Smart pills, microdosing and even electrical brain stimulation might give us an edge in the workplace, says Emily Burt, but when does the quest for perfection tip into a destructive pressure to conform?

Honoré De Balzac’s magnum opus La Comédie Humaine is a multi-volume collection of 91 completed works and 45 unfinished pieces, which the French writer produced over 12 years, between 1831 and 1842. Balzac fuelled this iconic literary mountain, which tackled the human condition in exhaustive detail, with a punishing work ethic — writing from 1am to 8am every morning, sometimes for 15 hours or more, without a break. According to historical records, he sustained himself by drinking anything up to 50 cups of black coffee a day; and once his body grew to withstand even this extraordinary dosage of caffeine, he chewed on the raw grounds in an effort to achieve the same bursts of energy.

“Coffee sets the blood in motion and stimulates the muscles; it accelerates the digestive processes, chases away sleep, and gives us the capacity to engage a little longer in the exercise of our intellects,” he wrote in a humorous essay, The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee. Describing the effects of swallowing raw beans on an empty stomach — something he stressed should only be attempted by “men with thick black hair and skin covered with liver spots, men with big square hands and legs shaped like bowling pins” — he wrote of sparks shooting directly to the brain. “Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages […] the paper is spread with ink — for the nightly labour begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.”

The mere thought of wet coffee grounds attacking stomach lining may be enough to trigger an eye twitch — and Balzac himself died of heart failure at the age of just 51 — but he was not alone, or even the most extreme historical figure to pursue chemical enhancements in the name of excellence. Many of the great British romantic poets were famously doped to the eyeballs, with Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan rumoured to be the result of opium vision, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde written in the dizzying grip of a three-day cocaine high. For all that wellbeing experts expound on the importance of a good work-life balance in the modern age, there remains something peculiarly aspirational about individuals who push themselves to their physical and mental limits in pursuit of creative achievement.

The ancient practice of trepanning: Over the centuries, proponents have claimed positive effects on wellbeing, despite a lack of hard evidence and the obvious dangers of the technique (credit: Hieronymus Bosch/Alamy Stock Photo)

It is a concept that has endured. In modern times, the idea that we can manufacture an ‘edge’ over our perceived rivals has bled from the sporting arena into business. The corporate lexicon is full of competitive metaphors, and for leaders (and, inevitably, their followers), vanquishing the rest of the field is increasingly more attractive than simply doing your best. And one way to achieve that is to stay awake longer and remain mentally and physically sharper than everyone else.

We can laugh at actor Mark Wahlberg’s joylessly regimented daily schedule, which includes an hour in a ‘cryo recovery chamber’ following a 4am workout and two hours of ‘family time/meetings/work calls’ but business leaders got there before him. Executives boast on social media of how early they rise and how relentlessly they toil. As CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer was clocking up 130-hour working weeks, while Elon Musk recently claimed not to have taken a full week off since 2001, when he suffered a bout of malaria.

It’s utterly unsurprising that, like the authors of yesteryear, the pursuit of an edge leads us to substances, legal or otherwise, that transcend or extend our physical limitations. As science and technology accelerated through the 20th century, the range of tools to help individuals boost the capacity of mind and body has evolved and grown increasingly experimental. From the 80mg of caffeine in a can of Red Bull to bankers supplementing their confidence — and possibly also their selling capacity — with cocaine, the adoption of substances for the purpose of cognitive enhancement is increasingly normalised and its dangers downplayed. Today, we are rapidly approaching a neurocognitive frontier, where professional pressures have developed in parallel with a brave new technology driven way of life, and these enhancements are presenting humanity with uneasy challenges.

The most talked-about products of this new age are smart drugs: a collection of pills including Adderall, Modafinil and Ritalin, which are licensed to treat a range of neurological and mental health disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. Their claimed effectiveness is down to different strains of amphetamine in their chemical make-up — a powerful stimulant that produces effects including an increased sense of wakefulness, improved cognitive control and boosted mood. However, unlike caffeine, which research has proved blocks the brain chemical that makes you feel tired and boosts neurotransmitters like dopamine which make us feel energised, there is little medical evidence of how smart drugs alter neurological function, or whether they really do improve mental performance. People who have taken them describe everything from a sense of “calmness and clearness” to tunnel vision that enables them to work for nine hours straight, increased bowel movements, short tempers, bursts of intense euphoria and a loss of appetite — but the neurocognitive processes behind these sensations are largely unknown.

