Ed Cummings in More Intelligent Life:
One evening this summer, in our final term at Cambridge, my roommate Katie threw a party. Our set was in a 17th-century attic, and its sloping ceilings framed a gorgeous view: a panorama taking in King’s College Chapel, the billiard-table lawns of the backs and the stately river. In that room you felt the mass of student life that had passed before you: even the doorframe had a musty glamour. Yet on this occasion I had no interest in joining the bright young things drinking vodka from coffee mugs. This wasn’t any virtue on my part. It was down to a drug: modafinil, an aid to concentration. I sat at my desk, head in an essay. I scarcely noticed the party until I looked up and saw it had finished. I had finished the essay too: 2,000 words in an hour and a half.
I was an ordinary student, but the drug let me feel intermittently extraordinary. Before, I would labour languidly over essays. Now, I would concentrate until they were done. I’m sure it improved my results. And I wasn’t alone: chemical cognitive enhancement is becom ing part of student life.
Modafinil was never meant for people like me. It was invented to stop narcoleptics falling asleep, then adapted to let soldiers stay up all night. But gradually it was noticed that as well as increasing wakefulness, the drug imp roved concentration. I first sought my own hit after realising that four or five of my friends were using it to help them revise. With finals looming, they wanted to boost their concentration and fight the urge to slack off. The modern student wages a constant battle against the forces of distraction, the flit from screen to screen. Though technologically literate, we find it hard to dwell on any idea for very long. My friends had found an antidote.