice’ around Silicon Valley.” Since then, I’ve seen it spread all across the startup universe, and it’s even become a bit of a hit on Wall Street.

The most pro-Provigil people, like entrepreneur and biohacking expert Dave Asprey, are quick to distinguish Provigil from all things bad. Asprey told CNN that “it is not even a stimulant officially,” claiming, “the stuff is magic.” He practically proclaims it the panacea for distraction: “Provigil’s in a class by itself in terms of what it does for your ability to just focus.”

Others question those claims and cite the lack of studies on Provigil’s long-term health effects. The drug’s FDA-approved medication guide warns that Provigil “may cause serious side effects including a serious rash or a serious allergic reaction that may affect parts of your body such as your liver or blood cells” and lists common side effects, including back pain, nausea, and diarrhea. (I think the FDA should create custom emoji for every conceivable side effect.)

But I don’t want to painstakingly weigh the costs and benefits of the focus-enhancing drug of the moment. I’ll leave that for others to do. Instead, I’d like to point out the paradoxically self-perpetuating role that focus-enhancing drugs are beginning to play in our so-called attention economy.

Provigil 200mg
While I’m #OnProvigil.

Provigil isn’t something I do all the time. I got a prescription a while back when, like many #startuppers, I was working on multiple projects, one of which required me to be online from 1 a.m.to 5 a.m., and a friend told me about something that would help me “focus beyond my wildest dreams.” (It was sort of like that scene in L.A. Confidential in which Kevin Spacey gets the Fleur-de-Lis card, but this was for “whatever your brain desires.”) Since then, I use it only occasionally—probably because I’m too distracted to focus on actually taking them all. (Just kidding, or maybe not.)

Of course, there’s nothing new about nootropics. The newest thing about them may be their name. “Nootropic” was coined in 1972 by Corneliu E. Giurgea (try pronouncing that name out loud). He was said to have combined the Greek words for mind, “noos,” and turning, “trope.” Webster’s currently defines it as “a substance that enhances cognition and memory and facilitates learning.”

Long before Giurgea cooked up “nootropics,” everyone’s favorite Austrian psychoanalyst was getting so schneefed up on the smart drug of his day that he sang its praises in a prestigious medical journal. The article, titled “Über Coca,” proclaimed that cocaine “wards off hunger, sleep, fatigue and steels one to intellectual effort;” seemed unlikely to be “detrimental to the body” in moderation; and, oh, yeah, wasn’t addictive. Yup, Sigmund Freud was a coke addict. And Freud was by no means the only deep-thinker to put the “high” in highbrow. Jean-Paul Sartre adored a vintage drug called corydrane, a mix of aspirin and amphetamines that was all the rage in the Parisian intellectual circles of the mid-twentieth century—a drug so trendy that its only Wikipedia entry is in French.

Real time update: I’m now feeling a distinctly Provigil-y need to point out that #JPS (Jean-Paul Sartre) is an anagram of #SJP (Sarah Jessica Parker), and I can’t help but wonder how #SDB (Simone de Beauvoir) would feel about the “initial connection” I just made between #JPS and #SJP. And now I just had an idea for a new feminist movie called The Second Sex In the City.


Or at least my brain. Unlike my response to Adderall, Provigil doesn’t give me tunnel vision. Rather, it lets in all of the millions of data points of my distracted existence, yet allows me to choose which pieces of the puzzle to manage and synthesize in real time. Basically, Provigil makes me feel like I’m Neo, and I’ve just decoded The Matrix.

Provigil can also create this immense compulsion to get back on track and finish what you are doing. Like right now, it’s making me feel like that last digression may have been a little #TMI, and that it’s time to return to smart-drug memory lane.

Writers, artists, and even scientists have long turned to nootropics. W. H. Auden was said to have popped Benzedrine every morning for twenty years. Andy Warhol used Obetrol, the predecessor to Adderall, to stay awake all night long at his studio. Mathematician Paul Erdos, who put in nineteen-hour days—doing math!—credited amphetamines with helping him publish more math papers than anyone in history, by some counts (more than 1,500). Philip K. Dick, Graham Greene, Hunter S. Thompson . . .

The point that I’m trying to get to is that I believe there is a difference between the goal of taking smart drugs back in the day and the goal of taking them now. Nootropics are not new, but they now serve a new end. These people used to take nootropics to help them stay focused on making expressive works—books of philosophy, novels, paintings, poems, and, yes, mathematical proofs. Why are today’s startup entrepreneurs using nootropics? Overwhelmingly, we take them to help us focus on creating “the next big app.” But one can’t help but notice that we’re having so much trouble focusing enough to create our apps partly because of all the other distracting apps in our lives—Gmail, WhatsApp, iMessage, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Phhhoto (my latest #appsession), and all of their associated custom alerts, badges, and push notifications.

Successful apps either eliminate the need to think about something we used to think about (like Google Maps did with getting from point A to point B), or they require us to learn and adopt an entirely new communicative culture (like Twitter and Snapchat). We greet the Mona Lisa or a self-portrait by Van Gogh roughly the same way: slowly, deliberately, and with full attention. It’s our thoughts and reactions that differ: Why’s she staring at me? Where’s his ear? Logging on to Snapchat or Twitter is like stepping into another land that’s right inside the palm of your hand. Why are people are so terse around here? Why are things disappearing before my eyes? Why is everything moving at such a frenzied pace? Why is all this stuff so phantasmagorically distracting? Wait, if I like something, I should favorite it, but if I really like something or, in some cases, really hate something, I should retweet it?

There are so many rules and conventions and supposed rules and supposed conventions, and articles and insights about all those supposed rules and supposed conventions. Now, multiply all that by every social app we use (I’m down to eleven), add the toll of context-switching back and forth and back and forth between all of those apps, and you will no longer wonder why we constantly feel so distracted.

But what about all the apps that make our lives more convenient? The apps that simplify the mundane and make things easy? Don’t they free up some spare mental processing capacity?

Apps (Everybody) Want To Rule The World

According to technology writer Nicholas Carr, the answer is no. As Carr brilliantly argues in The Shallows, it appears that the very apps that make the world more conveniently navigable actually flatten our malleable minds, making us more susceptible to distraction. “We want friendly, helpful software. Why wouldn’t we? Yet as we cede to software more of the toil of thinking, we are likely diminishing our brain power in subtle but meaningful ways.”

What? All that annoying stuff of the pre-digital age—maps, the library, the post office, actual money, calculating tips, and hailing cabs—all that stuff was like a gym for our brains? Carr says yes: All those tedious things added depth, detail, and deliberation to our days. Our brain is like a neuroplastic muscle; we use it or we lose it. Basically, the apps that power our newfound convenience are turning our minds into great big thumb potatoes.

So here’s where I think we are. In part because of the distracting effects of the last generation of apps, those of us who are building the next generation of apps feel the need to take focus-enhancing drugs. Are we in a spin cycle of distraction, drugs, and apps? Will the best minds of my generation be destroyed, not by madness, but by an addiction to making and using distraction apps?

And now, like David Bowie in “Five Years,” my brain hurts a lot.

Maybe it’s time to flush the pills . . .     — Felicity Sargent | Vogue
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