March 17, 2008

The Right Stuff

Conclusion of Julian's talkThe Last Psychiatrist: How To Take Ritalin Correctly is a great little essay on how to use Ritalin for studying. It is great not because of any particular advice, but because it demonstrates how we ought to approach the use of cognition enhancers. Just swallowing them and expecting mental perfection will not work; like all drugs there is an interaction between set and setting, in particular what task we are doing. This means we need to know what enhancers work for what kind of activity, and perhaps tailor the activity to the enhancer slightly. In a culture where enhancers are routinely used this kind of advice would be normal studying technique advice.

As for the exact advice, it seems sound from my reading, although I can't claim to understand the attention metaphors very well. The point about context specific reinforcement is very useful. I once tried adding an olfactory context to a subject by scenting my probability theory textbook lavender; at my exam I had a lavender handkerchief to bring back all my study memories. It worked - I remembered every detail of the textbook. But not its contents. Shows the need to associate the right thing with the information.

Another interesting take on the experience of academic amphetamine use can be found in Molly Young's article Kickstart my Heart (via Dosenation). Quite balanced and amusing, and gives makes several important points:

More than anything, Adderall simulated the enthusiasm that a good teacher naturally stokes. For three years my brain, normally so recalcitrant, became my will's devoted vehicle. But there's a downside to a drug that makes everything interesting. By the end of junior year, I still had no idea what I liked or was good at.

This reinforces my suspicion that we have created an academic system that is very good at creating well-defined challenges (intended to hone various useful abilities, as well as being easy to test) that can of course be met by the appropriate effort and enhancement. But the purpose and real value of higher education is something much broader and nebulous. Unfortunately aiming for this doesn't get clearly rewarded or have a well-defined enhancement path.

Posted by Anders3 at March 17, 2008 11:48 PM