scholars and rogues

Stimu-lus, Stimu-lant: What gets and keeps YOU going?

We’ve all become familiar with the word “stimulus” lately. Its exact meaning is: An agent, action, or condition that elicits or accelerates a physiological or psychological [or, one hopes, financial — Ed.] activity or response.

We’re also familiar with “stimulation.” But for the purposes of this post, we’ll leapfrog over that concept to another related word, “stimulant.” Actually a subcategory of stimulus, stimulant zeroes in on the variety of eliciting agent. One of its official definitions: An agent, especially a chemical agent such as caffeine, that temporarily arouses or accelerates physiological or organic activity.

Coffee, of course, is the stimulant of choice for most of us. The National Coffee Association 2009 National Coffee Drinking Trends survey reveals that 54% of adults currently indulge, about the same as in 2008. It further notes that:

After a quick drop at the start of the recession, the pendulum steadied for young adult coffee consumers age 18-24 in 2009 with 29% now partaking in any one day. … Although slightly up from 2008’s level, the current percentage of 18-24’s who drink coffee is still significantly lower than 2007’s high of 37% that was attained after several years of steady growth.

Why the drop-off? Aside from cost and barring an increase in amphetamine usage, perhaps they’ve found an alternative. The New Yorker’s Margaret Talbot reports in Brain Gain: The underground world of “neuroenhancing” drugs:

Adderall, a stimulant composed of mixed amphetamine salts, is commonly prescribed for children and adults who have been given a diagnosis of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. But in recent years Adderall and Ritalin, another stimulant, have been adopted as cognitive enhancers: drugs that high-functioning, overcommitted people take to become higher-functioning and more overcommitted.

We’ll leave the discussion of whether these drugs are overprescribed — as well as why amphetamines are used to treat hyperactivity — for another day. In her piece, Ms. Talbot reports that it’s not so much elite students that use these drugs, but those who (usually guys) seek to experience all that college has to offer. In other words, there’s no way that, as a top student might, they’ll forsake partying for studying.

In retrospect, it’s disingenuous to think kids raised on these drugs would not only continue to use them in college, whether they still need them or not, but would extol their virtues as a study and term paper-writing aid to their peers. As you can imagine, the students then carry usage of the drugs over to their professional lives, where they come in handy for writing reports, especially if they’re dry like accounting.

Though she doesn’t deal with possible side-effects of the drugs, Ms. Talbot points out that they tend to encourage an almost obsessive focus. Thus is creativity, which requires a mind free to roam, liable to be shunted aside. She also explores the ethical question of the unfair advantage users enjoy.

Never mind drugs that help us focus, most of us who study and write are content with a substance that simply keeps us awake and functioning. In that spirit, we’d like to know our readers’ stimulants of choice when they perform mind work? Coffee? Red Bull? Amphetamines?

To give you an example of the type of answer I’m looking for, I’ll seed the responses. I once used alcohol, which is not typically thought of as a stimulant, to write. I found it loosened the pen like the tongue. But it’s as if the bottle were an hour glass: After the initial surge, as inebriation increased, I ran out of steam sooner than if I were writing without it.

Once sober, like many when they give up alcohol, I drank coffee alcoholically. In fact, I actually contracted caffeine poisoning, as one might from too much alcohol, and dropped it like I did alcohol. My stimulant of choice remains caffeine, but in smaller amounts: black tea. Also, running workouts are at least as critical in replenishing energy flow and fueling my ability to focus.

Now would readers (and fellow S&R staff) kindly use the comments section to confide their stimulants of choice? If comfortable admitting it, include the amount and frequency. Finally, have any readers used neuroenchancers like Adderall expressly to work or study?

6 replies »

  1. Dunkin Donuts coffee. It wasn’t available in our area for years – we actually bought it from the web site and had it shipped in to feed our need. 🙂 I don’t like the stuff made by that famous local coffee company – yuck – it tastes burned to me.

    I can report that DD coffee beans are for sale now at the local market. We are relieved.

  2. Caffeine, mostly from tea. Not as much as I once used, though. At one stage I was drinking a 2-liter bottle of Pepsi a day (hell, in grad school I was probably sucking down 150 ounces a day at some points).

  3. Hours of uninterrupted silence and solitude. No kidding. Sometimes a Xanax if the fear demons are howling – they have to be quiet, too. Then the work itself is all the stimulant I need.

    Actual stimulants and my particular brain chemistry do not mix.

  4. Straight-up stimulants are not generally called neuro-enhancers. The “smart drug” label is more applied to superdoses of standard brain nutrients. The over-the-counter brain drugs are generally aimed at increasing various brain chemicals back to the levels they were when you were 19 years old. So, the older you are, the more effective they become.

    The easiest of the bunch to convince yourself to try is vitamin B-12. You’ll find sublingual tablets of 500mcg up to 5000mcg of B-12 for $10-$15 in US drugstores. These give a notable energy boost but more a concentration boost for a few hours. I find that some of the other “brain nutrient” category leave me drained after they wear off, but B-12 does not have this effect.

    Now that I’m in my forties, I’m also hooked on saw palmetto. You can look that one up yourselves.

  5. Saw palmetto is for the prostate. I hope it remains in your future 🙂

    The only consolation in acquiring a Doctor Of Delicate Complaints is stealing the prescription company swag. There’s nothing like a Cialis-branded box of tissues that says “I love you”.

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