Issue Highlight: Vol 39 Issue 4, Stimulant Use in the University

This blog post is the last in a three-part series highlighting our newest installment of Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry (released December 2015) which readers can access here. This week, we explore Petersen, Nørgaard, and Traulsen’s research on the use of prescription stimulants amongst university students in New York City. The full article is available here.


In recent dialogues on the widespread use of prescription stimulants amongst university students, drugs are often described as enhancing productivity or a student’s ability to successfully focus on academic work. However, Petersen, Nørgaard, and Traulsen found that university students in New York City often cited the use of these drugs as rendering their work more pleasurable, “fun,” and “rewarding.” Their study included 20 students spanning BA, MA, and PhD programs: representing a diverse sample that, in the aggregate, universally suggested that the use of stimulants in an educational setting was not centrally connected to academic output or production. This outcome, the researchers assert, complicates existing neoliberal readings of American personhood, premised on the idea that the self is primarily cultivated and disciplined through labor and individual productivity.

For example, rather than feeling shameful about using stimulants to improve study skills or produce better work, the students instead expressed guilt for enjoying their academic labors and for transforming “monotonous” and “boring” activities into an engaging experience. The “optimization” of the mind to perform intensive intellectual labor was not related strictly to productivity, which would evoke traditional neoliberal notions of the person-as-producer. Instead, the students described the drugs as optimizing pleasure first, which rendered them more productive as a secondary consequence.

Take this instance: a 32-year old PhD student, identified as Ben, reported using Adderall when he felt too “lazy” to initiate work. Rather than continuing by discussing the extent of his productivity while on the drug, he instead explains that the drug makes him eager “to tackle” his projects. This is often the case for students who struggle to find the desire to complete academic tasks that are not interesting enough to begin without being made pleasurable through stimulant use. Further, another student added that using stimulants helped him to “reconnect” with his interest in sociology during a difficult class on social science theory. In other cases, using Adderall kept students from being distracted from social media or entertainment websites: not because they lacked the inherent ability to be productive, but because without the drug, these sources of interest were simply more engaging than the work at hand. In other instances, students noted that stimulants made them feel more secure and positive about the quality of their work, and helped them to diminish the physical and mental stresses that came with “all-nighters,” or extended overnight studying stints.

Throughout all these cases, enhancement is not described as a means to make the human brain meet the demands of a “high-speed society.” Instead, “enhancement” relates to students’ satisfaction with their resulting work, to their enjoyment of otherwise “boring” tasks, and to reduced the negative psychosomatic effects of studying or working on a limited time frame.

The authors do not eschew the neoliberal model through these cases: indeed, they suggest that the use of stimulants does have cognitive effects that bolster students’ abilities to produce academic work. However, they note that we must complicate a strictly neoliberal model that would indicate that stimulants are employed by students strictly in order to achieve a certain amount of studying or to complete an assigned amount of work. Enhancement may include productivity, but for students who use stimulant drugs, it also involves increasing the pleasure of finishing intellectual labors, and decreasing the negative consequences of engaging in challenging or otherwise tedious academic work.

In this way, cognitive-enhancing drugs indeed fortify the mind and the conception of the self as a producer and academic laborer. However, they also shape human experience by altering students’ sense of confidence, their satisfaction with academic work, and their passion for their chosen topics of study. In these ways, enhancement drugs not only increase productivity in the neoliberal sense: they also broadly impact notions of pleasure and individual ability related to students’ quest to heighten academic production.




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