By their stimulants, we shall know them

Margaret Talbot has a wonderful essay on a new trend on college compuses: the use of neuroenhancers like Adderall and Ritalin. 

She says: “College campuses have become laboratories for experimentation with neuroenhancement.”

Talbot says that University of Michigan’s Substance Abuse Research Center, says that in the previous year 4.1 per cent of American undergraduates had taken prescription stimulants for off-label use.  At some schools the rate is 25%.  A 2002 study at one small college discoverd that 35% of students had used prescription stimulants nonmedically.

Talbot is not happy with what she sees here.  She concludes her essay by saying, “Neuroenhancers don’t offer freedom. Rather, they facilitate a pinched, unromantic, grindingly efficient form of productivity.”

Still, it looks as if some kids on campuses, to judge from Talbot’s story, are using Adderall in order to fund several lives: one as an accomplished student, another as a ‘party-hearty-Marty’ party animal, yet another of someone with a hedgehog’s passion for one thing, or a fox’s passion for everything.  And this is huge news. 

Gen Y have been defined as a generation of “rules and regs,” devoted to doing the right thing.  This is another way of saying that THIS youth culture choose not to engage in the protest, rebellion, rites of May liminality that we have come to expect from youth.  But here in Talbot’s article we see evidence that Gen Y may have found a way out of it’s orthodoxy.  With the pharmacological intervention made possible by Adderall, it is now possible to have one’s cake and eat it too, to be a “good kid” and a “wild child” at the same time.  And if this is true, it would tell us that we are on the verge of seeing youth culture as alternative culture flourish once more. 

But there are other illuminations to be had in Talbot’s article, things stirring that will catch the eye of the anthropologically minded.  This drug revolution actually has some supporters in high or at least morally elevated places.  Talbot tells us that “some bioethicists are leaning toward endorsing neuroenhancement.”  Wow.

Talbot does a nice job showing neurohancers in their larger, cultural context, as something that promises to enable and augment the human hardware in a way that appeals to transhumanists like Nick Bostrom and the futurist writer and inventor Ray Kurzweil.

As Talbot puts it,

Transhumanists are interested in robots, cryogenics, and living a really, really long time; they consider biological limitations that the rest of us might accept, or even appreciate, as creaky obstacles to be aggressively surmounted.

And this gives us two very different impulses in our culture…as usual.  This transhumanists approach that treats the body as just so much beta hardware that badly needs a refit and a relaunch.  And then there is the kinder and gentler approach that we carry with us still from the 1960s, the one that says the body is a temple to be treated with love and respect.  How lovely. 

I’m not interested in either option.  But I love living in a culture that cultivates the opposite of every idea it cares about. 


Talbot, Margaret.  2009.  Brain Gain: The underground world of “neuroenhancing” drugs.  The New Yorker.  April 27, 2009. here.


Thanks to Chrissy Kiernan for the image.  See Chrissy’s thoughts on Adderall here.


8 thoughts on “By their stimulants, we shall know them

  1. AJ Kandy

    It’s worth mentioning that Generation Y have been the most medicated generation in history, and plenty of them have been on Ritalin (to curb anything like, say, creativity or out-of-turn speaking) since childhood. This isn’t really anything new, except maybe now they’re taking control of what they use the drugs for.

  2. srp

    If somebody ever comes up with a decent memory-enhancing drug, I can guarantee you it will be snapped up by Boomers, Xers, Yers and every other buzzword cohort you can think of. Ditto alertness and focus. Heck, isn’t that pretty much what caffeine and nicotine have done in the past?

  3. tom brakke

    For those interested in the investment world (where “alpha” is performance that is better than normal), here’s a piece on using substances to help make decisions: pharmaceutical alpha.

  4. Virginia

    This has nothing to do with your post, but Joan Kron is trying to get in touch with you about a dinner she’s having while I’m in NYC. Please reply to one of us.

  5. Nate

    “It is now possible to have one’s cake and eat it too, to be a “good kid” and a “wild child” at the same time. And if this is true, it would tell us that we are on the verge of seeing youth culture as alternative culture flourish once more.”

    I think the first part is dead on. At least among the people I know, there is very little pressure to believe that the “good kid” and “wild child” roles are incongruous. But unfortunately I don’t think this means the second part will be coming true anytime soon. ‘Youth culture as alternative culture’ could have only ever existed when it did. The sixties were perfect.
    1. People generally expected culture to be similar for all age levels. Now our advertisers and our culture in general expects different generations to have different thoughts, styles of dress, entertainment preferences etc. It’s built into the way we think now.
    2. Marketers and parents were too uncomfortable with the idea that it could be otherwise. I wasn’t there, but there definitely seemed to be more of a 0 and 1 sense about morals. In times/places that have less wealth and rule of law you need to eliminate the acceptability of any rule breaking. Post-war America has the means to break rules of sex, mass demonstration, drugs etc. without actually risking the integrity of the system as a whole. Both generations at the time didn’t totally get that idea so quickly. Older people thought that such rule breaking had to be a threat and younger people thought they had to be a threat.
    3. Young people found that they had ways to communicate with each other as a mass group through musical and cultural channels that their parents weren’t necessarily attuned to. This actually still stands in our favor. Youth media is for the first time back our hands since Rolling Stone was actually run by kids. But I don’t think we will make anything of it.

    Anyway, keep up the good blogging.

    I saw this yesterday and thought of you:

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