Monday, February 4, 2008

But wait? I thought drugs were to tune out? These kids today, striving to get ahead not fall behind (from Ben Casnocha's blog)

Performance Enhancing Drugs...For Your Mind

My dear friend and loyal reader Massimo from Switzerland asks:

In the local paper today there was an article about the abuse of pharmaceuticals for the purpose of performance improvement in exams and the learning period (especially to improve the short term memory).

They claim that 25% (!) of the college students in the US take "stimulating drugs" or cognitive enhancers such as Ritalin or Modasomil.

Is the use of those brain boosters a topic among students and in the media? Will we have to undergo an anti-doping test after our exams in the future? What are your thoughts about it?

I believe that the use of cognitive enhancing drugs in schools is one of the most underreported stories. From talking to friends and from my own observations, virtually every competitive college campus in America has a lively black market for Ritalin and Adderall and other drugs which help you focus and memorize. As someone who has never used such drugs, I'm annoyed there isn't more policing. Or at least more exploration of the ethics. There has been some chatter about the astonishing increases of high schoolers conveniently diagnosed with a learning disability right before taking the SAT -- so as to secure extra time -- but less about taking performance enhancing drugs when you don't have a clinical need.

But it's more complicated than it seems, this use of technology to gain an edge. For example, should students be able to use a laptop during a test to type out an essay? If so, does this give an unfair advantage to those who can type fast?

Anyway, the use of drugs to get an edge isn't limited to the classroom. According to this L.A. Times article and others, it appears executives and other high stressed people are catching on the wonders of cog-boosting pharma. I feel more OK about adults doing this. Maybe it's because the real world doesn't claim to create a "level playing field" of competition, as schools do.

The bottom line for me is that as mental drugs become cheaper and more effective, and as certain neuroscience technology like fMRI trickle down to the rich and eventually the masses, we're going to have a host of important ethics questions on our hands. To me, far more interesting questions than whether professional baseball or football players are taking steroids.

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