An article in today’s Observer calls for random dope testing of students to detect the use of ‘smart drugs’ being taken for cognitive enhancement. If you didn’t already know, then it tells you Ritalin and Modafinil are available over the Internet. Improving ‘alertness and attention’ in this way is raising ethical concerns about potential cheating. It’s ok to improve brain functioning while studying but not under exam conditions. I have a three hour exam coming up; my first in decades. If there were a quick fix solution to memorising 12 weeks of study materials and writing three one-hour essays, then I would be sorely tempted. But the problem with effective drugs is the speed at which they become habitual. We seem hot wired to seek out improvements on our current state of mind and then feel compelled to repeat the behaviour as and when required. Dependency is a dangerous direction of choice. The article suggests legalising cognitive enhancement could result in either shorter working weeks with more leisure time or a 24/7 working culture with greater productivity and, presumably, capacity for creativity. Sounds quite appealing with echoes of Soma in Huxley’s Brave New World which had ‘all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol and none of their defects’.
Drugs are a bit like technology. It’s not what they do but the way in which they are used. Smart drugs raise questions about the legitimacy of chemically altering mental capacity. Should we struggle with what we have or is it ethically acceptable to seek to enhance it? Or is altering the brain like plastic surgery to alter the body; your money your choice! The highest risk seems to be buying drugs over the Internet in the first place. There’s no guarantee you’re not getting sugar pills in plagiarised packaging. The other danger is the more students, researchers and scientists (Can a daily pill really boost your brain power? Nature 20/09/09) participate in self-medication then greater advantage will be taken by those illegally supplying this new lucrative market.