Hey, everybody, I know it’s been a long while since I wrote for this column, but there’s been a lot of stuff on my plate. But now I’m back to talk about something that applies not only to college students like me, but to everybody out there.
So, I recently watched the movie Limitless for the first time. In an earlier column, I already ridiculed the movie’s usage of the “you only use 10% of your brain” myth. But there’s a larger scientific question implied by the movie: could there be a drug like the fictitious NZT that makes you smarter? Well, there’s a bunch of budding research into making people smarter- cognitive neuroenhancers. I’ll be tackling this from both the behavioral side and the psycho-pharmaceutical side.
There has been a recent surge of “brain training programs” such as Lumosity that claim to make you smarter, better, faster, etc. Essentially, you play games and those games are supposed to enhance your memory, attention, and cognitive processing speed. The problem is with something called “specificity of skill.” By and large, skills are specific, and don’t often transfer over to other domains- even related ones. Take Chess.
There are 318,979,564,000 possible ways to play the first four moves in any chess games and some chess-masters can play ten games of chess in their heads at once. If you show chess players hundreds of chess boards with pieces on them mid-game, their memory for the placement of pieces is extraordinary- but ONLY if the board placements are taken from actual games. If you show players (even grandmasters) chess boards with random placement of pieces, they are no better at remembering the placement than normal people are. You see, chess does not make you smarter or better at remembering things- playing a shitload of chess just makes you a better chess player. It turns out that the chess experts weren’t even remembering the placement of the pieces, they were deriving the placements from the moves or gambits it took to get there. So when you or I would try to memorize the rank and file position of the rooks and the knights, they would simply note that the position represented a Ware Opening followed by an Alekhine’s Defense. It does not extend outside their area of expertise.
What about professional memorizers? I know some of you may be startled to discover that there are competative memorizers. There actually is are World Memory Championships that are remarkably high-stakes. One such world champion is Andi Bell.
For those of you who don’t feel like watching the above video, Andi memorizes the exact order of cards for 10 standard playing card decks in only 20 minutes. The average span of short term memory is only 5-9 items, how can he do this? Is Andi a genius? I’m sure he’d argue so, but in reality he’s just gotten really freaking good at memorizing cards. The method he uses is a memory technique that spans back to ancient Greece called the Method of Loci, or memory pallace. It involves imagining yourself walking along an intimately familiar route and placing the items you wish to memorize in salient places along the journey. Then, when you are attempting to recall the items, simply re-walk the route and pick up the items you lost. It’s extraordinarily powerful as a memory aide, but it is also very limited in scope. It’s really only good for simple, individual items. You could use it to memorize a grocery list or playing cards, but they have to be very vivid, concrete images. And Andi is good at memorizing things he can use the method of loci for, you take him out of his area of expertise, and he’s just as good as any normal person. His skills are highly specialized and don’t cross over very much to other domains- even extraordinarily similar domains such as memorizing faces. All he can do is what he trains for and only on the stimuli he trains on.
This is the problem with programs like Lumosity and Cogmed, you play a whole bunch of games and it tracks your performance on the games- and you will get better at them. But those games don’t really generalize to improving memory, attention, executive control, or pretty much anything else. Now, I really don’t want to get sued by Lumosity or similar programs (because they have sued naysayers), but most of their claims are unsubstantiated. There isn’t much of a scientific consensus on the issue and most confirmatory studies have dubious methodology. Most of the data does indicate that the skills do not generalize and improvements do not last very long.
The programs aren’t really an absolute waste, however, as it’s been shown that cognitive activity reduces age-related cognitive decline and delays the onset of dementia and Alzheimers. So, while brain games may not make you smarter, they can help you keep your marbles in old age (though cardiovascular exercise is the #1 key to good mental health in old age).
But Limitless isn’t about brain training programs or hard work and expertise, I know what you guys are really reading this for- what about drugs? Well, put concisely…
The fictional NZT’s effects range from facilitated remote recall (remembering really distant forgotten things) to enhanced executive control to faster cognitive processing speeds. Now, I know to people who don’t study the mind/brain, this may not seem like much, but those three things aren’t even related. There has never been any sort of drug with that broad-reaching effects on the brain.
When we talk about psychopharmaceutical neurocognitive enhancers (36% of all science is big words), there are two big ones whose names I’m sure you’ll recognize: Adderall and Ritalin. Both of these drugs are stimulants commonly used to treat ADD and ADHD, its hyperactive cousin. Ritalin and Adderall are also commonly used by college kids to help them focus and study. Their use on campuses across the nation is steadily rising, with 6.9% of all American college students having used them and at some colleges 20%.
How well do Adderall and Ritalin actually work? Well, there’s not that much evidence on it, surprisingly enough. All psychology experiments (and indeed all experiments involving living things) have to go through rigorous examination by an ethics board in order to make sure that you’re not abusing your participants or putting them in unnecessary risk. Clinical drug trials are really hard to get past ethics boards. Especially drug trials for the sake of discovery. Oh, we have loads of studies showing the effects of Adderall and Ritalin on people who have ADD/ADHD, but very few on non-medical users. But, pretty much every study that’s been done on them says the same thing: eh. Volkow and his colleagues discovered that methylphenidate (Ritalin) reduced the use of attentional resources on a cognitive task- meaning it did make it easier to focus. BUT that was only if you were already scatterbrained to begin with. If you were already pretty focused, it did nothing for you. In subsequent studies, it turned out that most of the beneficial effects of methylphenidate was caused by a placebo effect– meaning that it only had effects when the participants thought they were taking Ritalin. And they saw the same effects if participants took a sugar pill that they thought was Ritalin.
Now, before you pill-poppers go out and pick up some of whatever the street name for Ritalin or Adderall is, I feel like I have to tell you that this practice is illegal. You’d be surprised how many people don’t know that. But even if it wasn’t, you might not want to take the risk. Look back up at that last paragraph, see that big fancy medical word “Methylphenidate”? That’s the technical term for Ritalin, the technical term for Adderall is Amphetamine Mixed Salts. Both are related to Methamphetamine, “Meth,” and can be just as addictive and life ruining.
So, what have we learned? That there really isn’t any sort of drug that makes you smarter, and brain training programs are really just games. You’re pretty much stuck with your brain the way it is- and that’s okay. Your brain can do stupendous, marvelous things that you couldn’t even possibly dream of. Things that you take for granted every day and don’t truly understand the wonder of. And Ritalin and Adderall actually ruin that. Most studies have shown that they reduce creative convergent and divergent thinking. Brains create symphonies, masterpieces; they split the atom, and travel to distant planets. And believe it or not, creativity is one of the most important faculties of the human mind- its ingenuity, its ability to solve problems; its brilliance is all in its ability to think of things that no one has thought of before.
Be sure to join me again next time as I discuss science tropes in the media. And be sure to check out my other column, where I review dumb-ass action films every Monday: Mindless Action Mondays
Have a science-related question? Ask it!
If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find someone who does.