Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 15, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

A BETTER YOU....Via Andrew Sullivan, Johann Hari describes his experiment taking Provigil, the pill that college students describe as "Viagra for the brain":

I picked up a book about quantum physics and super-string theory I have been meaning to read for ages, for a column I'm thinking of writing. It had been hanging over me, daring me to read it. Five hours later, I realised I had hit the last page. I looked up. It was getting dark outside. I was hungry. I hadn't noticed anything, except the words I was reading, and they came in cool, clear passages; I didn't stop or stumble once.

Perplexed, I got up, made a sandwich — and I was overcome with the urge to write an article that had been kicking around my subconscious for months. It rushed out of me in a few hours, and it was better than usual....The next morning I woke up and felt immediately alert. Normally it takes a coffee and an hour to kick-start my brain; today I'm ready to go from the second I rise. And so it continues like this, for five days: I inhale books and exhale articles effortlessly. My friends all say I seem more contemplative, less rushed — which is odd, because I'm doing more than normal. One sixty-something journalist friend says she remembers taking Benzadrine in the sixties to get through marathon articles, but she'd collapse after four or five says and need a long, long sleep. I don't feel like that. I keep waiting for an exhausted crash, and it doesn't seem to come.

I want some! Maybe not permanently or anything, but I have to admit it would be interesting to give it a try and see if I suddenly started churning out dozens of brilliant blog posts a day.

Of course, there's always the possibility that Provigil would be bad for blogging. Perhaps I'd get an idea, slip into a zone, and only emerge five hours later. The resulting post would be brilliant, I'm sure, but I'd only crank out one or two a day. That's not much of a blog. Perhaps there are advantages to a short attention span.

Kevin Drum 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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Whatever you do Kevin, do. not. give. any. to. Thersites.

And someone had better tie Swan up, STAT.

Posted by: optical weenie on May 15, 2008 at 1:30 PM | PERMALINK

I took it for four years and didn't notice anything like this. It just kept me awake, but there was no noticeable increase in focus.

Posted by: Susie from Philly on May 15, 2008 at 1:30 PM | PERMALINK

You might want to be careful about this family of drugs, which are notoriously bad for the liver. Something college students might not care about, but middle-aged folk might think about.

Posted by: Carol on May 15, 2008 at 1:35 PM | PERMALINK

Someone should take this pill and then tabulate all the 100's of ways "Viagra" has been used as a metaphor.

Posted by: Robert on May 15, 2008 at 1:40 PM | PERMALINK

There isn't a drug going that isn't supposed to be bad for the liver. Your worst problem is being found out and labeled an elitist.

P.S. I'd be interested in hearing from any other folks who have tried it. Apparently we have one person who discovered his godhead and one who wants his money back. Anecdotes anyone?

Posted by: Everyman on May 15, 2008 at 1:43 PM | PERMALINK

But if you do this, then there's the inevitable press conference where they ask you if you've been "juicing" on the job, then other bloggers ask for a Congressional investigation, then maybe you say you're not on da dope but your cats are...

I don't know. Think this thing through, very carefully.

I'm thinking with my slow, 50ish brain, that it's sure tempting...

Posted by: Miss Otis on May 15, 2008 at 1:47 PM | PERMALINK

The military has been using it a lot instead of traditional psychostimulants. Here's an ABC story about it from last year:

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on May 15, 2008 at 1:50 PM | PERMALINK

proGivil? ProVigil, maybe.

Posted by: ferd on May 15, 2008 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK

I've used Provigil several times when I've had to fly to Europe overnight and attend a meeting or give a paper immediately after arrival. A few times, I was the smartest guy in the room, and sometimes I was just the same old me, but wide-awake after awake all night. CAUTION: Provigil is contra-indicated for people with left ventricle issues. This stuff is powerful juju, not to be messed about with. By the way, I learned about it from an airline pilot friend, who flew long haul to Europe and Asia for an American airline.

Posted by: Etaoin Shrdlu on May 15, 2008 at 1:59 PM | PERMALINK

But Kevin, you already churn out many brilliant blog posts a day

Posted by: Warren on May 15, 2008 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK

But Kevin, you already churn out many brilliant blog posts a day

Posted by: Warren on May 15, 2008 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK

People with manic hypergraphia can churn out an insane amount of crap per hour, but it's still crap.

