So-called ‘smart’ drug impairs creative people

"We looked at how the drug acted when you are required to respond accurately and in a timely manner," says Ahmed Dahir Mohamed. "Our findings were completely opposite to the results we expected." (Credit: Oliver Newport/Flickr)

A drug that claims to boost the ability to study and ace exams appears to have the opposite effect on people who are smart and creative.

In a randomized double blind study, researchers gave 32 participants the drug Modafinil and 32 people a placebo. All the participants then took the Hayling Sentence Completion Test, which requires participants to respond quickly and accurately. The drug slowed down reaction times, impaired ability to respond in a timely manner, and failed to improve performance.


“We looked at how the drug acted when you are required to respond accurately and in a timely manner,” says Ahmed Dahir Mohamed, a postdoctoral research fellow in psychology at University of Nottingham. “Our findings were completely opposite to the results we expected.

“It has been argued that Modafinil might improve your performance by delaying your ability to respond. It has been suggested this ‘delay dependent improvement’ might improve cognitive performance by making people less impulsive. We found no evidence to support those claims. Our research showed that when a task required instant reactions the drug just increased reaction times with no improvement to cognitive performance.”

Published in the journal PLOS ONE, the findings support the results of a previous study carried out by Mohamed and published in September 2014 in the Journal of Creative Behavior that showed that the so called ‘smart’ drug impaired participants’ ability to respond in a creative way particularly when asked to respond laterally—outside the box.

Any benefits?

The creativity of people who aren’t particularly creative to begin with showed some improvement, Mohamed says, but people who are creative at the start are less so after taking Modafinil.

“Our study backs up previous research that suggests psychostimulants improve people at the lower end of the spectrum in cognition whereas they impair people who are at the optimum level of cognitive function—healthy people for example.

“It looks like Modafinil is not helpful for healthy individuals and it might even impair their ability to respond and might stifle their lateral thinking, while people who have some sort of deficiency in creativity are helped by the drug.”

Mohamed will next look at the effects of non-pharmacological interventions, such as meditation, exercise, and diet on the healthy brain. He is also using electroencephalography (EEG) to study how mindfulness can affect the healthy adolescent brain.

“What I have found in my doctoral studies is that if you are already a healthy person and functioning at an optimum level, it is really difficult to improve your cognition. But the brain of the adolescent is still in development and you might be able to improve cognition at this stage of our development through positive interaction, healthy diet, or mindfulness.”

Source: University of Nottingham