“Building a successful workplace involves teamwork and problem solving, which psychostimulants don’t tend to promote”

Currently, the only legal means of obtaining such drugs in the UK is via prescription for a neurocognitive disorder. But the rise of online pharmacies, the dark web and alternative suppliers has resulted in smart drugs becoming easily accessible for ‘neurotypical people’ who want an edge. Research into their cognitive impact is sparse, largely due to the legal grey areas involved, and the sheer complexity of brain function. One study into chess players in 2017 found they made cleverer moves under the influence of drugs, but lost a greater number of games because they played more slowly. Journalist David Adam, who used smart drugs to successfully ‘cheat’ his way into MENSA during the writing of his book The Genius Within says: “I felt different, more alert, and less willing to be distracted. Some of that could be a placebo effect — because I did know that I was taking it. But I definitely felt that this did what it was advertised as doing… sharpened my cognition and allowed me to concentrate more.”

Statistics on the recreational use of smart drugs are difficult to come by; they are anecdotally popular with students in both the UK and America, and a 2018 survey from the National Union of Students found more than one in five took ‘study drugs’ to improve their focus and motivation at least once a month. As popular awareness around the use of smart drugs grows, and this generation of students shifts into the workplace, the use of neuroenhancements among professionals is also on the rise. A 2015 EU report warned about the growth of drugs for non-medical reasons at work, pointing particularly to high-pressure occupations such as shiftworkers, medical professionals and those involved in long-distance transport, while a 2016 poll of more than 1,000 economists in Germany found almost one in five (19 per cent) had illicitly used a prescription drug for the purposes of neuroenhancement.

A 2018 follow-up report, Managing Performance-Enhancing Drugs in the Workplace, argues the desire to artificially enhance performance is partially down to changes in the labour market; particularly the rise of precarious work “carried out under non-standard conditions of employment, and thus more insecure, often not protected under standard labour rights and legislation, often poorly paid, and sometimes subject to a high degree of surveillance and monitoring.” Other factors include the rise of artificial intelligence putting pressure on low-skilled workers, and the normalisation of brain-boosting — because if all of your colleagues are dropping the occasional pill with seemingly positive effects, how long before you follow suit? Inevitably, it is white collar workers who feel this most keenly, since they are the most reliant on discretionary effort for career advancement. “There is an expectation,” report author Karen Dale writes, “that workers will work on themselves and take responsibility for their own personal development to reach their potential or simply match their capabilities to occupational demands and the labour market.”

Cognitive enhancement is by no means limited to improved concentration and focus. Psychoactive drugs such as LSD and psilocybin (the active substance in magic mushrooms), which enjoyed their heyday at the height of psychedelia, have made a reappearance in the shape of microdosing; imbibing tiny fractions of a psychostimulant mixed with water at regular intervals, in an effort to free the brain from predictable cognitive patterns. “My hypothesis is that [LSD] increases capillary volume, which gives the brain more glucose and oxygen, more combustion and more energy,” says Amanda Feilding, drug policy reformer and founder of think tank The Beckley Foundation.

Amanda Feilding pictured in the 70s with her pet pigeon Birdie — she gained notoriety at the time for LSD experimentation and now campaigns for drug policy reform and research into psychoactive substances (credit: Amanda Feilding personal collection)

This is a controversial idea since long-term use of LSD, even at low-levels, has been associated with psychosis. There is also very little evidence of any positive effect on productivity. One failed experiment with the drug in the 1960s saw the British military spike a battalion of Royal Marines with acid to establish its effectiveness as a chemical weapon; archived video footage of the project shows one soldier in full camouflage climbing a tree to feed the birds. But Feilding, who has long advocated the health and wellbeing benefits of psychedelics, recently launched a major research programme into its effects.

“Both LSD and psilocybin bring about a loosening of set routines, making a person more open, more mindful, more empathic, more vital. As more things occur simultaneously in the brain, your senses are increased, as well as your perceptual awareness,” she says.

