Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The dope on brain doping take 2

The New Yorker has a long article on Brain Doping (or as others like to call it, cognitive enhancement) by Margaret Talbot. I was interviewed for it a while ago because of my mischevious April 1, 2008 blog/web joke I coordinated announcing that NIH was cracking down on brain doping.

And although they do not mention my April 1 joke in the New Yorker article, they do quote me

Still, even if you acknowledge that cosmetic neurology is here to stay, there is something dispiriting about the way the drugs are used—the kind of aspirations they open up, or don’t. Jonathan Eisen, an evolutionary biologist at U.C. Davis, is skeptical of what he mockingly calls “brain doping.” During a recent conversation, he spoke about colleagues who take neuroenhancers in order to grind out grant proposals. “It’s weird to me that people are taking these drugs to write grants,” he said. “I mean, if you came up with some really interesting paper that was spurred by taking some really interesting drug—magic mushrooms or something—that would make more sense to me. In the end, you’re only as good as the ideas you’ve come up with.”

I am sure the quote is reasonably accurate. However, it does not include the whole discussion behind the quote. What I said was that staying up all night while on ritalin to write a grant proposal seems silly (and after my Arpil 1 joke was outed, multiple people told me they actually do this). What you need to get a grant funded is good ideas and these do not seem to come from just popping some drug to keep you mind clear when you should be sleeping. So I said something like taking a drug to help give you new ideas - that could make sense (and thus my reference to shrooms which I have by the way never done). Because if that helped you devise some cool new things to do - that it what people look for in grant proposals. Elegant text about something boring - who cares. Not that the writing part of a grant is unimportant but I still do not see how most of these brain doping drugs would help with doing something interesting in science. Ideas without good text - unlikely to get a grant but possible. Good text without a good idea - I would hope no grant would be awarded.

But the quote does make me sound like I am encouraging hallucionagens, which was not the point ... oh well. In this case, no criticism of the New Yorker - just wish they had included a bit more about why I said what I apparently said ... I guess next time I should just say "Ideas are the key. Not churning out bad text at the last minute"


  1. Happy to find your blog...found it by googling after I'd read New Yorker article, which interested me on two counts:
    1) I've been working in the field of grantsmanship for decades, was curious to know whether or not use of neuroenhancers by proposal writers was widespread, and agreed with your point (I think) that if your ideas aren't original, sound, and useful, it really doesn't matter how much mental stamina you've got.
    2) I tried Provigil because I have major problems with fatigue (I have MS). Provigil did make it much easier to get out of bed in the morning, plus I wasn't yawning and thinking about a nap by 10:00 a.m, but I stopped taking it mostly because I felt like my eyes were drying out. Very annoying.
    3) Regarding mental agility, I didn't feel mine was enhanced by Provigil. My elevator still had to stop at every floor before it arrived at the top. However, I will share a secret with you and the scientific community:

    After I stopped drinking (about 2-3/4 years ago) and got with the program, my brain became a much more interesting place to hang out, I got better at my job, and (unrelated side effect) I even have more, better friends.

  2. Yes, re#1 - that was my point.

    And re your last point, I have had a similar experience with sleep. When I go out of my way to make sure I get a good nights sleep, my brain is a more interesting place to hang out. Reminds me of a story from years ago about President Clinton who said his brain became much clearer after he started getting more sleep ...

  3. As soon as I started reading the doping article I figured, you HAD to be in there somewhere. Finally near the end, there you were. I was a bit disappointed that the writer did not discuss your april fools joke. It would have made for an even more interesting article. Still, although it did not do justice to the issues you brought up in your joke (some funny, some real), I understood what you were saying (And did not think you were advocating hallucinogens). What is the point of simply more if it does not make you more creative?

    I am writing a grant this month. When I first started reading the article, it made me want to go out and get the drugs IMMEDIATELY. Then, when he started talking about bringing your grade of B- to a B, I had the same thought as you. What is the point?

    One thing not mentioned in the article is metabolism. I can see how a drug would make you stay awake longer and work harder, say on monday, but then what happens on wedenesday? Doesnt the body have to catch up? and if so, then the time one saves on monday is lost on wednesday.

    It is really too bad. I was hoping for a shortcut to getting this grant out but it seems that neuroenhancers wont get me there.

  4. Glad to know it was possible to not interpret what I said as endorsing hallucinogens.

  5. A colleague of mine has shown Adderal and Ritalin in the "outflow" of college dorms during exam periods. It's more sad than anything else.

  6. And in my age group (gulp!) hallucinogen and drug use was ubercommon. I never used any of it. Maybe that's not good. But I have a pretty odd brain to begin with. But how I wish I was smarter....


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