A recent article in the New York Times describes the “Risky Rise of the Good-Grade Pill.” Teenagers are taking (and in some cases snorting) Adderall, an amphetamine prescribed for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), to increase their focus and attention in an attempt to do better on exams. Healthy non-ADHD students are taking prescription medications to get good grades.
Attention is the cognitive process of concentrating on one factor at the expense of others. This increase in attention or focus can come in handy when taking an exam, but with high doses amphetamines are addictive and may have long-term consequences on your health. Addiction, rapid heartbeat and insomnia are some of the more well known side-effects.
Stimulants like Ritalin or Adderall, used to treat ADHD, improve focus by increasing the levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain. Specifically, stimulants increase levels of norepinephrine and dopamine in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates attention and behavior. Increasing activation in this part of the brain improves the ability of these neurons to respond to relevant signals, which translates into better cognition, attention and working memory
Previously it was assumed that stimulants had the paradoxical effect of calming kids with ADHD, allowing them to focus and attend to the task at hand, as opposed to having the stimulating effect seen in adults. But further research on this effect has concluded that a low dose of stimulant has the same effect on ADHD and non-ADHD subjects, focusing attention and improving executive function.
The theory of an attention economy implies that attention is the limiting factor or commodity in how we process and consume information. We have a limited amount of attention to devote to the things happening around us. This suggests that in our now information-filled environment, we have to allocate our limited amount of attention efficiently in order to succeed.
Then we must ask the question: are cognitive enhancing drugs a good thing or a bad thing? If a “brain drug” can help you focus your attention and do well on an exam, it seems like a no-brainer (forgive the pun) to use it to make the right decisions and therefore succeed. But at what cost? How much is too much?
Besides the fact that at high doses cognitive enhancing drugs are addictive and can cause health problems, do we spend too much time consuming information and not enough time digesting? Should we be limiting our information consumption like we limit our food consumption? Author Clay Johnson, in his book The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption, suggests that it’s not just about increasing your ability to focus so you can pay attention to more, or for a longer time, but about choosing to focus on those things that matter.
How does your brain filter this flow of information? It’s like trying to drink through a fire hose, too much all at once. We are in information overload and need to think critically about the type of information we are consuming.
Scientific discovery, for example, is made through the selective observation of relevant features, while attempting to ignore other less important information. The trick is to know what is important and what can be disregarded. You have to be able to interpret what you discover and make sense out of what -at times- can be chaos.
The good news is that you can increase your focus and attention without drugs. All it takes is a little practice. No prescription required! See what a little brain training can do for you.