This reminds me a little bit of my college days, where I would partake of any of the local brands of organic pharmaceuticals, sit out in the woods, and jot down these fantastic ideas into my notebook.

I then woke up the next day and read my exciting entries, like:

"Dude, what if fried eggs were, like, people."

"The Earth is, like, a giant map."

Posted by: BombIranForChrist on May 15, 2008 at 2:07 PM | PERMALINK

It's like Viagra ...On Steroids!

all joking aside.. My grandmom had this ordered for her, and she was like a Meth fiend. So, I went through her pillbox, one by one, to test them on myself to find the offending substance. The Provigil made me feel extremely confident, optimistic, clear-headed, goal-oriented, extroverted. I haven't done cocaine, but it reminded me of what my friends seem like when they're on cocaine, but for 12+ hours per pill. (I immediately threw away the Provigil, seeing how tempting it would be to use them recreationally.)

Before I take this med, I'll wait for a few years so any weird side-effects have time to come to light. (What if all the Provigil people start getting steroid-like disorders, or meth-addict skin or something?!)

Posted by: absent observer on May 15, 2008 at 2:07 PM | PERMALINK

If you took it you could give up editing and just have it pour out real time like a monologue in a chat. It would be the most up to date blog ever.

Posted by: crack on May 15, 2008 at 2:09 PM | PERMALINK

You must have been a blast in your college days, sure wish I knew you then. I don't remember thinking about fried eggs when I was studying my organic chemistry.

Posted by: optical weenie on May 15, 2008 at 2:09 PM | PERMALINK

Of course, you might think it helped you write the best blog ever (kinda like how funny a joke is when you are high). But when you come down, you find that that "perfect clarity" is really just tongues...

Posted by: George on May 15, 2008 at 2:14 PM | PERMALINK

Re: progivil or provigil?

ferd, I noticed the misspelling too.

I think it's Provigil.

I could use some, if only to restore what used to be my hyperlexia. Can't proof worth a damn anymore.

Posted by: paxr55 on May 15, 2008 at 2:19 PM | PERMALINK

Consider the non-drug method of neurofeedback. My husband has been getting it for tumor/surgery/radiation/chemo damage and the effect has been wonderful. I decided to try it for normal brain fog. I have had five sessions and felt very clear and focused after two of the five. I did not take the opportunity to write up my plans for world peace but I did balance my checkbook without self-pity.

Posted by: Bostonian in Brooklyn on May 15, 2008 at 2:21 PM | PERMALINK

In my experience, I was completely coherent. Maybe at toxic levels you'd become delusional, but at low level I was as rational as I'd ever been. -just more enthusiastic.

It's the long-term use of this substance that worries me. I speculate that it may be dangerous long-term. ...But, then again, there are some powerful substance that have no long-term side-effects. the jury's out, for me.

Posted by: absent observer on May 15, 2008 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin's blog is fine as it is. No chemical manipulation is really needed.

Now, if Matt Yglesias used this, maybe it would clear up his bizarre problem with typos. Maybe he'd even start to read his own posts!

On further thought, I'm imagining something like "Flowers for Algernon." Blogger X's posts just get better and better until the whole world is reading them ... and then the process reverses itself, and they sink back into a semiliterate swamp.

Hmmmm. Best to let somebody else experiment with this stuff first.

Posted by: J on May 15, 2008 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

This is very bad news for the GOP.

Posted by: Joe on May 15, 2008 at 2:41 PM | PERMALINK

Did anyone else read the list of side effects on the Provigil web page?

"Provigil is a prescription medicine used to improve wakefulness..." and one of the common side effects is "trouble sleeping". Surely that didn't come as a complete surprise.

Posted by: jeri on May 15, 2008 at 2:45 PM | PERMALINK

I'm surprised no one has pointed out the obvious problem with drugs like this. No, it's not any supposed side effects. Widespread use of this stuff will likely follow all other performance and productivity enhancing technology...what helps with the workload of today leads to an increased workload tomorrow, to the point where people HAVE to take these drugs just to keep pace with the new standards of production.


