An Oxford philosopher explains what it feels like to take a “true” smart drug

Modifying the mind for a more productive life.
Modifying the mind for a more productive life.
Image: Reuters/Chris Helgren
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One in five academics surveyed by the journal Nature in 2008 admitted to using cognitive enhancers. Anders Sandberg, a philosopher at the Future of Humanity Institute at the Oxford University, is among them. We asked him about his modafinil use.

Where do you get your supply of modafinil?

I order it online. I get my chemist friend to chemically test it for purity.

What dosage do you use?

I use 100 milligrams. I’ve been arguing with a modafinil researcher who suggests using 200 mg, which is the dosage commonly used in studies. I don’t see a particular benefit with a higher dosage, but it may be because my body metabolizes the drug more slowly than average.

That raises another problem: The drug’s effects depend on individual biochemistry. I have a friend who suffers from narcolepsy and takes 800 mg of modafinil but still suffers from sleep episodes. I once went to an academic conference where everybody at my table had tried modafinil. When they described its effects, they were all over the place: One said that they became more social, one felt sharper, and one felt much more anxious.

When do you take modafinil and what’s the effect?

I set my alarm 30 minutes before wake-up time. I take the pill when the alarm rings and then go back to sleep. In 30 minutes, I wake up full of energy. The effect lasts most of the day, and I have no problems sleeping.

There’s a stimulating effect that’s useful, but that’s not the real benefit of modafinil. Getting stuff done is great, but you can do that with coffee. It seems to help me think when things are just on the edge of what I can normally handle.

Modafinil lowers my activation threshold: I’m more motivated to take on tasks I would normally put off. It feels like I have a little bit of extra space in my frontal lobe to deal with slightly more complex or tricky concepts. I can hold them in my mind better. So it doesn’t really help me when I’m doing normal research, but when I’m listening to a philosopher or tackling a difficult problem, modafinil seems to help.

I probably use it once in two weeks. I like to space it out because if I take it for many days at a time, the effect wears off.

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This interview is an extended version of a piece featured in Quartz’s new book The Objects that Power the Global Economy.