Barbara Sahakian gave a talk at the Royal Institution the other day on ‘Smart Drugs’. You can listen to the talk here. The talk received quite a bit of media attention, most notably in an article in the Guardian entitled, “A Pandora’s box full of smart drugs“.
Personally, I think that the data that methylphenidate and modafinil are bona fide cognitive enhancers is not as strong as many suggest, but there is little question that the pharmaceutical industry is gearing up to produce drugs that will satisfy this market (I hesitate to say need) in the years to come. I was reassured that Barbara pointed out to the audience that exercise, both physical and mental, can provide effects that are comparable to what these drugs can offer. Whether the audience heard that or not remains to be seen.
Someone who attended the lecture reported that, “She is disquietingly relaxed about it all; I wasn’t certain that she realises the power of what she is helping to unleash.” This reminded me of the comment that David Healy made at the Brain Matters conference in Halifax in September 2009, where he opined that one of the problematic consequences of neuroethicists talking about cognitive enhancement is that it educates the populace that these compounds exist, and thereby might encourage their use. Indeed, in the comments section of the Guardian article, someone calling themselves the ‘Rabid Racoon’ wrote,
I had no idea these drugs existed, thanks for informing me so I can go buy some.
p.s. slightly disapointed that the ‘ads by google’ which are putatibvely (sic) based on the content of the page you are looking at aren’t for online pharmacies
It is indeed the case that people can write whatever they want in anonymous posts such as these, and so a comment such as this hardly represents data. But the question of whether we neuroethicists are acting as cheerleaders for the use of cognitive enhancers when we point out the reasonable concerns that one might have about their widespread introdution is real.
There was one rather perceptive comment from the Guardian article, quite obviously contributed by someone knowledgeable in the field.
The only ethical consideration here involves the potential harm smart drugs may cause to the individual.
If it is the case that they are in any way harmful, the risk / reward balance is still for the individual to make, but there needs to be protection for those who would prefer not to risk their health but nonetheless experience social pressure to do so. I don’t want to live in a society where the best jobs and other opportunities are only open to those who are willing to compromise their health to access them.
On the other hand, it may be the case that smart drugs present insignificant levels of risk to one’s health, much like caffeine or mobile phone use.
In that case, a social expectation of smart drug use, or indeed smart drug use as a social norm is not necessarily unreasonable. As the article mentions, a mental boost can be achieved through moderate regular exercise; should we pity the person who misses out on a job because they don’t excersise as much as the (otherwise similarly capable) successful candidate? Currently we don’t.
We don’t begrudge better opportunities to those who were brought up in more stable, loving households, or who read more books in their childhoods. Yet these do produce measurable advantage in individuals.
Being sharper, more intelligent, less tired – these are all wholly positive qualities. Society and individuals benefit from more clever, healthy people rather than dumber, sicker people.
The challenge for our society is to make the meritocratic principle align with responsibility and effort. Because meritocracy rewards outcomes, not inputs. It rewards people with better genes and penalises people with disabilities. You can try as hard as you like and still not achieve – because effort does not equal ability. And all this is to ignore inequalities rooted in class, race and other such factors.
Adding smart drugs to the mix won’t level the playing field, but it will raise the baseline. That in itself is desirable in any society and economy, but the reality is that anything we call a ‘drug’ has side-effects. This debate would be better served by a discussion of the health risks these substances involve, rather than ‘cheating’.
And then there was this comment, which I include here at the end both for insight and comedic relief.
I’m a student and have taken modafinal a few times. It doesn’t make you less of a moron, alas – you continue being stupid, but faster.