Posted by: MBunge on May 15, 2008 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

When the biker gangs begin mixing this stuff up in bathtubs, American trailer park residents will never vote for a Republican again.

The summer of 2008 could become known as the Summer of Reading and Writing.

Posted by: Brojo on May 15, 2008 at 2:52 PM | PERMALINK

You haven't tried Provigil until you've injected it into your penis. Sorry ladies.

Posted by: Mr. Awful on May 15, 2008 at 2:59 PM | PERMALINK

I had to have a liver function test every six months. And no, I didn't have anything like the wonderful experiences these people are describing. (Maybe because I'm pretty cool to begin with.)

Maybe it has something to do with the reason you take it - mine was prescribed for narcolepsy.

Posted by: Susie from Philly on May 15, 2008 at 3:02 PM | PERMALINK

what helps with the workload of today leads to an increased workload tomorrow, to the point where people HAVE to take these drugs just to keep pace with the new standards of production.

Kind of like how the work day is already structured to deny you a siesta, necessitating the use of caffeine for anyone over 30?

Posted by: Boronx on May 15, 2008 at 3:02 PM | PERMALINK

Nobody ever said I was soft in the brain.

Posted by: thersites on May 15, 2008 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK


He's so much smarter under the influence of "Provigil" that he MANAGES TO MISSPELL IT TWELVE TIMES IN HIS OWN FUCKING ARTICLE.

Thank you.

Posted by: Grand Moff Texan on May 15, 2008 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

Be interesting to find out how much this person remembers of superstring theory, etc... a week or two later.

Posted by: thersites on May 15, 2008 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

Here's another take on Provigil, from a 2004 Salon article. After reporting some good (and some bad) reactions throughout a five-day test period, the author closes thusly:

The next day I take it earlier in the day than usual. Almost instantly, I want to start pulling at my hair. At the office, I zig and zag among my co-workers, though I can't tell if I appear alive and charming, or nervous and annoying. I know for sure that I look pasty. I also know I haven't touched the big story I wake up each morning vowing to conquer.

And then there's this strange feeling: I can, for the first time, understand how people who are heavily medicated feel crazy and out of control and even suicidal.

I'm not going to kill myself, but somehow this drug in my body makes that all seem less scary, less completely and totally out of the question. I don't know exactly how (nor, apparently, do the makers of the drug), but my brain chemistry has been altered, and I don't like where it's headed. I've had enough.

When I wake up the next day after a fitful night's sleep I say, without a smirk for possibly the first time ever, thank God it's Friday, the fifth and final day of my test drive. I take my final Provigil with ruby red orange juice at 2:38 p.m. My insides instantly fill with butterflies. At 2:46 my hands feel more tingly than twitchy, not so bad at all. The rush feels like an eight-year-old's first downhill slide on the log flume ride at an amusement park -- fast, cold and just a little scary. Am I going to miss it? Maybe. But this shit isn't good for me. And even if it is, I can't afford it. I vow to get more exercise, drink less coffee, and meet a woman named Ula.

That night I remove my computer from my room, tuck myself into bed with a cup of decaf green tea, a good book, and no impending panic of another day on a drug that I've loved to hate. To my right is a beside light -- damn that Edison. I read a few pages, then flip the switch and doze off into the unknown.

Posted by: nolo on May 15, 2008 at 3:08 PM | PERMALINK


I was going to order your Gas Tax Holiday presents today, but I slipped into some sort of zone.

Seriously, this sounds like something out of a Philip K. Dick novel. Not thanks, kiddies. Not for ol' Uncle Thersites.

Posted by: thersites on May 15, 2008 at 3:11 PM | PERMALINK

"Prosaic: The way you deserve to write"

Ask your doctor.

Posted by: CSTAR on May 15, 2008 at 3:11 PM | PERMALINK

Methamphetamine's does the same thing, until you take it for too long.

Posted by: Jeff II on May 15, 2008 at 3:23 PM | PERMALINK

In instructed Kevin to NOT give you any. Actually I wasn't worried so much about you - that was teasing you know - as about Swan. Could you imagine 10 times more commenting? Kevin would have to get another server.

