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Hypermotivational Syndrome

Many young people are using drugs not to drop out but to get ahead.
August 1, 2005

Recently, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America recently gave its imprimatur to a new buzzword: Generation Rx. Its annual report on what Americans think of controlled substances showed that for the first time, more teenagers are abusing prescription painkillers than are using a variety of common illicit drugs.

What are these prescription drugs being used for? Some of them mimic the effects of street drugs. For instance, the pain reliever Oxycontin, when stripped of its coating, can produce a heroinlike high. The consequences of this kind of abuse are familiar. Antidrug advocates have warned for decades that drugs impair not only users’ health but also their work. Drug-induced torpor even earned its own name: amotivational syndrome. Timothy Leary’s flameout on the Harvard fast track probably frightened more middle-class parents than the warnings of J. Edgar Hoover.

But there is an aspect of prescription drug abuse mentioned only briefly in the report: ingesting to excel, not rebel. There’s now a hypermotivational syndrome, use of prescription drugs not to escape the commanding heights of education and the economy but to attain them.

The powers that be have long blessed chemical performance enhancement. Employers once encouraged stimulants: a hundred years ago, African-American dock workers in the South were given cocaine to fuel their back-breaking labors. In the Southern textile industry, traveling “dope wagons” brought milder stimulants like caffeinated, sugary soft drinks and snuff to mill hands. The U.S. armed forces distributed cigarettes to help servicemen cope with the combat stress of World War II. Amphetamine use by military flyers began at the same time and persisted even during later antidrug campaigns, though at lower dosages, with stricter controls.

Returning veterans stayed with tobacco; their grandchildren are looking elsewhere for a mental boost. For students with full-blown attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Ritalin can be a miracle. In 2000, People magazine profiled a Rhodes scholar who had overcome ADHD as well as dysgraphia – the inability to organize, spell, or write legibly – partly by taking Ritalin.

It is thus not surprising that non-ADHD students often try to persuade family doctors to prescribe off label. Failing that, some students buy pills on a growing black market. A junior at Yale University claimed that, fortified with Adderall, he read Crime and Punishment and completed a 15-page paper on it in about 30 hours. The drug is “more efficient” than caffeine, he told an ABC News correspondent. And Modafinil, also sold as Provigil, lets military pilots remain alert during prolonged missions without the perilous feelings of omnipotence or the addiction risk sometimes linked to the older amphetamines.

Why is there so much passion for enhancing memory and decision-making and so little for firing the imagination? Until the American Medical Association declared its opposition to LSD research in 1963, leading to U.S. Senate hearings in 1966 that resulted in a virtual ban, prominent medical researchers and artists embraced it as a possible means of therapeutic insight and expanded creativity.

LSD was marketed to psychiatrists by the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Sandoz. At first the drug was widely acclaimed as a promising therapeutic tool. In Saskatchewan, a psychiatrist, Humphry Osmond, and an architect, Kyio Izumi, ingested LSD in an attempt to empathize with schizophrenia patients while co-designing a new mental hospital. Aldous Huxley and Allen Ginsberg praised LSD as a source of knowledge. John Markoff’s What the Dormouse Said… reports that, in the early 1960s, Myron Stolaroff, a former Ampex employee, founded an institute that recruited volunteers, including some of the electronics industry’s brightest researchers, to explore LSD’s potential to stimulate creativity. Many became believers. (Bill Joy reviews Dormouse in another article.) A founding programmer of Microsoft told the Washington Post in 1996, “I consider the insights from LSD to be very useful, both professionally and personally.” The circle of distinguished people taking LSD constituted a veritable hallucinogentry.

The moment didn’t last. The dangers of LSD-induced psychosis and even death were real. Imagination-enhancing substances were outlawed by the late 1960s. And proscribed they have remained. Yet the newer drugs also have their risks, especially psychological dependency. They compete with proven nonpharmaceutical techniques like meditation. Taken indiscriminately, they may not provoke users to leap out of windows, but they could lead them to shut some doors.

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