For several years claims have surfaced reporting that modafinil will make you smarter, learn faster, and improve your focus and attention. A stern debate has evolved, with some sides claiming that modafinil makes no difference and that any gains are simply a result of the placebo effect, and others upholding the statement that modafinil will make you smarter, in a sense.
Fortunately this year a major review of several clinical trials has been released. It thoroughly examined 24 studies from the past 12 years, and gathered up all of their findings under one roof. Peer review is an excellent way to make sense of all of these complicated experiments, and at last we can put the topic to rest.
We’re going to look at three areas that are often cited as improved by modafinil: Memory, Executive Function, and Attention.
Modafinil Makes you Smarter: Memory
Memory is complex, but it’s imperative to learning. If you can’t remember what you saw in your last class, then how will you build on that in the next one? Long-term memory on modafinil has not been investigated, but it has been shown to improve short-term memory, which eventually will become a long-term memory if it’s used again.
Multiple studies looked at both verbal and non-verbal short-term memory. Why is the difference important? Verbal information is processed and retained in different parts of the brain, and therefore they can be affected differently by modafinil. Much of your speech processing is localized in the left side of the brain, which modafinil tends to excite. Non-verbal information might be related to remembering a phone number that somebody wrote down for you, while verbal information could be compared to remembering your girlfriend’s birthday after she tells you for the hundredth time.
In both cases modafinil showed an improvement in performance, although there were in some instances slight increases in response time, meaning that it took modafinil users a split-second longer to connect the dots and recall the information. That drawback is negligible compared to the performance gains seen on the tests. While some studies showed no improvement, the majority did and none revealed negative results.
Modafinil Makes you Smarter: Executive Function
“Executive functions mediate the selection and manipulation of incoming information, use of that information to construct and initiate action plans, and enlistment of other cognitive functions and brain regions into complex task-oriented networks (Diamond, 2013).”
The frontal lobe is where most of our executive function takes place. Much as its name implies, executive function is similar to the job of a CEO, and your CEO’s office is the frontal lobe of your brain. The frontal lobe takes data from all of your senses, makes sense of them, and formulates a plan to deal with that situation. In addition the area checks with your memories and imagines possible outcomes for any given scenario. In short, all of your decisions are made here.
Modafinil was found to provide two benefits in this regard: Inhibitory Control, and Fluid Intelligence. Inhibitory control is basically your brain’s way of discarding or ignoring information. If your frontal lobe is working well, it’ll quickly throw away whatever information doesn’t help form a good conclusion. This is great for when you’re studying, because it means that as you read your material you’ll be able to sort through it faster and find what you’re looking for without getting confused by other data.
“Fluid intelligence is the ability to cope with novelty, to think rapidly and flexibly, and to see relations amongst items independent of acquired knowledge, and is predictive of life outcomes such as income, performance at work, and health (Au et al., 2014, Sternberg et al., 2013).”
This right here is the most impressive improvement modafinil made. Studies have consistently shown that one’s fluid intelligence, or in other words your ability to intelligently navigate ever-changing circumstances (that flow, like a fluid), is indicative of your success in life. Life is constantly raining down new problems for us to manage, and having the ability to see through the blurry windscreen and arrive to your destination is essential. Modafinil users exceeded their non-modafinil counterparts in several portions of the test.
Modafinil (doesn’t) make you smarter: Attention
Hold on, could it be that modafinil’s most famous feature, powerful focus and attention, is all a myth? The same study explained attention as the combination of three factors:
- Selective attention– the ability to detect specific stimuli within an environment containing distractors
- Sustained attention– the maintenance of a consistent behavioural response during continuous or repetitive activity
- Divided attention– the ability to allocate cognitive resources to two or more stimulus features or separate tasks
The study found that none of these were consistently improved. In each case a single study or two found positive results, but the overwhelming majority of the 24 in question proved negative.
However another attribute of attention is alertness, which can be considered as your sensitivity to an outside stimulus. In this case, modafinil did improve alertness as subjects were more responsive to stimuli.
Apparently modafinil is not really improving attention so much as it improves the mind’s ability to sort through information (the inhibitory control mentioned above.)
So does modafinil make you smarter?
In a word, yes. It will improve your cognitive functions while on modafinil, as well as enhance your short-term memory. But do not expect permanent gains as these boosts are only temporary when using modafinil. The conclusions of this study reported that more standardized methods are needed to really be able to quantify this data, so hopefully we’ll have more news for you soon.