If flouting the law (LSD has been illegal since the introduction of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971) seems too big a price to pay for an as-yet-unproven performance enhancement, there are still plenty of legal — and commercialised — products claiming to boost your capacities for both work and thought. ‘Food of the future’ meal replacement drink Soylent — which has received more than $72 million in development funding — contains all the necessary fats, proteins and vitamins for daily nutrition and seems to be aimed at people who would rather work than ‘waste’ time enjoying a proper meal. Caffeine can be consumed in the form of pills, shots and powder, while footballer Jamie Vardy famously used ‘snus’ nicotine patches as part of his pre-match routine.

And while we may not view smartphones as much of a cognitive enhancement, the explosion of wellness apps used in conjunction with wearables — not to mention mindfulness programmes designed to improve presence of mind — have made the idea that technology can make us more effective a mainstream concept.

“As more things occur simultaneously in your brain, your senses are increased as well as your perceptual awareness”

Where this all leads us is open to question. But it would be foolhardy to suggest our potential for fusing with technology has anywhere near plateaued when techno-futurists are excitedly talking about the day we’ll all be plugging ourselves directly into an internet-enabled mainframe — and when a growing number of people are prepared to self-administer currents of electricity directly into their brains.

Cranial electrotherapy stimulation and lower-magnitude transcranial electrical stimulation (tES) are relatively new forms of brain therapy. When used in controlled medical environments, they have proved useful in treating certain forms of anxiety disorder, chronic pain, depression, and in some cases alleviating symptoms of motor disorders such as Parkinson’s. Wearable neurostimulation devices have also been used by athletes to boost physical performance, speed and response times. But while there is currently limited and mixed medical evidence on whether electrotherapy or tES boosts the cognitive function of healthy people, a growing number of them are using the tools to try and enhance their brain power anyway, seeking claimed benefits such as increased vigilance, boosted moods and reduced fatigue. Branded tES kits are available for purchase on Amazon for around $500; or if that’s too steep, you can always build your own.

For Dr James Giordano, professor at the department of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center, the do-it-yourself brain stimulation community is not inherently problematic as long as it is supervised: “These aren’t ‘mad scientist activities’, it’s public science, the majority of which is inherently self-regulated in that the individuals work through regional institutional review boards, have their own guidelines, and make sure these are internally reviewed,” he says.

This bespoke portable brain stimulator — a collaboration between Fisher Wallace Laboratories and streetwear brand Mischka — is designed to boost serotonin and treat depression, anxiety and insomnia (credit: Fisher Wallace Laboratories)

However, he is troubled by the prospect of ‘ordinary people’ using the technologies in a self-experimental fashion. And who knows what such a fast and loose approach to neuroenhancement will do to us. We know that we can’t live without a functioning brain, but exactly what consciousness is and how our grey matter sparks thoughts, feelings and behaviours remains an enigma. The reality is that while the research on the positive potential of neurocognitive chemicals remains limited, so do insights into the longer-term side effects.

“We have to be sure these devices do not incur or elicit some cryptic or unforeseen neuropsychiatric condition”

Mental and physical consequences are a looming unknown on the horizon; and misuse of neuroenhancement techniques could potentially lead to major health hazards. Giordano is particularly preoccupied with the consequences of tES on younger minds: Georgetown’s research suggests there is a real risk from misuse by children and teenagers, either self-inflicted or, in some cases, as a result of parents who honestly believe the practice is a safe way of improving academic performance. “These are developing brains, and children do not develop uniformly. In some cases there may be underlying neuropsychiatric conditions that are still dormant, and if they are going to become more widespread we have to be sure these devices do not interfere with normal development, or incur or elicit some cryptic or unforeseen neuropsychiatric condition.”

Many brain-stimulation devices are FDA-approved, and policing the safe use of neuroenhancement will be difficult without more stringent regulation. Modafinil, Adderall and Ritalin are banned under the policy of the Chess World Anti Doping Agency, but this is one of the few arenas in which neuroenhancement is being regulated. While taking smart drugs without a prescription is illegal, it’s unclear how businesses could practically enforce this without infringing on the privacy of their employees. “It will be permitted until it’s explicitly banned,” Adam says. “Technically, drugs are already controlled, because you need a prescription to access them, but enforcing a ban would require drug testing at work — so even if you created a rule against Modafinil or brain stimulation in your workplace, how could you enforce it?”