Posted by: optical weenie on May 15, 2008 at 3:24 PM | PERMALINK

Note that I instructed Kevin to NOT give you any. Actually I wasn't so much worried about you - I was just teasing you know - as about Swan. Imagine if she posted 10X what she does now? Kevin would have to get another server.

Posted by: optical weenie on May 15, 2008 at 3:26 PM | PERMALINK

Sorry about the double post - I thought I cancelled the first one because I caught a typo just as I pressed post. Obviously I'm not as quick on the draw as I used to be.

Posted by: optical weenie on May 15, 2008 at 3:28 PM | PERMALINK

Weenie: Sorry about the double post

And what did you take this morning, eh?

Posted by: thersites on May 15, 2008 at 3:53 PM | PERMALINK

Yoghurt and fruit and 2 cups of coffee. I guess I shouldn't have had the second cup.

I see that your typing has improved now that you are using your nose. Maybe I should get a straight jacket.

Posted by: optical weenie on May 15, 2008 at 4:05 PM | PERMALINK

I know that Provigil isn't a stimulant, but as a long time ADD med user, I have a guess as to what would happen if you used it for a long time: your body would get used to it and you wouldn't notice it anymore.

The first day I took Ritalin, I felt that time had slowed down. Especially when driving, I had more time to think and react. Weird and amazing. Within a week or so I couldn't even tell it was in my body. It still works for the ADD, but the weird perceptions are gone.

Posted by: Emma Anne on May 15, 2008 at 4:24 PM | PERMALINK

This stuff has been around for four years? And I'm just hearing about it?

Next thing you'll be telling me a black guy and a woman are running for President.

Focus people. You gotta' keep me up to date on these things, okay?

Posted by: bobbywaly on May 15, 2008 at 4:25 PM | PERMALINK

For a healthier, less extreme version of the same, try Ginko Biloba. It doesn't work for everybody, but for me, I get the alertness and focus of a nice dose of caffeine, but without the jitters. I tend to get pretty sleepy when it wears off in about six hours, but no one else I've talked to has experienced that effect. The good thing about GB is that it really is okay to take on a regular basis. It improves the circulation in the brain, and helps protect from Alzheimers. (Doesn't help with my spelling, however...)

Posted by: Jess on May 15, 2008 at 4:27 PM | PERMALINK

I'm pretty sure a lot of people would read a blog that was 1 brilliant post a day.

A lot of people are looking more for something new and brilliant than they are for the same news and observations that will appear on 50 other blogs and their comments.

Posted by: Swan on May 15, 2008 at 4:44 PM | PERMALINK

Just think, if you swore off Swampland and read the 1-brilliant-post-a-day blog instead, you'd save a lot of time, and be nothing but better for it.

Posted by: Swan on May 15, 2008 at 4:55 PM | PERMALINK

Godammit, I've been trying to get my hands on Provigil ever since I started law school in '04. Short of faking narcolepsy to my GP or forging a prescription and faxing it to a Canadian online pharmacy, how the hell do you get your hands on this stuff? I ordered it from an "foreign pharmacy" and only managed to get fake pills from India that came with an enclosure explaining how selling them to me was legal under the U.S. Constitution.

Posted by: Xanthippas on May 15, 2008 at 4:58 PM | PERMALINK

Fun fact: Provigil is very expensive and generates billions in revenue for its maker, Cephalon. This is another one of those companies that bribes other manufacturers with millions to keep generic forms of the drug off the market, so you'll be paying through the nose. Last I read, the FTC was suing them.

Posted by: R. Porrofatto on May 15, 2008 at 5:22 PM | PERMALINK

It sounds too good to be true. I bet the anedote about the string theory book is a fraud.

Posted by: Swan on May 15, 2008 at 5:36 PM | PERMALINK

Susie, I just read in wikipedia that Provigil's effects are most pronounced in "low-performing" people, which really helps my self-esteem having reported such strong side-effects.

Lee, fuck off with the drug commercials already! You should write: "Ask your doctor if a $200/month pill is right for you." :)

Posted by: absent observer on May 15, 2008 at 5:37 PM | PERMALINK

sorry, my ADHD meds must have burped and I hit the post button during the delay.

