Modafinil Doesn’t Make You Smarter, or Does It?

A recent study has been circulating recently in the news and has remarked that Modafinil is probably not that effective at increasing your intellectual ability or improving performance.

Seeing as Modafinil has been selling at an ever-increasing pace with over $700 million dollars of profit being netted annually, the question remains: Who is right? Is this study the definitive nail in the coffin for a pill that millions of people are taking? Would so many people take it if it weren’t effective? This article is a thorough response to that study, and the hordes of blog posts aiming to take down Modafinil with the results.

The premise of the study is fairly simple. Other experiments with Modafinil tend to show improved performance correlated with slower response times. The hypothesis is that reduced response times reduce impulsiveness, allowing you to think more clearly about your action before performing it. Therefore the pill is not really making you smarter, just less likely to blurt out the wrong answer, and more likely to tap into your knowledge.

To test this theory, the scientists used the Hayling Sentence Completion Test. The test has a long history of use for measuring response time and impulse control. There are two parts to it: The first requires you to complete a sentence with the correct word, for example: “Please give me a glass of ____” would likely result in the person shouting out the answer “water”. The faster you respond with the correct word, the better, or so the logic goes. The second half is however the opposite, instead of saying “water” you must put in a nonsense word, for example “giraffe”. This tests your ability to suppress a response while simultaneously seeing how quickly you can come up with another one. Again, lower times would be considered better. An incorrect word in the first part, or using the naturally correct word in the second part, counts as an error.

There are 15 questions for each part, and the results of the study show that the Modafinil group was virtually identical to the placebo control group in terms of errors made. But the Modafinil group was considerably slower to provide answers in both parts of the test. Thus, the researchers claimed Modafinil provides no cognitive improvement in this task, which confirmed their original hypothesis.

Modafinil has been purported to improve concentration, focus, and memorization of material being studied. These are the effects that are most commonly reported by users who submit reviews to this blog as well as many other websites selling Modafinil. Reaction time and response accuracy though are not usually cited as positive effects of Modafinil. Users generally don’t report having all the right answers as if by magic during a test, nor do they report flying through tests with impeccable accuracy.

This leads to my main qualm with this scientific study: It disproves something that few (if any) people were claiming in the first place. The only new information that it definitively offers is that your responses will be delayed by a few seconds in situations demanding an immediate answer, and that those answers will not show any noticeable improvement. People aren’t taking Modafinil in hopes of blazing through exams with flying colors. Rather, they take it to prepare for those exams.

Modafinil users consistently report increased retention of information from study sessions, noting that those sessions are usually longer, more productive, and less interrupted by distractions. Effectively it allows a person to absorb more information in one sitting than would otherwise be possible. From there, you regurgitate that information naturally as you would anything else that you have learned.

This test however does not attempt to measure your ability to retain new information. Rather, the answers to the questions on the test are of a “common knowledge” nature, essentially things that everyone already knows. Modafinil was not expected to help in this area, and this was confirmed. These results are now being twisted to suggest that Modafinil will not help you in any way with any of your tasks. This however is simply untrue.

Contrary to Modafinil’s intended purpose, this test experimented on well-rested people of a typical demographic selection. Although Modafinil users come in all shapes and sizes, most of them have difficult schedules and heavy workloads. A more interesting study would be to see how patients do after a larger number of questions, for example 100 instead of 15. Likely as the placebo user gets more exhausted with a larger list of questions, the Modafinil user would probably hold up better. Perhaps a study testing patients after only getting 4 hours of sleep the night before would provide a better picture of how Modafinil benefits people.

This study misses the point of Modafinil. It isn’t supposed to make you smarter as if by magic. It cannot pull out a response if the information wasn’t there in the first place. Modafinil isn’t designed to make you lightning quick and deadly accurate. Instead, it’s designed to increase your capacity for activity. The experiment performed here ultimately discards Modafinil’s greatest asset, and labels it a dud by criticizing a function it never claimed to have.

The trouble with scientific data is that it’s very easy for people to twist to meet a personal agenda. This blog is dedicated to telling people the truth about Modafinil, from one honest user to another. I don’t pretend to be anything I’m not, and neither does Modafinil. This study does tell us something that Modafinil doesn’t do, and I commend the researchers for eliminating that possibility from the table. However, don’t be quick to write it off just because some other blog misinterprets that information to generate headlines.

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