Brain Waves: Smart drugs such as Modafinil, Adderall and Ritalin are stimulants which light up specific parts of the brain on MRI scans, so there is little doubt that they can at least make users feel more alert. But as with more traditional alternatives such as caffeine, whether that feeling is translated into real cognitive advantages is a much harder question to answer. What is gained in one area — greater focus, for example — may be lost in another, such as the ability to draw wider conclusions. (credit: Cultura Creative/Alamy Stock Photo)

In the UK, it’s not uncommon for workers in the warehousing and logistics sectors, or in roles that involve driving or operating machinery, to be subjected to drug tests by their employer, with black market sales of ‘clean’ urine reportedly rocketing this year. But should the use of smart drugs and neurological technologies shift into the mainstream, the implications could be significant and far-reaching. Author Yuval Noah Harari considered the possibilities of a future when humanity has overcome its former physical and biological constraints in his groundbreaking 2014 book Sapiens. “Science and the industrial revolutions have given humankind superhuman powers and practically limitless energy,” he wrote. “At the dawn of the 21st century […] Sapiens are transcending these limits. It is now beginning to break the laws of natural selection and replace them with the laws of intelligent design.” 
The people who benefit from these intelligent designs, Giordano says, will be those who are in a position to optimise them before their competitors, and are the quickest to take advantage. And this is where the workplace — as we have already seen in sports such as athletics and cycling — could become subject to a fresh set of pressures.

“There will be a tendency to establish the ‘new normal,’” Giordano says. “Those who are being optimised will want to establish thresholds for various performances, and what is normal, functional, acceptable and desirable will reflect the increasingly technocentric and technophilic trend.” Establishing these technologies as part of a desirable working landscape will also increase the pressure on individuals to accept enhancement, making it increasingly difficult to opt out. “People might not want to do it, but they might not have a choice,” Adam says. “If you know that your colleagues are doing it and you are not, it puts an implicit pressure on you to do so; and this is something that could very easily become explicit, with your boss saying ‘I want you to do this because I need you to work 10 per cent harder.’”

Mainstream use of neuroenhancement would also bring a range of questions over ethics and inequality which Giordano believes would be reflective of the structures we see in society today: who can afford the extra cup of coffee, the extra hours of sleep, paid help with childcare and so on. “These questions will feed into the larger macroeconomic market structure, and will create relative imbalances of distribution and accessibility,” he says. “It’s likely the schism between the neurocapable ‘haves’ and neurocapable ‘have-nots’ will reflect trends in the uptake of affordability and provision of these technologies.”

Plug me in: Transhumanists such as Neil Harbisson advocate the use of emerging technologies such as AI and the internet of things to overcome the fundamental physical limitations of the human body and mind. Such hi-tech augmentation will lead, they believe, to the emergence of a new post-human species with enormously expanded mental and physical abilities. Harbisson himself was born colour blind and ‘sees’ colour thanks to a sensor implanted in his brain — as a result of which he is also the first person to be legally recognised as a cyborg by the British government. (credit: Lars Norgaard/The Guardian/eyevine)

Harari’s prediction that technology will push us beyond biological constraints is mirrored in the concept of transhumanism, a school of philosophy that argues the rapid development of technology will enable people to enhance their physical performance, attain super-intelligence and phase out human suffering through genetic engineering. David Pearce, a transhumanist and author of Balzac-worthy internet manifesto The Hedonistic Imperative, believes humanity is on the edge of a biotechnology revolution; but remains cautious about the role that smart drugs could play within this utopia, likening them to ‘kicking the telly’.

“It sometimes works, but it’s not precision engineering,” he says, reflecting that while psychostimulants and psychedelics may enhance some aspects of performance, they can also inhibit others. “Building a successful workplace involves teamwork, cooperation and problem solving, which psychostimulants don’t tend to promote.”

In other words, collaborative achievement is more than a series of individual performances, whether enhanced or not. “It’s not what people think of when they hear ‘smart drugs’, but the evolution of human intelligence over time has been partly driven by language, and partly by cooperative problem solving,” he says. “Social cognition is incredibly intellectually demanding, but it’s been empirically shown that societies with high levels of trust correlate with economic growth, and is not something that should be ignored.”

