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Why I’m skeptical when a research institute announces Ritalin makes people more aware of their mistakes

February 25, 2012 published a new study today that found “individuals who take Ritalin are significantly more aware of their mistakes.” The research came out of the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Melbourne. Like most everybody, I am excited about the amount of groundbreaking research coming out of neuroscience, but that doesn’t keep me from being skeptical when research is published.

I am especially skeptical when published research puts the interests of mega-industries in a favorable light. And you don’t get much bigger than the drug industry. When I read this study, rolling around in my head is an article published last year in Scientific American: “Pharmaceutical Industry Seeks Stronger Ties with Academia in Bid to Speed Up Drug Development.” Hmmm, a university study finds that Ritalin makes us more aware of our mistakes. Should I be excited? Or should I be wary?

Here’s the thing: I know Ritalin helps a lot of people. But I also know that Ritalin is greatly over-prescribed, providing a crutch for regular folks who have “trouble concentrating.” In a 2009 New Yorker article on “the underground world of neuroenhancing drugs,” Margaret Talbot tells the story of one Harvard student who got his degree thanks in part to regular “off label” (not FDA approved) use of Adderall (a close cousin to Ritalin). Talbot states that “college campuses have become laboratories for experimentation with neuroenhancement” and cites a study from one college that found 35% of their students had used prescription stimulants nonmedically the previous school year. Just ask any college student in earshot; they’ll tell you it’s going on big time.

All this is enough to make me want to become Amish. Seriously, students are using neuroenhancers to help them concentrate when simply turning off their music and powering down their smart phones would work wonders? Just last week, a new study indicated that “background music compared to no music disturbs the reading process [and] has some small detrimental effects on memory.” Our mammas were right!

There is plenty of other evidence on the deleterious effects of media multitasking; you can look here to learn more. Without diving further into the causes and remedies for the loss of attention in students, the point here is that some brain institute stating that Ritalin can make people “more aware of their mistakes” isn’t an innocuous statement.

The most suspicious thing is the wording of the statement. Have you ever noticed how over your head scientists and other experts sound most of the time? Isn’t it interesting that they make a statement about a finding with Ritalin that 99% of the population can instantly connect with? Think about it: if I told a fourth-grader a pill would help him or her make fewer mistakes in school, do you think he or she’d take it? More importantly, if I told his mom that a pill would help Johnny make fewer mistakes in school, do you think she’d want him to take it? As Colonel Hans Landa would say, “Oooh, that’s a bingo!”


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