The Ethics of Writing under the Influence of Cognitive Enhancers

I must be very careful. (In a poetic sense, words are just as powerful as drugs).

I neither want to condemn nor condone those that use mind-alerting substances, whatever their motive. My goal is not to pass judgement, but to investigate the relationship between drugs and creative endeavours.

A lot of writers drink coffee. Some, such as myself, drink copious amounts in an effort to quell fatigue and fuel creative drive.

But for a lot of writers, caffeine doesn’t cut it and they resort to something with a little more kick.

I am reminded of Paul Erdős, a Hungarian mathematician who was one of the most prolific essay writers of the 20th century. He currently holds the world record for essay collaborations, clocking in at 509.

Caffeine wasn’t the only tool in Erdős’s toolbox. His drug of choice was amphetamine, a potent CNS (central nervous system) psychostimulant. Despite its illegality, he abused the drug in the 1970s while working on his essays.

His colleagues grew concerned about his reliance on the substance. But these concerns fell on deaf ears. One such colleague and friend, Ron Graham, bet Erdős he couldn’t go a month without taking the drug.

To Graham’s surprise, Erdős won the bet. He would later lament how, during his abstinence, mathematics had been set back a month because he couldn’t get any work done.

He is accredited to have said: “before [the bet], when I looked at a piece of blank paper my mind was filled with ideas. Now all I see is a blank piece of paper.”

Today, cognitive enhancers are big business.

Often referred to as ‘nootropics’ (or more colloquially as ‘smart drugs’), they are especially popular amongst university students due to their effectiveness, low risk, and legal greyness. Entire communities have emerged where users discuss their personal experiences with a variety of nootropics, and online pharmacies flourish by selling to this market for a hefty fee.

One such drug, Modafinil, is said to have been the inspiration for NZT-48, the fictional super drug and plot catalyst for Limitless (2011). In the film, a penniless loser unlocks the full potential of his brain, managing, among other things, to write an entire novel in a single night.

But safety and legality aside, is it ethical?

We are faced with a unique and interesting conundrum when it comes to drug use for creative purposes. Some may argue that due to the brain-altering effects of certain substances, the individual ceases to be responsible for the product that is created. Thus, the credit goes to the drug, not the user.

I would argue against this hypothesis. Drugs are not sentient. They do not possess the ability to string together thoughts and put said thoughts on paper. They are chemicals, which, at least in the case of stimulants and nootropics, simply increase synaptic transfer. Nothing more, nothing less. The writer remains a writer, drug or no drug.

Another argument, popularised by authors such as Ernest Hemingway, is that certain substances excel a flawed but otherwise bright mind. The drug doesn’t alter the writer’s ability beyond what they are actually capable of, it puts them in a state so that the best version of themselves can flourish; an uninhibited weaver of words. In a tragic romantic sense, drugs also numb the melancholy creative people are stereotypically prone to.

Take one of the most influential modern authors, Stephen King. He wrote the majority of his early novels (some of his most recognised work) while binging on cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs. Anything that helped him escape into the page and drive his writing obsession was game.

For Stephen King, his drug habits almost cost him his family – and his life. A few years ago, he explained in an interview with The Daily Mail how, during the height of his addiction, he had to block his nostrils with cotton wool to stop the blood dripping on his typewriter while writing. His wife would often find him passed out in a pool of his own vomit, the pages of his manuscript scattered about him.

I do not believe for a second that so-called ‘smart drugs’ are without their risks. They are relatively new with only a preliminary amount of research supporting them.

And, as I’m sure Stephen King can attest, there is no such thing as a cure-all wonder drug.

In Uber Coca (1885), Sigmund Freud concluded that cocaine, then a new drug with little research (sound familiar?), was “not detrimental to the body” and “repeated doses of coca produce no compulsive desire to use the stimulant further”. He also erroneously declares cocaine as less harmful than alcohol and recommends its use to treat alcohol and morphine addiction, dismissing the possibility of becoming a “coquero” (cocaine user/ addict).

It’s interesting to note that the final line of the essay refers to a writer: “a young writer, who was enabled by treatment with coca to resume his work after a longish illness, gave up using the drug because of the undesirable secondary effects which it had on him.”

At the time Uber Coca was published, hundreds of medical products littered the market touting cocaine as the prime, cure-all ingredient, from rheumatism to impotency.

It seems insane now to think of cocaine as a safe and non-addictive medication.

In conclusion, I believe one should exercise caution when considering to take a substance – for any reason. But in regards to writing, I will end this post with an extract from Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000): “substance-abusing writers are just substance abusers […]. Creative people probably do run a greater risk of alcoholism and addiction than those in some other jobs, but so what? We all look pretty much the same when we’re puking in the gutter.”


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