Smart Drugs for cognitive enhancement: my experiences with Modafinil

If you’ve watched “limitless” you may have been inspired (as I was) to research into the “smart pill” debate that has been brewing for the past several years. Is there really a drug that can make you smarter? ADHD medication like Adderall and Ritalin are classified as nootropics and commonly referred to as “Mental Enhancers”. It should come as no surprise that such drugs, although regulated by prescription, will be taken off label. Gingko Biloba, which has never been proven to improve cognitive function, still sells several billion dollars worth of products claiming to do just that. We are a caffeine-fueled, ultra-competitive society of adventurers addicted to time management and productivity.

So as rumors grew that taking ADHD medication like Adderall and Ritalin can speed you up, make you think clearer, focus on manual tasks without distraction, be more efficient, and more focused, naturally “smart drugs” became a whole new kind of drug use. (I was tempted to use the term ‘recreational drug’ or ‘drug abuse’, but neither seemed fitting.

These are not drugs people take to get high or party – they are used by college and grad students, financial investors, professors and other people who need to be able to think quickly and deeply, all the time. They are a coffee substitute.

My experience with Modafinil

After researching them quite a bit, I came to the conclusion that Modafinil was the one for me. Modafinil is said to be less shaky and crazy, more stable and focused. I’ve found this to be true. A standard dose is 200MG, which for me is way too much. 100MG is a powerful dose, and I find taking 50~80 is about enough. Taking it in the morning on an empty stomach works better; adding a cup of coffee boosts effects.

Positive effects

1. Responsibility: Modafinil makes me feel like doing the things I don’t want to do. It makes me want to clean my house, do the dishes, and have the energy to scrub the corners. If I have a paper or work to do, I can sit down and focus for hours and hours doing the work, without getting distracted as much.

2: Smartness/Cognitive Function: I really do “feel smarter” on Modafinil. I can organize my thoughts better. Some people report decreased creativity on this… possibly true for brainstorming new ideas or painting abstract art or something. But for organizing a draft of a paper, novel or book (juggling huge amounts of text and plot events) I’ve found it helpful.

For studying languages: I found this interesting comment on Psychology Today

Finally, it is not clear that the benefits of ADHD medications truly are benefits.  The strongest effect of ADHD medications is that they seem to enhance learning of items from a list.  There are times, of course, where it is important to learn arbitrary kinds of information.  I remember taking a neuroscience exam in college for which I had to know the names and locations of many brain regions.  But, there are also lots of times where it is more important to know why something occurs rather than what happened.  It simply is not clear from the studies that have been done so far whether ADHD stimulants help with that kind of learning.  In some learning situations, it might be better to forget some of the specific details in order to remember the gist of what you have encountered.

The argument is that “real study/intelligence” is being able to remember, understand and use information – but ignores the implications of language learning, a great deal of which focuses on rapid memorization of vocabulary. I’ve used Modafinil to cram-study Chinese Characters to good effect.

3: Eloquence: Modafinil is a tongue-loosener for me. I feel bold, confident and smart – I can stream-talk information, quite eloquently, without stopping to organize my thoughts. I have had some interesting class sessions where I spew out advanced philosophical arguments and metaphors. In my own head I felt like a genius, however I suspect my classmates were entertained/amused by my hyped-up appearance or vocality in discussion.

4. Happiness. Modafinil makes me feel cool, smart, confident and optimistic. I feel nicer, kinder, more ‘on top of things’, excited about the future. These are excellent benefits.

Negative Effects

Modafinil makes me smarter, but also really stupid. The boldness/confidence also makes you less cautious. It leaves you open for disastrous screw-ups.

1. Motor function. You will feel basically invincible, which means your driving/riding a bicycle will tend to be faster and careless. This ‘carelessness’ extends even to walking, stepping over something, picking something up even – just a little less precise in movement. You need to be very careful moving around.

2. No filter. Modafinil lets you speak your mind with no filter – so you are very likely to say things you regret. Things that ‘come out wrong’ could be your cutting criticism or perception of a situation or person. Basically it can turn you into an asshole.

3. Selective Memory. A few times I’ve had an important date or made plans with someone, and I just forget and do something else. I feel like there’s something I should be doing, but can’t place it. You’re more focused on the immediate surroundings, what’s in front of you, which is excellent for task-based work, but you may lose some general ability to keep track of your life (so make notes for yourself/calendar).

4. Decreased effect. I find Modafinil works for me if I take it about once a week. If I take it a few days in a row, after the first day it either doesn’t work or can make me feel even slower than usual. Also the day after may feel slow… so ideally I’d take it on a Friday/Saturday to catch up on stuff, then relax Sunday.



Although these effects seem fairly common and universal for Modafinil, it will effect everyone differently. If you live in the USA, it’s a controlled substance – which means you’re breaking the law if you order it online from internet pharmacies in India, etc. However this process is fairly easy and safe, so the decision is yours.