“One in six students have experimented with some kind of performance enhancing drug” wrote Antonia Jennings in last week’s Mancunion, in an article that considered ideas such as random drugs tests and sniffer dogs to stop people from taking cognitive enhancing drugs during exams. Her reasoning seemed to be that “heightening the brain to some unnatural level gave the remaining students an unfair disadvantage,” and that therefore taking these substances is unfair and wrong. I have one question for Antonia: do you like coffee?
The concept of a ‘drug,’ like ‘pornography,’ is notoriously difficult to define. With something like ketamine, it is obvious to everyone that it is indeed a drug. However, when you think of substances like caffeine, which have a less obvious affect, the line blurs. Caffeine is a cognitive enhancer, and therefore any bans against “smart drugs” are inconsistent and ill-thought out. Any way you look at it, coffee is a performance enhancing drug, or at least contains one. Caffeine has been proven to increase alertness, improve concentration and short-term memory; these are the same performance-enhancing properties that supposedly give Ritalin-taking students an unfair advantage. And yet they are present in most of our drinks. This is especially true for Modafinil, the main purpose of which is to increase alertness. Should some students be deemed “cheats” or penalized because they prefer to get their alertness in a £1 pill rather than £3 coffees?
Following the Lance Armstrong scandal, where cycling’s most famous sportsman was found to have used performance enhancing drugs, it is understandable to want to do something about cheating. However, viewing academia as a competitive sport similar to cycling is a grave mistake. There is a reason economists don’t take part in the Olympics: academia isn’t about beating your opponents, it is about producing good quality research or learning the skills to do so. Does it matter if you discover the Higgs Boson stoned or visualize the double-helix of DNA while tripping on LSD? It has been widely reported that Francis Crick had indeed taken the powerful psychedelic when his greatest discovery came to him. Should we strip him of his Nobel Prize like we stripped Lance of his medals? Of course not, because the point of research is not the competition, but the result. If the statistics are anything to go by, there are probably researchers at this university taking smart drugs. If this helps them work harder, and discover a cure for a disease faster, isn’t this a good thing?
At the root of these ethical questions are, I think, a number of unchallenged assumptions. The nature of the human mind is one of them. Many seem to think of drugs as unnatural and therefore fundamentally bad, but many smart drugs work by enhancing or inhibiting systems already found in the brain. Taking Omega oil supplements helps keep your brain healthy, but so does Piracetam, an Alzheimer’s drug that prevents age and alcohol damage and promotes cognition and memory recall. It has also been proven to increase the performance of dyslexic children.
I belief that many of the students who take non-prescribed cognitive enhancers are doing this to self-medicate undiagnosed learning difficulties. Would someone really go through the effort, and risk, of gaining a black-market substance such as Ritalin if they did not have a serious problem with concentration? Adult ADHD is poorly understood, and doctors are often suspicious of young people looking for a prescription. Some people have had bad experiences with doctors and the bureaucracy of the NHS and therefore prefer to find their own treatment, taking matters of their (mental) health into their own hands. What is wrong with a dyslexic student deciding on how to treat their learning difficulties? They probably have more time than their GP does to research new treatments, and more motivation to make the best decision for themselves.
Drug abuse has brought significant suffering to our society, with millions of people a year dying from alcohol, tobacco and other drug-related illnesses, but it is dishonest to pretend that they can’t be used positively. In the words of Bill Hicks: “If you don’t believe drugs have done good things for us, do me a favour. Go home tonight. Take all your albums, all your tapes and all your CDs and burn them. ‘Cause you know what, the musicians that made all that great music that’s enhanced your lives throughout the years were rrreal fucking high on drugs. The Beatles were so fucking high they let Ringo sing a few tunes.”