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A superstar user of "intellectual performance-enhancing drugs" was
Paul Erdös.


Paul Hoffman writes, "Erdös first did mathematics
at the age of three, but for the last twenty-five years of his life...
he put in nineteen-hour days, keeping himself fortified with
10 to 20 milligrams of Benzedrine or Ritalin, strong espresso,
and caffeine tablets. "A mathematician," Erdös was fond of saying,
"is a machine for turning coffee into theorems."

"At five foot six, 130 pounds, Erdös had the wizened, cadaverous
look of a drug addict, but friends insist he was frail and gaunt long
before he started taking amphetamines."

"Before Erdös died, on September 20, 1996, at the age of eighty-three,
he had managed to think about more problems than any other
mathematician in history. He wrote or co-authored 1,475 academic papers,
many of them monumental, and all of them substantial. It wasn't just the quantity
of work that was impressive but the quality...." Some people think that the
modern field of concrete mathematics that is the basis for computer science
could not have been developed without his efforts.

Although he was a superstar producer it seems he was not motivated by
ordinary economic stimuli. "What little money Erdös received in stipends
or lecture fees he gave away to relatives, colleagues, students, and strangers.
He could not pass a homeless person without giving him money....In 1984 he won
the prestigious Wolf Prize, the most lucrative award in mathematics. He contributed
most of the $50,000 he received to a scholarship in Israel he established in the name
of his parents. "I kept only seven hundred and twenty dollars," Erdös said, "and I
remember someone commenting that for me even that was a lot of money to keep."
Whenever Erdös learned of a good cause--a struggling classical music radio station,
a fledgling Native American movement, a camp for wayward boys--he promptly made
a small donation." When a student borrowed $1,000 from him to go to Harvard,
and later wanted to pay it back, he suggested that the student do the same as he did.

For him competition was important, he often used money as prizes to challenge
mathematicians to solve problems he alone could not do, however his general way
of working was to show up at a mathematician's doorstep and sit down with them
for some days and work on solutions, he was a problem-solver more than a
theoretician. "With 485 co-authors, Erdös collaborated with more people than any
other mathematician in history."

He never drove himself, it is hard to imagine how his drug use could harm others.
"Like all of Erdös's friends, Graham was concerned about his drug-taking. In 1979,
Graham bet Erdös $500 that he couldn't stop taking amphetamines for a month.
Erdös accepted the challenge, and went cold turkey for thirty days. After Graham
paid up--and wrote the $500 off as a business expense--Erdös said, "You've showed me
I'm not an addict. But I didn't get any work done. I'd get up in the morning and stare at a
blank piece of paper. I'd have no ideas, just like an ordinary person. You've set mathematics
back a month." He promptly resumed taking pills, and mathematics was the better for it."

His inability to cope with everyday life was legendary. "When asked by US immigration,
as he returned after a conference in Amsterdam in 1954, what he thought of Marx, Erdös
made the ill judged reply:-

I'm not competent to judge, but no doubt he was a great man.

Erdös was not allowed back to the United States [for a number of years] but no reason was given.
The files indicate that the official reasons were not the answers Erdös gave to the above questions, but the fact
that he had corresponded with a Chinese mathematician who had subsequently returned from
the United States to China and also Erdös's 1941 FBI record."

You have to think that in today's War on Drugs he would have been arrested and deported.

I as many other people have lived through the distressing consequences of a loved one
addicted to amphetamines. Currently governments probably spend more money on trying
to shut down methamphetamine production than anything else, even though when you look
at externalities such as mortality figures, overdoses from prescription drugs such as methadone
or Xantax are many times more common.

The question of amphetamines increasing "intellectual" production needs more research.
Some military experiments seem to show that pilots can stay awake longer but maybe
not fly any better. In the case of Paul Erdos one has to remember that his genetic heritage
has been speculated as an independent factor for his productivity: he was a Jew from
Budapest just like the very famous physicists and mathematicians in the Manhattan Project
(who are not known for taking drugs). There is some research to show that in some lines
of work it is not intelligence so much as hard work that is the major factor. Maybe the
case of Bobby Fischer and the Polgar sisters provide some evidence for the effort theory,
while in the case of Soviet chess the government did support the production, but individuals
such as Botvinnik wisely also trained for other jobs and so maybe were not so successful.
In chess and math, early effort seems to be important, Erdos is rare for being able to be
productive until age 83, maybe drugs played a role in that.

Although it can be argued that Erdos' drug use was an individual choice, and therefore should
be tolerated, most likely if put to a vote most people would not want to live in such a confined
and strange way, but rather emphatically like neighbors. Certainly there is no reason to
believe that government's promoting or tolerating general use of amphetamines would lead
to social benefits such as mathematical theorems. The question is really in the case of these
superstars, and of course celebrity is a factor in assessing behavior, they are singled out
as society's role models and so the eccentric behavior that accompanies their achievements
cannot be made known, or they must be subject to the rule of law that applies to everyone else.


overdoses from Xantax? If they meant Xanax, it's practically impossible to O/D from xanax without mixing it with alcohol (and then, the o/d is really from increased alcohol effects moreso than from the benzodiazepine alzrazolam).

Michael Brophy

John2, thanks for mentioning Erdos' story. 10-20 mg of Ritalin is not a very big dose. Ritalin is ~ 1/3 as potent as Adderall. I suppose benzedrine was pushed out of the market for abuse; Jack Kerouac wrote of using it. Vyvanse, the most recent amphetamine concoction, lists (cardiac) ventricular hypertrophy and hypertension as side efects. It may be given with guanfacine, a BP lowering drug that reduces the needed dose of stimulant. A clinical example beyond that of the typical ADHD patient is that of a child who answers questions well in grade school but finds that he/she can't maintain concentration and grades as junior high or some other stage comes up. It is as if a processor for information is good but as you progress the buffer needed to retain information for processing is insufficient. So subtly even a case like Erdos may represent a kind of ADHD, the central criteria of which is "maladaptive" inattention.


One question, Is the "ADD/ADHD" diagnosis real or is it really an institutional response to trying to control behaivor? Such that, instead of trying to maintain or develop academic systems that deal with such behaivor (possiibly a naturally occuring developmental behaivor) the institutions in question find it easier to dose students with chemicals and drugs. The whole issue is much akin to the misuse of the diagnosis of schizophrenia sixty to seventy years ago and the use of prefrontal lobotomies.

There was a reason for "Recess" once. Does any one remember it?

Michael Brophy

'Recess' is kind of an interesting idea in relation to ADHD. Recess gives the kids time to go to a 'fun' state. Hopefully, they can then carry that 'fun' over to their work when they come back. It's obvious people can pay more attention when they're having 'fun,' the reward center of the brain is dopamine mediated; stimulants cause dopamine stimulation. Presumably there is some spillover of dopamnergic excitation with 'recess,' known to adults as 'the weekend.'


Everyone who is interested in this post should read the milestone paper on addiction and rationality.



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