A downside of “smart drugs” was clear in a recent study in Germany.
Chess players were given one of three cognitive enhancers (modafinil, methylphenidate, and caffeine) or placebo and matched in 15-minute games against a computer program set at their level. The doped players behaved differently than the sober ones, spending as much as two minutes longer each game thinking over options, and they seemed to be making better moves. The only problem was that the doped players kept running out of time.
In the end, the doped players won more games by checkmate but lost more games by time, finishing in a statistical tie with the sober ones. It was a wash.
Smart drugs typically act by influencing levels of neuromodulators like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrin. As noted in a recent meta-analysis, they can have moderately positive effects on some forms of cognition while sometimes also impairing other forms of cognition. Modafinil, for instance, has been linked both to improved attention and performance on some tasks and to overconfidence and impaired creativity and flexible thinking.
In the chess study, doped players may, for instance, have shown increased attention and working memory but worse situational awareness and sense of time.
These risks are, of course, known to students who have tried to take methylphenidate (e.g., Ritalin) to study for an exam and found themselves organising their closet for hours.
Smart drugs have also been shown to have various potential health risks.
The authors of the chess study later described the 15-minute time limits as a flaw in experimental design. For future studies, they suggested, researchers should test the performance of doped chess players given a much longer time limit, so the study could isolate the positive effects of brain drugs. Of course, that might hide their negative effects.
Are smart drugs the way of the future? It’s not hard to imagine that clear use cases will emerge, nor that training would help mitigate some of their adverse effects. At the same time, current evidence suggests that non-pharmacological forms of cognitive enhancement, like exercise, sleep, and brain training, are as effective as any pill. A well-trained, well-rested, and physically active chess player might be hard to beat.