Many students today are tempted to use drugs like Adderall to improve performance on tests. After all, most 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 on learning for students not prescribed the drug?
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 Impact of Adderall on Learning
As an amphetamine, Adderall keeps you awake and stifles your appetite (just like caffeine and other common study aids). Both these effects are perceived, by users, to help with studying. Apart from these changes, many users claim a long list of cognitive benefits attained from taking the drug. For people with ADHD, Adderall brings their minds down from a state of overstimulation to one of baseline stimulation by tapping into the part of the brain that controls hyperactivity and impulses. But for the average brain, it has been shown to have the opposite affect, and provide more stimulation. Although this overstimulation may seem to provide benefits to the users, the reality is less clear.
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.
The claim is based in good science. After all, Adderall mimics 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, it’s like having blinders on. You can only concentrate on the main objective, which means that people using Adderall may end up focusing exceedingly well on distractions rather than getting work done. Even when you manage to concentrate on the academic work, you may sacrifice creativity and flexible thinking for focus. Since creativity requires thinking outside the box, it goes against the drive to stay firmly within the box urged on by the drug. Due to this, the focus given by Adderall can actually be counterproductive on many tasks that require divergent thinking. You can actually be too focused to get the task done well.
Memory and Overall Cognitive Function
Another ascribed benefit of Adderall is improved memory. Again, though, the reality is somewhat more complex. According to researchers, there is some evidence that Adderall improves basic recall of material studied while on the drug. Students who have used Adderall to cram facts into their brain are reporting these benefits.
Unfortunately, Adderall has a limited impact on working memory. In fact, it can even decrease performance in some people. This means that while Adderall may make it easier to bring back exact facts learned, it does nothing to help you use or manipulate that information (which 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 the far end of the bell curve, cognitive function can actually be hindered.
Studies show that while your impulse control may be better on Ritalin or Adderall, you are no smarter. The focus that Adderall provides 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.
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. You probably are better off using other study aids that have been proven to be effective.
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