Why can’t an overworked, overstimulated, pharmaceutically-obsessed society just come up with the perfect chemical supplement to make us smarter, faster, and more engaged in today’s accelerated world? One without the self-destructive trade-offs like crashing hard, addiction, or eating your neighbor’s face?
Well, according to such cognitive boost energy junkies as stock marketeers, Silicon Valley wizards, and that CEO dude who advocates putting butter in your coffee to amplify caffeine’s effects, we have. Modafinil, a well-documented object of lust for the life hacking set, is a nootropic (smart drug) regularly prescribed for narcolepsy or “shift work disorder” that has been hailed as delivering intense focus, enhancing memory, and even seeming to actually increasing intelligence. Much like, say, Adderall, but without the drag of being pharmaceutical grade meth. Never mind that both have been shown to exacerbate sociopathic tendencies—a small price to pay for (temporarily) being your best self, right? Besides, it’s supposed to be lonely at the top.
A few years ago Modafinil became available in a generic form, meaning that suddenly Cephalon, the pharmaceutical juggernaut behind it, was about to lose their corner on the market. So what did they do? They introduced Armodafinil, aka the brand named Nuvigil. Newer, better, faster, stronger, and longer lasting, just like you will be when you take it.
But is it really better? Do any of these things really work? Would choking down an oblong white horse pill really thrust me across the DMZ of normal people and smack into genius territory? There’s only one way to find out—obviously I was gonna have to take some.
A little about me:
I just turned 41, and, honestly, it hurts a little. Turning 30 was fine, and 40 just slipped by, but 41… You’re forced to acknowledge you’ve somehow flipped over to the backside of life. Stereotypes about getting older—losing your keys, forgetting things, assorted aches and pains, a disconnect with what the kids are into these days—stop being stereotypes and start revealing themselves as small, bitter truths.
Working, as I do, in an industry dominated by hyper-intelligent workaholic twentysomethings makes these aging effects even more stark; there are times I’ll think the day’s winding down and be looking for a cozy place to nap while co-workers are just getting fired up. Luckily we live in an age when there are all manner of handy supplementals to jump-start the increasingly shrinking gelatinous bag of neurons sloshing around inside our skulls, and I’m not shy about doubling down on recommended dosages if that’s what I need to get ’er done.
But I also hate the inevitable spiral of despair and exhaustion that comes with mega-doses of external energy, and, as I get older, the consequences have become harder and harder to bear. Lately there are days when even the inside of my bones are tired, weighing me down as though filled with lead weights soaked in mononucleosis and apathy. Have you ever been so lethargic, texting is the physical equivalent of summiting Everest without oxygen? Welcome to my Wednesday.
Also, before we continue, it should be noted that neither The Daily Beast nor the author recommend dosing yourself with quasi-legal substances in the pursuit of performance or pleasure. I’m only doing so because A) journalism and B) how can these hipster smart drugs really be any worse than a few dozen Chicken McNuggets or gulping down enough THC to turn Maureen Dowd into the Mad Hatter? I’m a professional, after all.
Turns out that in today’s world it’s beyond easy to get your sweaty paws on a sample blister pack of Armodafinil pills. I didn’t even have to order them quasi-legally from a Canadian pill mill. Thus it was with a shrug, a smile, and a glass of cold-brew coffee to get it all going I tossed back 250 milligrams—the maximum recommended dosage—and set out to start a regular, but soon to be extraordinary, day.
I have to admit I was excited at the prospect of Nuvigil being the ultimate cure-all to arrest my slow devolution back to primordial ooze. Would it help me once again harness the full power of my once at least moderate mental acuity? Had some genius alchemists finally delivered on their promise of better living through chemistry, enough to bridge the gap between my sputtering middle-aged brain and the can’t-come-soon-enough onset of the Singularity?
Sadly, it appears not.
One hour after popping that first pill, and the cold brew coffee was beginning to wear off.
