Just How Cognitive Is “Cognitive Enhancement”? On the Significance of Emotions in University Students’ Experience with Study Drugs - Vrecko - 2013 - Article


This article deals with the effects of study drugs on cognitive enhancement which is claimed to be the main reason why students use stimulant drugs as Ritalin and Adderall. Usually these are stimulant medications used in the treatment of mental illnesses, disturbances and disabilities but the number of individuals using these drugs without having any of these problems steadily increases.

This fact raises a lot of social, ethical and policymaking questions. Examples of these would be whether it should be seen as a form of cheating or if these drugs should be legalized for nontherapeutic purposes. It might even be that the increasing prevalence of using study drugs might lead to peer pressure resulting in more and more students taking these drugs. Even though there has been a lot of research in this area none of it has examined the everyday uses and users of these medications so far. In-depth research and the collection of qualitative rather than quantitative data is lacking.

Furthermore research that has been conducted by now is portraying the effects of stimulant medication as merely affecting intellectual capacities like executive function, working memory and information processes, claiming ADHD pills as “smart pills”. The study reported here rather looked at the associated changes in emotional states and how these might impact the improved academic performance.

What are the methods/procedure used?

The researchers collected their data via 24 semi-structured interviews. Their participants gave verbal informed consent to avoid the record of any personal information. The participants were all students from an elite university on the East Coast of the United States and had to have experience with taking prescription drugs to improve their academic performance without having any psychiatric condition associated with impaired academic performance. Gender was roughly balanced. The interviews that were held with the participants were recorded as well as transcribed into textual data. These transcripts were analyzed by software and coded for general themes the participants had mentioned. For analyzing the data the researchers used a grounded theory approach, thus they identified categories or themes merely on its emergence from the data. By using this method the researcher were able to identify four broad terms which describe the affectionate components participants reported to have had experienced while using study drugs. The identified categories were mentioned in the majority of the conducted interviews in connection with enhanced academic performance after the use of study drugs. These categories are “Feeling Up”, “Driveness”, “Interestedness” and “Enjoyment”. Further we will elaborate more on each of them.

What feelings did the participants experience?

Many respondents reported that taking the stimulant medication enhanced their general levels of well-being and their perception of energy. This phenomenon was recorded to be experienced mentally as well as physically and might be a driving force in the increased productivity study drug users report. Many respondents reported tiredness to be a major obstacle for them to get study work done without taking any drugs. This tiredness was not reported to be caused by lack of sleep but rather by the draining thought of studying, thus the stimulants might help to overcome the negative feelings many students associate with academic work. Next to the energization participants reported improved moods following drug use which were perceived to enhance their abilities to study.

The feeling of driveness was described as an internal push or even pressure to do something. Respondents told that this urge to get started in some way generalizes to other domains like cleaning or doing sports. To prevent themselves of getting distracted by these urges many students try to focus their attention and thus their overwhelming energy on studying in particular. To do so they might repeat specific internal dialogues (e.g. “Ok, it's work time. Ok, it's work time…”) or practices like opening and staring at their textbooks until the effects of the medication they took started to occur. This usually takes 20-30 minutes. Once the effects of the drug have kicked in participants reported an inner urge to work until their work is completed. This might lead them to study for seven hours without having a single break, sometimes they even forget to eat. Some of the participants describe the experience of driveness to be associated with feelings of tension or stress that even might continue after all the work has been done. Still the functional improvements it provokes seem to be valued highly enough by the participants to continue the use of study drugs.

Many of the participants reported that taking stimulant drugs to engage in academic work actually made them to become more interested in the topic they had to study or they had to write about. Thus their emotional state concerning their specific work has been altered due to the stimulant drug leading to significant study benefits. Their enhanced interest made them to not only become more engaged in their work but also to stay engaged without interrupting themselves by for instance checking e-mails or webpages. Furthermore participants reported that they are also less interested in social interactions while they are on study drugs since they do not seem to be important to them anymore. Many of the participants reported that they have in general very little interest in academic work as a whole and often times do not see why they should complete a certain assignment. Taking Adderall or Ritalin helps them to overcome these kinds of obstacles.

The feeling of enjoying their academic work is another emotional phenomenon reported by participants. They feel to get really connected to their work, get into it and experience fun while completing it. Many of them reported to forget the time over their work and that they are often surprised for how long they have been working without really noticing it. This correlation between enjoyment and productivity might be driven from both directions, thus the enjoyment might enhance the productivity as well as the productivity might enhance the enjoyment of the work.

What can we conclude based on the study?

Based on these findings it can be stated that emotional dynamics seem to play an important role in improved academic performance after the use of stimulant-based medication. These changes in emotional states might not only be due to the stimulants effects on the central nervous system of the user, but might also be caused by the users’ experiences and expectations of the effects of the drugs. Furthermore it is interesting that most participants do not believe that the drug enhances their intelligence or cognitive abilities which is often said to be the case (e.g. “smart pills”). Most of the interviewed study drug users have strong or even exceptional records in their studies and on standardized tests. They also report to be able to maintain focus and attention in activities they enjoy to do. Rather than improving their cognitive capacities study drugs simply may help to focus the attention on academic work many students struggle to focus on.

In line with the current research findings are:

Research findings that indicate only little improvement of performance in cognitive tests after stimulant use.

Research findings that bring verifying evidence by the fact that the brains dopamine system is largely affected by stimulant drugs which is associated to attention as well as to pleasure and emotions.

The well-established prescription of stimulants in order to produce euphoric effects provides further confirming evidence.

    Future research should try to investigate the link between the changes in cognitive functioning and affective states in more detail in order understand them. A more representative sample size that varies in ethnicity and socioeconomic status would enhance the generalizability of the study findings.

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