My Experiment with Smart Drugs
on Monday, May 05, 2008 at johannhari.com
It was in March, in the drizzle, that I realized my brain was burned out. Like a rusty engine, I
could hear it chug-chug and splutter – but it would never quite start running at top speed. I had
just come back from a rough month-long work-trip to Bangladesh, and I had an Everest of work
in front of me. It was all fascinating, and all urgent – but I was plodding though it at half my
normal speed. I needed to be performing at my best; instead I was at my worst. I stared at the
London rain from my window, and slogged on.
That’s when I stumbled across a small story in an American scientific magazine. It said there
was a spiky debate across America’s universities about the increasing use by students of a drug
called Provigil. It was, they said, Viagra for the brain. It was originally designed for narcoleptics
in the seventies, but clinical trials had stumbled across something odd: if you give it to non-
narcoleptics, they just become smarter. Their memory and concentration improves considerably,
and so does their IQ.
It’s not an amphetamine or stimulant, the article explained: it doesn’t make you high, or wired. It
seems to work by restricting the parts of your brain that make you sluggish or sleepy. No
significant negative effects have been discovered. Now students are using it in the run-up to
exams as a “smart drug” – a steroid for the mind.
It sounded perfect. A few clicks on-line and I found I could order it from a foreign pharmacy,
just £30 for a month’s supply. I called a friend who is a GP, and told her what I was thinking of.
She’d heard of people using the drug, and went away and looked up the details. “I think it’s a
stupid thing to do, because you shouldn’t ever take drugs you don’t need,” she said when she
called back. “Do I think it’ll seriously harm you? No, I don’t. But you’d be much better off
taking a long holiday than narcolepsy pills.” Then she warned me: “There is one known side-
effect.” Oh, damn I thought. A downside. “It often causes people to lose weight.” Are you mad?
You become cleverer and thinner? I whipped out my Visa card immediately.
A week later, the little white pills arrived in the post. I sat down and took one 200mg tablet with
a glass of water. It didn’t seem odd: for years, I took an anti-depressant. Then I pottered about
the flat for an hour, listening to music and tidying up, before sitting down on the settee. I picked
up a book about quantum physics and super-string theory I have been meaning to read for ages,