Which is normal. What’s immediately suspicious, however, is the total lack of energy coming up behind it. Had I taken Adderall, the creeping doldrums of caffeine depletion would have been chased away by a central nervous system kickstart so acute it’d immediately send you running to deposit any dead weight in the nearest toilet, a joyful evacuation heralding the forthcoming clean and clear mental state. Yet here I sat, waiting patiently, and… Nothing.
I gave it another fifteen minutes before tossing back the second 250 mg tablet dry, choking it down like a dope fiend discovering a forgotten Oxy in the desert. Stymied, I paced around my home office, tapping out a few short emails and growing more and more impatient. Where was my superhuman computing power? I checked the expiration date on the blister pack—there were years before they went bad. I was in the midst of Googling “too dumb for smart drugs” when things got weird.
First, my stomach flip-flopped. Almost like having gas, but without the bloating. Actually, it was more like I was suddenly aware of my stomach, like I could feel with it the same as I do my hands or feet. The feeling radiated outward, an intensity that made my whole body hold its breath in anticipation, every pore and follicle puckering inward. It was similar to eating super-strong MDMA, the big buildup before the epic meltdown.
“Here we go,” I thought, clenching and unclenching my fists and chewing on my top lip, fantasizing about all of the brilliance I was about to unleash upon the world.
Amphetamines, such as Adderall, work by increasing monoamine and other neurotransmitters in the brain, most notably dopamine and norepinephrine. This causes that laser-like focus, as well as the intense, euphoric highs. Conversely, the way that Armodafinil and Modafinil work on the human physiology is a mystery. Scientists literally have no idea why they do what they do. Yet it’s approved by the good ol’ FDA, and many of our nation’s best and brightest shovel these pills down their gullets like a technicolor sugary cereal on a Saturday morning—possibly even including President Obama himself.
My breaths are coming in short, deep gasps, and I’m suddenly aware of all the hair on my body growing, pushing inexorably outward from my dermis. Jaw clenched, I sit down on the couch and try to distract myself from the intense oversensitivity by flipping through social media, but it doesn’t help. I can’t seem to lock my attention on to anything—it’s like sudden onset ADHD mixed with binge eating a pound of Sour Patch Kids. Yet even through the discomfort, I’m excited. It’s happening! Soon, I’ll be amongst the Mensa crowd, if only for a little while. My body temperature increases, hot from the inside, my ears venting heat like twin chimneys.
And then, as quickly as it all came on, it’s gone.
My stomach growled, and I had the faint beginnings of a headache, as though I drank too many mimosas with brunch. I sat down to type out what I felt, and found myself unable to hit the proper keys, let alone form intelligent, cohesive sentences. That’s when it hit me: The smart drug had made me dumber.
What’s worse is that empty feeling of dopiness persisted throughout the rest of the day and night, and the following morning I was left lethargic and mentally limp, my brain a sodden, mildewed gym towel. Had the Armodafinil sucked out my energy and intelligence, wraith like, and sent it to someone else, some start-up code jockey or keyed-up intern on the floor of the stock exchange? I was pissed, chock full of self-righteous angst. Where the hell was my promised land of peak performance?
A quick web search revealed this wasn’t an uncommon problem. Sometimes, Nuvigil just doesn’t work for people. And since we haven’t the slightest idea how it works its magic in the first place, naturally we have no idea why some folks—like, apparently, myself —are immune to its allegedly considerable charms. I was shit out of luck, relegated back to prescription speed and caffeine chugging and delicately dancing with vitamin B toxicity. While the Bulletproof Executive and all his nootropic noshing cronies amass more and more millions with the hottest in mental hacks, I’m left with an increasingly age-addled brain. Thank heaven for coffee’s ready availability and the willingness of health care providers to help their patients buy into our pharmaceutical industry’s marketing campaigns and bottom lines. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get this filed before the bats get bad and I pass out on the floor.