Posted by: lee on May 15, 2008 at 5:41 PM | PERMALINK

As I approach sixty, the '60s are coming back to meet me. How perfect.

Seriously, I think I will wait till long term effects have been studied. Then again, my "long term" will be shorter when I get to sixty. Hmmm...

Posted by: MLuther on May 15, 2008 at 5:44 PM | PERMALINK

I don't think you need it, Kevin...

...But our drug culture doesn't produce sound science on whether any mind or body altering substance is healthy or good or not.

Posted by: Crissa on May 15, 2008 at 5:54 PM | PERMALINK

As a full-time freelance writer who struggles with organization and focus, I can concur that Provigil is pretty amazing, especially compared to the more common Adderall, which I found did nothing for me. I had gotten the Provigil from a doctor who had samples. Unfortunately, the only way I could keep taking it is to pay for it totally out-of-pocket, because it hasn't been approved by the FDA for people with concentration problems. I think it's mostly been approved as a medication for narcolepsy. So a doctor would have to prescribe it for me "off label," which means insurance won't cover it. I wonder how this guy got it. I guess I'll click over to the article and see if he explains that. (If I were on Provigil, I'd probably have already read the article by now.)

Posted by: Greg on May 15, 2008 at 5:58 PM | PERMALINK

It's also a decongestant.

I recommend never taking it for this.

Provigil lets you be hyper aware. And hyper aware of each and every ache, burn, and pain that your body may be experiencing.

You never, ever want to know what the sensation of your lung cells dying due to the flu feels like. It's just not needed to know or experience. Just knowing it hurts and there's lots of mucus is mercifully enough.

Posted by: Crissa on May 15, 2008 at 6:23 PM | PERMALINK

I took it for several months, and was even in a drug study the sequel drug "armodafinil" (which is just a single-enantiomer formulation of the same active ingredient).

I found very little affect on alertness that I could notice, but a dramatic increase in emotional lability. I spent a lot of my time on that drug frantic and upset. (Which is actually a known and reasonably common side-effect of modafinil.)

Posted by: IdahoEv on May 15, 2008 at 6:27 PM | PERMALINK

It is going to be so much more challenging for us when a drug like this arrives that does not come complete with its own karmic retribution.
Not sure if Provigil is it. Certainly not for everyone. But it may be for some.

Posted by: Jessica on May 15, 2008 at 6:33 PM | PERMALINK

I dunno, Crissa, you make it sound sort of fun. Sometimes I think that the only thing that saved me from meth addiction when I was young and foolish was the constant pain in my teeth.

Posted by: thersites on May 15, 2008 at 6:37 PM | PERMALINK

I've been reading about modafinil (ProVigil) for years now, since an article in Slate (not the one quoted above but a more favorable one, IIRC).

Like Greg, I have trouble focusing when I have to research and write -- I'm a grad student. I talked to my doctor about it, and he's reluctant to prescribe it except as a last resort, but he has referred me to a specialist for more information. We'll see.

I used to play tournament bridge. I'd be surprised if the top echelons of the game are not all taking this. I also remember some track athletes getting banned with this drug in their system.

Someone mentioned Adderall ... a lot of students around here take it, and many of them regret it. Unlike modafinil, it's somewhat addictive IIRC, and it leads to heavy crashes.

Posted by: editer on May 15, 2008 at 7:19 PM | PERMALINK

I had been on adrafinil, a much less expensive drug with fewer side effects which metabolizes into Provigil, for a few weeks. It increased my blood pressure, so I can't take it.

Posted by: Whitheld on May 15, 2008 at 7:27 PM | PERMALINK

I've been taking Provigil for about a month, in my case to counter the daze-inducing effect of a muscle-relaxant I have to take. It works for that, but it certainly hasn't given me superhuman productivity (and my blood pressure seems to be up a tad, so I'm going back to the doctor for advice).

Posted by: JC1964 on May 15, 2008 at 7:59 PM | PERMALINK

I'm an ER doc. Took it for my 4 night shifts a month for about 2 months. It made me jittery, upset, emotional, and even more short-tempered than usual. Won't try it again. Instead, I'm insisting on taking a 20 minute break around 3am, and I lie in a dark room. I give instructions that I am only to be disturbed for near-death cases, which unfortunately happens quite often in this line of work. This makes me unpopular, but I think more effective for the early morning hours.

