Book review: An overdose of speed


Marek Kohn
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:01

THE FIRST man to be convicted in Britain for dealing cocaine, in 1916, was charged with intent to make soldiers "less capable of performing their duties". He objected that cocaine would have no such effect, because "it makes you most keen on what you are doing". Today, it is American physicians and educators who best appreciate the ability of stimulant drugs to make people keen on activities which may otherwise seem dull.

Ritalin, a drug whose psychopharmacological effects are similar to those of cocaine, is currently prescribed to millions of children whose behaviour has gained them a diagnosis of "attention deficiency". Many of them will stay on Ritalin as they move into adulthood, and the drug is being prescribed more frequently on this side of the Atlantic. The prospect is not just of a "Ritalin Nation", but a "Ritalin International".

Richard DeGrandpre's title refers to more than the mass prescription of Ritalin, though. It expresses the idea that Americans, as a whole, are pursuing a Ritalin way of life. They live frenetic, fragmented and stressful lives; yet when their children show early signs of frenetic and fragmented consciousness, this is presumed to be a biological problem which requires a pharmacological solution.

DeGrandpre makes a persuasive case that Ritalin was actually a solution looking for a problem, which was defined after the drug became available. The vagueness of the definition undermines its credibility, as do its shifting criteria. First, it was a behavioural disorder, of hyperactivity, then one of erratic attention, and now it is both, under the label of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. Meanwhile, the cure has remained the same, with Ritalin enjoying an effective monopoly on treatment. Although it describes genuinely problematic behaviour, ADHD looks like a specious diagnostic category.

DeGrandpre's analysis of the Ritalin Nation is, to a large extent, reactive. The pendulum has swung towards the presumption that behavioural disorders are largely genetic in origin; in response, DeGrandpre shies away from evolutionary accounts of the mind, misguidedly implying that these are inconsistent with uniquely modern abilities such as high-speed driving. But if our minds can cope with driving at speed, why should we worry about their coping with other fast-paced aspects of modern life?

The reason, according to DeGrandpre, is that sensory stimulation is addictive. We get used to stimuli and they lose their effect; they must therefore be constantly amplified and multiplied.

This is a process fundamental to the contemporary world, and it is a real shame that DeGrandpre has chosen to interpret it in terms of addiction, a concept which is as flawed and badly theorised as the idea of prescribing a pill for every behavioural ill. It is not just drugs that are the problem, but the archaic conceptual frameworks that surround them. Any form of repetitive pleasure-seeking behaviour can and is now described as "addictive", making addiction a concept as theoretically hollow as it is morally compelling.

Its regrettable effect in Ritalin Nation is to substitute for explanation. The message is that modern life produces "sensory addictions"; the implication is that these are bad habits, like cigarette smoking, which we should try to give up. We should stop creeping forward while we wait for the traffic lights to turn green; we should spend more time with our families. These things are true, and DeGrandpre writes thoughtfully about practical ways by which we can ease the burden of speed.

Yet it is only in the last few pages that he touches upon the real problem, which is that speed is imposed upon us. People have to jump through life because if they don't, they will be pushed. They work as hard as possible for fear of losing their jobs to harder workers, and to maintain a social status which derives in large part from material wealth. The products on which they spend their earnings are marketed by an ever more intense cacophony of advertising, in which advertisers compete to command attention by creating ever more vivid sensory effects. This is a process driven by competition, not demand from addicts.

What DeGrandpre describes as "sensory addiction" is not like eating cream cakes even though you know you shouldn't. Nor does his suggestion about how Ritalin works, by providing the stimulation that the sensorily addicted child has been seeking from external stimuli, seem to capture the way in which stimulants make people keen on single, often repetitive activities. But his description of fast modern culture's effects as "toxic" is only too apt.

Marek Kohn

The author's book `As We Know It: Coming to Terms with an Evolved Mind' will be published by Granta in July

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