Learning to Learn
Posted by Anni on Monday, April 9th, 2012
These days every college kid knows about the focus-enhancing powers of ADHD medications. There is an illegal black market on college campuses. Kids who have legitimate prescriptions sell pills to kids who don’t. It’s easy to understand why: college is a high-pressure environment and work has to get done. I wonder what long-term effects this kind of drug use has on people. The in-demand ADHD medications are stimulants. They flood the brain with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes focusing easy. But they also speed up the heart, raise blood pressure and disturb sleep. Dopamine over-excitation in normal (non ADHD) brains can result in a long-term deficit leading to depression, listlessness, and a pervasive difficulty with concentration. These medications are strikingly similar to cocaine, methamphetamine, and other dangerous street drugs.
There is no doubt that some people have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. These people often benefit from ADHD medications like Adderall and Ritalin. But for everyone else, taking these drugs is a shortcut that can have serious health consequences. We all want a magic pill that can make us brilliant. We want magic pills for everything: weight loss, sleep, energy, good mood, enthusiasm and likeability. We live in a culture that exploits that desire. Every day, we are bombarded with advertisements for products that will solve our problems, and we all have problems.
When a healthy person uses ADHD medications to learn, I think it’s like using the Internet instead of a book. I was prescribed Adderall for a few years and I felt like a superman, but I was voracious in every direction. I had a super focus, but that focus was so intense I couldn’t relax into a story, instead I ran from one story to the next, like a wildfire. It was frenetic and stressful and, in the end, I feel like my learning just skimmed the surface. I didn’t delve.
My sister is in college and she is always telling me that she wants medication. She is convinced that she has ADHD because she is disorganized and has trouble sitting down to do her work. It’s hard for me to bite my tongue. I’m virtually certain that, in her case, it’s a question of discipline. She can focus just fine when she’s doing something fun like working on an art project or writing a short story. It’s only when she tries doing something more difficult—reading Faust, writing a feminist critique, working through calculus problems—that she has trouble. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all do hard work without trying? Besides, studies have shown that Adderall does not improve learning, it simply makes focusing easier. What happens when the drugs are gone?
As a big sister, I can’t just tell her to work harder. She sees her peers popping pills and getting A’s and she feels like the playing field is rigged. Her competitors are juicing! The truth is, these drugs are cheating kids out of learning how to learn. College isn’t just about getting the work done, it’s about the process of working. Life is full of deadlines, assignments, and expectations. Figuring out how to budget time, cut out distractions, and focus is critical for a successful life. For kids with ADHD, medications make life better. For kids without it, the power to make life better lies within.
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