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Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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Have Cognitive Enhancing Drugs Arrived at Law School?

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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A few months ago I posted Future of the Law: Cognitive-Enhancing Nootropic Drugs with the quaint notion that someday law students would have to worry about the effects of cognitive-enhancing drugs on law school performance. That someday is now.

I’ve since realized in talking with some of my classmates that I had underestimated my naivete. At UVA recently, an ode to adderall was the showstopper of the Sweet Addie in the Virginia Law Libel Show.


Even creepier is that one of the sponsors of the show is “Wendy Painter, M.D., M.P.H., Pharmaceutical Consulting” – here’s to hoping that’s just, um, libelous.

Margaret Talbot plumbed the depths of the practice in Brain Gain: The underground world of “neuroenhancing” drugs in this week’s New Yorker, following a poster child named Alex who used adderall extensively at Harvard:

College campuses have become laboratories for experimentation with neuroenhancement, and Alex was an ingenious experimenter. His brother had received a diagnosis of A.D.H.D., and in his freshman year Alex obtained an Adderall prescription for himself by describing to a doctor symptoms that he knew were typical of the disorder. During his college years, Alex took fifteen milligrams of Adderall most evenings, usually after dinner, guaranteeing that he would maintain intense focus while losing “any ability to sleep for approximately eight to ten hours.” In his sophomore year, he persuaded the doctor to add a thirty-milligram “extended release” capsule to his daily regimen.

Consider one of Talbot’s other cognitively-enhanced poster children, Paul Phillips:

Phillips soon felt that he had mastered the strategic aspects of poker. The key variable was execution. At tournaments, he needed to be able to stay focussed for fourteen hours at a stretch, often for several days, but he found it difficult to do so. In 2003, a doctor gave him a diagnosis of A.D.H.D., and he began taking Adderall. Within six months, he had won $1.6 million at poker events—far more than he’d won in the previous four years. Adderall not only helped him concentrate; it also helped him resist the impulse to keep playing losing hands out of boredom. In 2004, Phillips asked his doctor to give him a prescription for Provigil, which he added to his Adderall regimen. He took between two hundred and three hundred milligrams of Provigil a day, which, he felt, helped him settle into an even more serene and objective state of mindfulness; as he put it, he felt “less like a participant than an observer—and a very effective one.” Though Phillips sees neuroenhancers as essentially steroids for the brain, they haven’t yet been banned from poker competitions.

While Talbot mines the most evident ethical issues of unfair advantage or the dangers of side effects, the most frightening implication is the financial incentive to make a drug large classes of people don’t feel they can afford NOT to take.

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  1. [...] Have Cognitive Enhancing Drugs Arrived at Law School?: Learn about some of the dangers of taking cognitive enhancing drugs that might seem like a quick fix from this post. [...]

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