Cornell can be a lot of work. Hard pressed to make more out of finite waking hours, we use all means available to boost productivity. That can be good study practices, an exercise routine, or neurochemical enhancement, the latter being especially seductive for its magic-like effortlessness. Sadly, there are few effective substances one can safely use, and when coffee fails to deliver, some choose to go to sleep, and others resort to not-so-safe amphetamines. But what about nicotine?
First things first. Just as any brochure on the subject will promise you, smoking is addictive and packed with health risks. But what public education gets wrong is that nicotine is to blame: this mild and relatively safe substance is like an innocent pedestrian who got framed for murder for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
The year was 1988, and the anti-smoking campaign was at its climax. The problem was, even though it was clear cigarettes were addictive, no one really knew why, and for a good reason: tobacco smoke is a complicated mix of tar, carbon dioxide and an uncountable list of toxins. Pressured to find a culprit, scientists squinted at their numbers and proclaimed nicotine guilty. Now, whenever you see a statement like, “nicotine is as addictive as heroine and increases the likelihood of a heart attack 10-fold,” what the statistic actually refers to are smoking studies. But drawing conclusions about nicotine from smoking studies is like measuring the effects of lemon juice by administering participants rounds of Long Island iced teas!
The recurrent tale of mainstream science going awry when pressed by well-meaning politicians always ends the same way: sooner or later the scientists come to their skeptic senses and head back into the lab. With nicotine, this seems to have happened in the recent couple of decades, during which a number of experiments on administering pure nicotine to humans and animals took place. I won’t belabor you with the details here, but exemplary is the 2016 Royal College of Physicians report concluding that “nicotine alone in the doses used by smokers represents little if any hazard to the user.” Nicotine has even been touted as a potential antidepressant and as a treatment to prevent Alzheimer’s. Still, its infamous legacy lives on.
By now I have hopefully planted some doubt about whether nicotine received a fair trial. But beware. Don’t trust the amateur that I am. Research the matter yourself before taking action.
Back already? Now, let’s talk business.
You can order nicotine gum on Amazon or buy it in a nearby pharmacy. Marketed for quitting smoking, it works just as well for our purposes of cognitive boosting. At the price of $0.20 per dose (1-2 mg should be enough for a non-smoker), it’s probably the best value cognitive commodity on the market. After chewing it for a minute you will feel alert, energetic and ready to rumble. To be more precise, you start to move and react faster, remember more, you gain approximately 1 IQ point; sleep becomes less essential for performance; finally, although not as importantly, your handwriting improves (the things those scientists chose to measure). In contrast to coffee, there is no slump or withdrawal: your performance simply returns to the baseline when you stop taking the substance, but never below it.
Nicotine is short-lived, the effect from a single dose lasting somewhere from 30 to 60 minutes, and I find that to be a welcome feature. The hardest part about getting things done is getting started, and writing this column was no exception to this. I don’t really need to be wired in the whole time; moreover, excessive energy can be harmful for clear thought and writing (the prime example of this being Stephen King’s cocaine years). But I sure could use a gentle kick in the bottom at the start, something that would get me past staring at the ominously blinking cursor. Nicotine does just that, and then it lets go of you.
Here’s another reason why short half-life is a darling. You’ve probably heard of Pavlov’s dog: back in the 1800s, my compatriot used food as a repeated reward to develop conditioned reflexes in dogs. Well, his theory applies to humans just as well, and instant rewards can be used for efficient habit formation. The only problem is we humans are so used to our food it barely registers as a reward anymore. Enter nicotine.
Say you want to start running, but getting yourself out of the bed for the first couple of weeks is beyond your willpower, so five minutes prior to the workout you chew some gum. The accompanying energy makes it easier to put on the Nikes and start moving, and your inner brain correlates the workout with the neurochemical reward of nicotine and makes the activity easier to commence the next day by circumefusing your brain with dopamine. After a couple of weeks the habit is formed and the chemical crutches can be tossed aside. Voila!
All substances are flawed and so is this one. The main problem is similar to caffeine: if you use it daily you will develop tolerance and ramping up the dose can only go so far. The other important detail is that there is still very little research on long term effects of nicotine use in isolation, primarily because nobody besides ex-smokers ever uses it.
Finally, remember that using stimulants is the lazy way out and by no means a requirement for academic success. Now go chew on that.
Artur is a graduate student studying applied mathematics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Radically Moderate appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.