In which I reveal my inner conservative

So, out in the world of academia and allied fields, there is much debate about the use of "cognition-enhancing" or "smart" drugs. Some of the medications in question are medications commonly used to treat ADHD, such as Adderall, or newer medications initially formulated to treat narcolepsy, such as Provigil. They increase alertness, enhance mental acuity, and decrease the need for sleep. They are rumored to be heavily used amongst academics, and there is a lot of commentary about said use. The good people at Nature, no group of intellectual slouches, recently published a commentary in the "for" column, which (full disclosure) I have not yet read in its full entirety. (I will as soon as I make some more tea.)

A few months ago I read this first-person account of one writer's use of Provigil.

The next morning I woke up and felt immediately alert. Normally it takes a coffee and an hour to kick-start my brain; today I’m ready to go from the second I rise. And so it continues like this, for five days: I inhale books and exhale articles effortlessly. My friends all say I seem more contemplative, less rushed – which is odd, because I’m doing more than normal. One sixty-something journalist friend says she remembers taking Benzadrine in the sixties to get through marathon articles, but she’d collapse after four or five says and need a long, long sleep. I don’t feel like that. I keep waiting for an exhausted crash, and it doesn’t seem to come.

I would be lying like grandma's rug if I did not say that this sounded incredibly appealing. I was raised in a home where being smart was important (and, being a pencil-necked little geek growing up, was my only real asset for large swaths of my childhood [Alert, mother -- my self-esteem is fine, and I am perfectly happy with my childhood memories. Do not feel the need to comfort me in the comments section]) and since then I've tended to have really smart friends and co-workers (nb. the other contributors to this blog). Making the most of my neurons holds lots of appeal.

And yet, I vote "no." For one, as the author of the account mentions, we don't yet know what the long-term effects of these medications will be. Having had beloved grandparents lose their cognitive functioning as time went by, I am particularly loath to do anything that would hasten any possible decline. We don't know if these medications are safe in the long-term.

Further, as this author writes, we don't know what this will do to academic expectations and the academic playing field. Will smart drugs homogenize the manner in which students and professors learn, sanding down the rough edges of our collective consciousness in abstract but meaningful ways? Who knows?

But here's my biggest beef, and it speaks to my current worldview. Smart drugs are, basically, cheating. They are bad for the soul. (If discussion of "the soul" makes you gag, sorry.) They allow us to confuse the value of a process of improvement with the end result. In addition to being utterly terrible for you, anabolic steroids let you get bigger without working harder, and side-step the salubrious effect that working hard has on aspects of the self beyond just the physical. Psychedelics yield transcendence without the spiritual labor that produced the visions of St. Teresa or Simone Weil. And "smart drugs" do the same for the mind.

As someone who is desperately trying to slog through the Hollanders' translation of Dante's Paradiso (which, for the record, is kind of excruciating) for the sole purpose of being able to brag about it, there is an appeal to being able to make the cantos fly by. But I'm not sure it would be good for my brain. And I think it would be terrible for my soul.

By the bye, I am particularly keen on hearing from my fellow posters about this.

(Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan for the original idea for this post.)

1 comment:

  1. Hmm. You would like a level playing field.
    How about using the same medications for Alzheimer's patients? I would guess that genes play a role in both intellectual ability and susceptibility to certain diseases. Why is treating one more natural or ethical than the other?
    Along a similar vein, is being raised in a family that values education "cheating?" Or, is that just good fortune?