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The drug does work

At Cambridge over the summer, many students were taking pills to help their concentration

Ed Cumming | November 3rd 2009

One evening this summer, in our final term at Cambridge, my roommate Katie threw a party. Our set was in a 17th-century attic, and its sloping ceilings framed a gorgeous view: a panorama taking in King’s College Chapel, the billiard-table lawns of the backs and the stately river. In that room you felt the mass of student life that had passed before you: even the doorframe had a musty glamour. Yet on this occasion I had no interest in joining the bright young things drinking vodka from coffee mugs. This wasn’t any virtue on my part. It was down to a drug: modafinil, an aid to concentration. I sat at my desk, head in an essay. I scarcely noticed the party until I looked up and saw it had finished. I had finished the essay too: 2,000 words in an hour and a half.

I was an ordinary student, but the drug let me feel intermittently extraordinary. Before, I would labour languidly over essays. Now, I would concentrate until they were done. I’m sure it improved my results. And I wasn’t alone: chemical cognitive enhancement is becom­ing part of student life.

Modafinil was never meant for people like me. It was invented to stop narcoleptics falling asleep, then adapted to let soldiers stay up all night. But gradually it was noticed that as well as increasing wakefulness, the drug imp­roved concentration. I first sought my own hit after realising that four or five of my friends were using it to help them revise. With finals looming, they wanted to boost their concentration and fight the urge to slack off. The modern student wages a constant battle against the forces of distraction, the flit from screen to screen. Though technologically literate, we find it hard to dwell on any idea for very long. My friends had found an antidote.

I jumped at the chance to join them. The drug wasn’t hard to get hold of. Though it is prescription-only in Britain and America, modafinil is readily available online under a range of pseudonyms: Modalert, Modapro, Provigil. One friend had set himself up as an unofficial dealer in concentration. He bought in bulk from India for $2-4 per 100mg pill, and sold them on at cost. With some  taking it daily, he found demand increasing all the time.

As one of his customers, having taken modafinil on and off for six weeks leading up to exams, I can say this much: it works. It makes you work better. When I took it, as long as  I was reasonably fresh, I felt my alertness gently elevated. There was no amphetamine euphoria or caffeine twitchiness, but a heightened wakefulness and an overwhelming desire to finish the task at hand. The effect usually lasted about six hours, from a dose of 100-200mg.

It was not all positive. Night brought a strange sensation. Although I felt wide awake, sleep came easily once I went to bed. This eerie process was a disconcerting reminder that despite a lot of research, nobody fully understands modafinil’s exact neurological mechanism, or its long-term side effects. But neither of these considerations ever cut much ice with students.

Although I did it more efficiently, my work didn’t get better. As a friend who was taking the drug every other day said: “It doesn’t make you a genius, just a bit more of a geek.” Aware that finals seek to reward the former, I chickened out of using it for the exams themselves. I didn’t want my decision-making compromised. My dealer agreed: “I don’t think many [took it for exams]. A lot of people thought they didn’t want to be that wired for exams, especially as it lasts so long.”

But some certainly did, just as others would have a cigarette or a coffee to kick-start the big day. This is the scariest aspect of the drug’s spread. Barbara Sahakian, a professor of clinical neuropsychology at Cambridge, has published extensively on modafinil. She said: “There’s an issue of coercion–students could feel pressured into taking it, even though some might think it was cheating. In competitive situations one wonders whether it should be banned, like in sports.”

Dr Tamara Follini, dean of students at Clare College, sees “a parallel with athletes” too. “It is a very dan­gerous trend. A student’s control over when concentration is being enhanced might be subject to error.”

Katie the roommate, a scientist, flatly refused to try it: “If everyone starts taking it, we’ll all go mad trying to maximise our brainpower. It’s dangerous. You should work with what you’ve got.” She got a first anyway. A Harvard student, quoted recently in the New Yorker, said it was the students with other pressures on their time who were the heaviest users, not those who were already top of the class. Maybe: with my limited chemical enhancement, I landed a 2.1.

Varsity estimates that 10% of Cambridge students have taken modafinil. My experience seconds that. It’s not about to go away, as it is available and effective. “I’m concerned people go for a quick fix rather than addressing their work-life balance,” Sahakian says. “We are accelerating into a 24/7 society where people work all the time because they can.”

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