Professor Barbara Sahakian, psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge, also stresses the importance of balancing the ability to achieve with the desire to collaborate as technologies evolve. “Cold cognition is non-emotional and reflects what is measured by the intelligence test, whereas hot refers to social and emotional cognition,” she wrote in The Guardian. “Superior cold intelligence is a great advantage [for enhancement.] However […] the ability to have theory of mind, to understand what others are thinking and feeling and to be personable and likable is essential.”

War on drugs: In 1964, the military potential of LSD was seriously investigated at the top secret Porton Down chemical weapons research establishment. A group of elite Royal Marines were sent on acid trips to see how effective it might be at bringing down the enemy. Despite fits of the giggles and one soldier climbing a tree to feed the birds, weaponised LSD never took off. By contrast, illegal drug use among British soldiers serving in Northern Ireland in the early 90s was explored by photographer Stuart Griffiths in his book Pigs Disco, from which this picture is taken. (credit: Stuart Griffiths)

At this stage, it’s difficult to say with any certainty whether a future where the majority of people opt to cognitively enhance their skills, or self-determine their evolutionary process through technology, would be an idealistic transhumanist utopia or something decidedly more dystopian. As far as The Genius Within author Adam is concerned, neurological experiments, supplements and enhancements all belong in the same category as Balzac’s coffee habit. “The most important question at this stage, is ‘Does it have a significant benefit?’” he says. “Most of the bosses of today’s companies will have gone to university taking Pro Plus and drinking coffee to stay awake all night — this generation just has a new way of doing it.”

Taking pills, or using cranial electrotherapy stimulation, to make you smarter may seem Kafka-esque. Work. certainly wouldn’t recommend that anybody should attempt to self-medicate with illegal drugs or unproven treatments, but the neurological frontier will — at some point in the not-too-distant future — demand a series of important decisions. “Are we likely to use these new enhancement techniques to improve our work-life balance, complete our work so that we can develop hobbies, learn a new language or spend more time with friends and family?” Sahakian asks, “or will we simply accelerate into a 24/7 work pattern, because we can now stay awake, alert and focused?”

It’s something we will all need to think hard about. After all, the likes of Mayer, Musk and Balzac may be fascinating characters — but would you want to live in a world full of them?

When the drugs do work

Sigmund Freud
A revered Austrian neurologist, Freud is known as the father of psychoanalysis. What’s more, he was a cocaine addict. In a letter to his fiancée, Freud wrote: “I take very small doses of it regularly against depression and against indigestion and with the most brilliant of success.”

Queen Victoria 
The UK’s second longest-serving monarch dabbled with a few substances during her reign. According to urban legend she used cannabis oil to relieve period pain, and her coterie ordered opium from the royal apothecary. She was also believed to have taken cocaine gum with a young Winston Churchill.

Hunter S. Thompson 
In the film Where The Buffalo Roam, the original gonzo journalist, played by Bill Murray, says: “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” After years of substance abuse caught up with him, Thompson committed suicide in 2005. His ashes were fired from a cannon in a ceremony attended by John Kerry and Jack Nicholson.

Frida Kahlo
Following a near-fatal bus accident that left her in crippling lifelong pain, the surrealist artist became addicted to substances including opioids, alcohol and cigarettes. It is suspected that her death was suicide by morphine overdose.

Cary grant 
If you want proof that LSD was not always a membership badge for the counterculture, look no further than 50s Hollywood icon Cary Grant. Plagued by insecurity, and having rejected both yoga and hypnosis, the star of North by Northwest tried LSD therapy. The results, he wrote, were a “beneficial cleansing” and an experience that “brought him close to happiness”.

Ayn Rand
In order to finish her masterwork, The Fountainhead, writer Ayn Rand turned to Benzedrine and finished one chapter a week. She went on to use the drug for around three decades, which may have contributed to what some of her later associates described as ‘volatile mood swings’.

(credit: Zuma/PA images, Everett/Alamy Stock Photo, Topham/PA Images, Andy Cross/The Denver Post, Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images, ‘Self-portrait with Monkey and Parrot’ Banco de Mexico Diego Rivere Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./DACS 2018)

This article first appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of Work., the magazine for senior members of the CIPD.
Emily Burt is a staff writer at People Management Magazine.