Raise your hand if you remember the last time you got more than eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. Or the last time you felt bored. Chances are, it’s been a while. I would also be willing to bet that you by the time you finish this article, either a text, Facebook notification, Snapchat, Instagram, CNN breaking news pop-up, or all of the above will have tried to steal your attention.
In this 21st century, we’ve become a society accustomed to perpetual distractions and stimuli. Add to that the pressure of feeling like we need to do more, work faster, jump higher, and be better than the next. There’s a constant sense that we’re all just trying to keep our head above water. Blood pressures are up, serotonin levels are down, tempers are short, to-do lists are long, and nerves are shot. Almost everyone is suffering from some sort of culturally induced attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), pushing the boundaries of how little sleep we can get away with and how much more work we can take on. And because we have so little time in our schedules, we’re a society that that values a quick fix and instant gratification. So we sought out a solution to do just that.
In the last two decades, neuroenhancement drugs have been adopted as a preferred solution. These little pills are famous for increasing focus, attention, and essentially, improving productivity. It’s why they’ve become so widely used (and abused) by college students and young professionals in demanding careers. Sound familiar? Adderall is an amphetamine that is used by over 25 million people worldwide. In case you’re still in the dark about what it does, Adderall is intended to treat patients with ADHD. It taps into the parts of the brain that controls hyperactivity and impulses, and works to reduce overstimulation. Instead of feeling constantly distracted and unable to focus, this little pill creates a tunnel vision of concentration. And what was once an attention disorder has now become a desired reason for many to get their hands on a prescription.
When Adderall hit the market in 1996, it was an instant success. Just four years after its release, nearly 5 million prescriptions were written. That number jumped to 16 million by 2012, and has steadily increased thereafter. The drug has become ubiquitous across college campuses and it’s becoming increasingly popular in the workplace. According to QuintilesIMS, an information and technology services company that gathers health care related data, the fastest-growing group to receive the drug are adults aged 20 to 39. That doesn’t even count the amount of teens and adults attaining the drug off the black market and through friends. People are selling, swapping, sharing, and stealing Adderall for a host of nonmedical, off-label reasons, from pulling an all-nighter to curbing appetite for weight loss. It wipes away the question of willpower and makes the impossible possible. The question is, at what expense?
The mechanisms in the brain that stimulate reward, euphoria, and addiction are the same ones that make neuroenhancing drugs, like Adderall, Ritalin, Modafinil and others, so effective at increasing our focus and attention. These drugs mimic the actions of certain neurotransmitters — specifically epinephrine (ultimately, adrenaline), norepinephrine, and dopamine. However, it mimics these neurotransmitters in higher quantities to ensure a continuous reaction.
The increase of dopamine from Adderall produces a rush of reward and pleasure to the nucleus accumbens, an area in the forebrain. This is what helps us sustain focus for longer periods. In tandem, epinephrine is tapping into the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for our fight-or-flight response, and triggers alertness and focus. Meanwhile, norepinephrine creates stronger memory formation and retention of incoming information. It also facilitates communication between neurons and helps the release of the above neurotransmitters to last longer than they normally should. It’s why Adderall creates a tunnel-like focus. It’s also the same reason that Adderall is the drug of choice for college students cramming for exams or busting out 20-page research papers. And since it comes in a prescription bottle, it gives the impression that it’s cleaner and safer than illegal drugs — spoiler alert — it’s not.
While these drugs make it possible to binge on productivity and bypass the need for sleep, they also alter your brain chemistry for the worse, and throw off your normal balance of neurotransmitters. Your brain craves balance, so it alters itself to adapt to changes. Therefore, when you’re getting a surge of certain neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and norepinephrine, the brain tries to compensate by reducing its natural production of them. As a result, the longer you take Adderall, the more of the drug you will need to keep producing the positive effects it once offered. When the brain’s capacity is no longer to produce certain neurotransmitters, especially dopamine, at a natural level — it begins to crave more. When the brain doesn’t get it, emotions take a dive.