The hot new drugs: good for focus, not for creativity

Want to get that deck finished, show up your co-workers, impress your boss with your productivity? Try one of the many increasingly popular neuoroenhancers. You’ll have the power to avoid sleep, keep your mind clear, and stay focused on the task at hand. Perfect if you’re among the “anxious employees in an efficient-obsessed, Blackberry-equipped office culture.”

In this week’s New Yorker, Margaret Talbot delivers a thorough and insightful report on why Adderall, Ritalin and other other cognitive enhancing drugs — typically prescribed for children diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder – have become the rage with college students and young over-achieving professionals. Short conclusion: they help you get more done.

But while this might be a good idea for a media planner or an account guy (warning: watch out for cardiac problems and bitter office rivals who’ll charge you with cheating) it’s a bad idea for creative people.

Turns out the last thing creative writers, or artists, or musicians want to do is focus. We want just the opposite. “There is some evidence that suggests that individuals who are better able to focus on one thing and filter out distractions tend to be less creative,” writes Talbot. And while this is her only mention about the disadvantages of focusing (Adderall) when it comes to creativity, you can gather more by reading Jonathan Lehrer’s preview of Alison Gopnik’s The Philosophical Baby in this past Sunday’s Boston Globe.

Gopnik and other neuroscientists have been advancing our understanding of a baby’s brain, revealing that newborns are far more conscious than we ever realized. Better yet, their little minds create more connections between disparate regions of the cortex – the center of sensation and higher thought – than most adults can ever hope for.

In short, they got some crazy stuff going on in there. And guess what?  By popping Adderall, we eliminate whatever chances we have left of getting some of that crazy stuff going on in our cortex. Sure you may finish that deck or organize those folders on your desktop so their nice and tidy, but your imagination might start slow dancing, carefully predetermining every next step. Not good. For as Lehrer reminds us, if you want to be creative, “the mind performs best when we don’t try and control it.”

What’ll your approach be? Big pharma? Or little baby?