Posted by: House Whisperer on May 15, 2008 at 8:57 PM | PERMALINK

Don't forget about Progenitorivox! Good for what ails you!

Posted by: steverino on May 15, 2008 at 9:44 PM | PERMALINK

I believe that the name Provigil is a contraction of the terms PROfessional VIGILance. Now it makes sense what their market targets are.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on May 15, 2008 at 11:12 PM | PERMALINK

Trusting Andrew Sullivan on self-medication is about the dumbest idea ever. Being inspired by him is even dumber. This is one more self-obsessed, narcissistic column by Sullivan glorying his life as a kind of living drug cocktail--Provigil, testosterone, and, alas, AIDS drugs.

The last, of course, is not his choice in any real sense. But the testosterone that he experimented with, and the Provigil? They're nothing more than self-indulgence. And then he writes about them so he can say to the world "Look at me! I'm so self-indulgent! Aren't I wonderful?! (Smart! Creative! A trend-setter!)"

It would be interesting to know about any columns he may have written about his use of "illicit" drugs during college or his 20s or 30s. I find it richly hypocritical that so many conservatives (most?) are so willing to decry the use of drugs or various sexual practices, and then pursue them with such two-faced vigor.

I don't know if Sullivan is a hypocrite about drugs, but I don't think that conservatives have the right to just pick and choose only the conservative planks that they like. If you're in the conservative movement, you're in it for the whole hog. If you're not, maybe you should think about joining the "libruls," who'll let you make your own decisions.

Posted by: Anon on May 16, 2008 at 12:08 AM | PERMALINK

I hadn't heard of this stuff. It's good to hang with libs now and then to keep up with the drug culture.

Posted by: Luther on May 16, 2008 at 12:55 AM | PERMALINK

Well, I did enough research to worry about the close relationship between this drug and meth in its chemistry .

I would not try this until other fools have tried it for a few years.

Posted by: Matt on May 16, 2008 at 10:11 AM | PERMALINK

Anybody know a reputable on-line pharmacy?

Posted by: someotherdude on May 16, 2008 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

Perhaps I'd get an idea, slip into a zone, and only emerge five hours later. The resulting post would be brilliant, I'm sure, but I'd only crank out one or two a day. That's not much of a blog.

Really? I'd say it worked pretty well for Billmon.

Posted by: Tommy Corn on May 16, 2008 at 4:50 PM | PERMALINK

I've been using Provigil since about the middle of last year. It's been a life-saver, literally; my job involves being behind the wheel of a vehicle about six hours a day, and I was having atacks of drowsiness during the day that had me having "mini-blackouts" of a second or two at the wheel. Scary stuff. (Not just for my own sake, but because I didn't want to plow down anyone in the senior citizen community I deliver mail to each day.)

So far, my insurance has covered most of the cost (my share is about $2 a pill, rather than about $10), though I worry that they might stop, since my doctor's diagnosis so far has been "excessive daytime sleepiness" rather than "narcolepsy".

(Hopefully, my retirement next month from the Post Office will mean lifestyle changes that let me get more sleep at night, and I'll be able to discontinue the Provigil. But, man, I am SO grateful that it's available. I am, really, not kidding when I call it a life-saver.)

Other than the desired anti-drowsiness effects and an occasional increase in alertness, I don't seem to have had any of the negative or hyper-positive side-effects some people have mentioned.

(I wonder what dosage was being taken in those cases with side-effects? My own dose is 200mg a day, occasionally 400 if it's an especially bad day. But I believe the military studies of the drug were using dosages between 800-1500 mg a day. Might make a difference.)

Posted by: Bruce A. on May 16, 2008 at 8:51 PM | PERMALINK

Anon of May 16 at 12:08 - Johann Hari wrote the article, not Andrew Sullivan (he just linked to it). Try to be a bit more careful when you excoriate someone for something he didn't say.

Posted by: Rebecca on May 17, 2008 at 11:15 PM | PERMALINK



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