It's the beginning of exam week and you're looking at your schedule: how are you going to study for everything? And pass?

You may have heard that more than just a medicine for ADHD, some people use Adderall for studying, even without a prescription. And you might be tempted yourself. After all, many of us have heard the dramatic stories from others of how prescribed stimulants like Adderall can improve focus and make studying more effective.

According to some users, Adderall has made the difference between acing a test and failing miserably, or allowed them to finish that last minute project with ease. But what are the real effects of Adderall for studying for students who do not have ADHD?

[Struggling with lack of focus? Here are better natural ways to study with ADHD]

As it turns out, the reality is possibly quite different than the perception. Read on to learn what scientific studies have revealed about the true relationship between Adderall (and other stimulant “study aids”) and learning.

The real effects of Adderall for studying

Adderall is an amphetamine, which is kind a stimulant. Like other amphetamines such as speed, Adderall keeps you awake and stifles your appetite. Both these effects are perceived, by users, to help with studying.

Apart from these changes, many users claim a long list of cognitive benefits that can be attained from taking the drug. And it can have those cognitive effects ... for people with ADHD. Adderall increases the amount of certain neurochemicals that are lacking in people with ADHD, helping them get up to baseline in terms of executive function. The result is that people with ADHD are better able to focus.

But for the average brain, it has been shown to have the opposite effect. Like in people with ADHD, Adderall stimulates the brain and increases central nervous system activity. While it may seem to help you study better, people who already have normal activity tend to get overstimulated.

Adderall's effect on concentration and focus

girl using Adderall for studying
It's not clear whether using Adderall for studying is effective in people that do not have ADHD.

One main reason that people are attracted to Adderall is that it is supposed to improve your focus so you can study harder for an exam or cram a heavy-duty project into a limited amount of time. But does it really? According to numerous studies, the truth isn’t entirely clear.

[Check out our massive guide on how to build your focus and concentration]

Adderall may help you focus on the wrong things

What Adderall does is mimic the effects of adrenaline in the brain, triggering a fight or flight response that brings with it added alertness, clarity, and focus. Evolutionarily-speaking, the brain is put on high alert for danger, allowing you to focus all your energy into one area. You can go over complex material many times without distractions, because your brains believes that it is helping you avoid trouble.

Unfortunately, this focus comes with a downside. While you may be more focused, Adderall doesn't help you choose what to focus on. Indeed, many people using Adderall may end up focusing exceedingly well on distractions rather than getting work done. Speaking of which, is that a squirrel over there?

Adderall is not good for creativity

Even when you manage to concentrate on the academic work, you may sacrifice creativity and flexible thinking for focus. But lots of our work and school actually requires creativity. Thinking of ideas for what to say in that paper, trying to solve math or science problems, or coming up with research ideas are all creative processes. Adderall will not help for those.

For these reasons, Adderall can actually be counterproductive on many tasks that require divergent thinking. You can actually be too focused to get the task done well. In the study, it especially lowered the performance if high

Memory and overall cognitive function

Another ascribed benefit of Adderall is improved memory: people hope that if they take Adderall to cram before a big exam, they'll remember what they learn especially well.

Again, though, the reality is somewhat more complex. According to researchers, while there is some evidence that Adderall improves basic recall of material studied while on the drug, a large review of studies suggests that the size of this effect is not very large. So there may be a benefit, but it's not large.

Unfortunately, Adderall also has a limited impact on working memory. In fact, it can even decrease performance in some people. One study found that in young adults who are sleep-deprived (precisely those people that may pull an all-nighter for a test), Adderall was not effective in improving cognition or memory. They didn't perform any better. Interestingly, however, those who took Adderall believed it helped. The authors suggest that Adderall may improve confidence, even though it didn't improve test performance.

This means that while Adderall may make it easier to mentally retrieve exact facts learned (as long as you get enough sleep), it does nothing to help you use or manipulate that information—which actually may be more important come test day). Executive functions come no more easily when on drugs like Adderall, and in the case of those already performing towards on the high end of the bell curve, cognitive function can actually be hindered.

[Learn how to actually build your attention span so you don't need Adderall for studying.]

Other studies show that while your impulse control may be better on Ritalin or Adderall, you are no smarter. The focus that Adderall provides mainly just encourages you to delay gratification and choose to study longer and harder. This can lead to improved academic outcomes in the short term; however, it does not not necessarily translate to long-term knowledge or improved performance without the continued use of the drug. Performance on active recall tasks aside, Adderall does not seem to improve your abilities related to complex thought.

Girl focused on studying chewing on pencil in front of laptop
Focused learning doesn't automatically equal long term memory retention

Is it all just a euphoric placebo effect?

Even more interestingly, the benefits of Adderall related to learning may all be in your head. According to studies done at the University of Pennsylvania, people taking Adderall didn’t actually perform better on cognitive function tests—they only thought they did. When compared to those taking a placebo, students on Adderall reported more confidence in their abilities to perform cognitive tasks and believed that they had higher scores, despite average performance equaling that of their peers not on the drug.

In fact, some speculate that the short-term improvements seen while on Adderall are simply the result of the drug’s enhancement of your enjoyment of studying, not any actual cognitive improvements. Since Adderall triggers the brain to release the neurotransmitter dopamine, those on the drug experience a mild sense of euphoria, which may be motivating the student to perform better. When combined with the strong perception of increased focus given by the drug, Adderall and similar drugs may be triggering powerful placebo effects.

Are the effects of Adderall on learning worth the risks?

So is Adderall worth taking illegally? Probably not, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Taking Adderall carries serious health risks that few casual users recognize, including an increased likelihood of anxiety, high blood pressure, sexual impotence, and even heart attack in otherwise healthy young adults. Plus, as an amphetamine, Adderall carries a serious risk of addiction and dependence.

While it can be tempting to take Adderall as a magic study aid, it may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Ultimately, Adderall may help you focus in the short term, but it’s important to recognize the trade-offs that come with its use (not to mention potential legal issues and academic consequences associated with taking Adderall without a prescription). When you consider that we still are not sure how much Adderall is actually helping academic performance, it may be worth thinking twice before popping a pill to get through your next exam.

Build focus and study effectively the natural way

And honestly, you don't need it. There's lots of people that get As by just learning how to build focus and concentration, and by using effective study methods.

Brainscape is designed to be effective, and if you use it properly, you can double how quickly you learn. Couple that with building effective study habits, optimizing your brain health, and natural approaches to managing distractions, and it'll be easy to ditch Adderall and just study the old fashioned way.

[See also: Adderall vs Caffeine as a study aid]


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