In our highly competitive job market, pressures to excel in school are higher than ever. And while some students deal with their rigorous workload by managing their time efficiently, others resort to different means. Specifically, drugs with dangerous side effects.
Over the past few years, the nonmedical use of psychostimulants like Adderall has grown increasingly popular with young adults. Drugs like Adderall owe their nonmedical popularity for their ability to help students cram last-minute for tests.
According to Harvard graduate and associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), Sara Mednick, Ph.D., 10% of young adults misuse psychostimulants—drugs more popularly known as “smart drugs,” “study drugs” and “cognitive enhancers.”
Traditionally, doctors prescribe psychostimulants to adults and children to help them combat Attention-Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
The short-term benefit of study drugs is obvious. To students, smart drugs are a quick, convenient solution to passing a test they haven’t studied for all semester. Even Mednick isn’t afraid to recognize popping an Adderall to cram a semester’s worth of knowledge into one night is often “the easiest thing to [do]” for students.
But as tempting as it may be, it’s definitely not the healthiest action, the Harvard alum professor says. The findings of her recent study show smart drugs boost attention-related performance but at the expense of the user’s sleep and working memory.
Why is this important?
We all know the importance of getting enough sleep, but what about working memory? Unlike long-term memory, working memory is fleeting. It’s an active, essential mental process that fuels our daily ability to function. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to read, write, reason, recall directions and perform a number of other necessary day-to-day duties.
In the study, participants either received a placebo pill or a dose of a smart drug. Participants who took the smart drug ingested dextroamphetamine, which has very similar properties to those of Adderall and Ritalin, says Mednick.
The smart drug users did 4% better than the placebo group in an attention assessment conducted 75 minutes after dosage. However, the smart drug group did significantly worse at working memory tasks than the placebo group the next day.
Poor sleep quality is to blame for the decline in the smart drug group performance. The dextroamphetamine they took decreased their amount of slow-wave sleep, a crucial sleep stage in which the body heals itself. Not having enough slow-wave sleep will impact an individual’s daily ability to function optimally.
Other Smart Drug Side Effects
Not all smart drug side effects induce impaired cognitive function. Aside from temporarily increasing one’s ability to pay attention, smart drugs are also known to effectively boost confidence among their users.
While on a psychostimulant, it isn’t unusual to feel more “pumped up” than usual, tells Mednick. “[Taking a psychostimulant] really builds your confidence,” she says, “in the same way that cocaine does.”
But Mednick warns that the mere perception of competence isn’t going to help test performance. Just because taking a smart drug may make you feel smart, “it doesn’t mean that you’re as smart… as you think you are,” she says.
The Simple Solution: Just Don’t Cram
Mednick says taking smart drugs to cram and reap 4% of performance improvement isn’t worth it. “Natural sleep is what’s going to improve your performance, not taking a stimulant,” she says.
Actually learning the material at the paced rate it’s taught will also ensure high-quality knowledge retention.
“If you space out your learning over a long period of time, with sleep episodes in between, you actually have a lot deeper knowledge on the topic,” Mednick points out. Rather, if a student learns the same breadth of material overnight with the assistance of a smart drug, “none of [the] information will be retained,” she says.
For students who often find themselves stuck between choosing a good night’s sleep or an all-nighter of studying wired on Adderall, Mednick advises they reassess their priorities. “It’s not just about the grade at the end of the semester, right? It’s about how much you walk away from college understanding,” she says.