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.

8 comments on “Performance Enhancing Drugs…For Your Mind
  • Your friend, Massimo the renaissance man, being a professional jazz musician (among his other accomplishments) may be familiar with a 2004 article in the New York Times, about the use of beta-blocker drugs by professional musicians to quell stage fright:

    “By 1987, a survey conducted by the International Conference of Symphony Orchestra Musicians, which represents the 51 largest orchestras in the United States, revealed that 27 percent of its musicians had used the drugs. Psychiatrists estimate that the number is now much higher.”

    And then:

    “The pianist Samuel Sanders told an interviewer in 1980 that taking Valium before a performance would bring him down from wild panic to mild hysteria.”

    Of course, it’s proverbial that jazz musicians have used marijuana to relax as they play, and most of them I know that smoke insist that their playing is enhanced when they’re stoned.

  • A few years ago, we discussed this at one of our conferences. I led a simulation/scenario of future employee workplace drug testing…it was a mock facility that wanted to make sure that the employees WERE taking their drugs. (If we are going to pay you to work for us…you better take those cognitive -enhancing drugs that we prescribed for you!)

    The exercise led to much debate…and is indeed a topic that needs to be continually discussed. Many ethics issues to be worked through.

  • My exposure to adderral use in college was mainly students who wanted to stay up and stay focused through an all-nighter. It does keep people awake, but it also tends to turn out some pretty unusual writing, that, at the moment, seemed brilliant.

    A drug-free approach to gaining an even better effect: don’t wait until the night before to start your paper.

    I’m not sure, however, whether this drug, or any, would really have a big effect while taking an exam. For the most part, this seems to be more a function of preparation than test-day performance. (No amount of drugs will make up for the fact that you didn’t follow the professor’s argument about X, Y, or Z during the past few weeks of class). I’ve taken exams under all sorts of physical conditions — sleep deprived, battling a bad cold, digestive distress (truly terrible), and though they made the experience more painful, I don’t think they had a huge effect on the grade…

    I did hear, however, that it was in vogue, for a while, for high-level mathematicians to take amphetamines to help stir the creative juices. This has since been rejected by the community as not actually helping.

    Caffeine on the other hand…

  • Based on what I’ve seen (and where I go to school, amphetamine use is pretty widespread), these drugs do enhance performance, particularly in subjects where in-the-box structured thinking is required. I’ve seen people learn half a semester’s worth of econ in one night then go in and ace the exam. It works. On the other hand, I haven’t seen much original thinking come out of amphetamine use. This may just be my impression, but the sense I get is that they significantly enhance systems manipulation abilities (i.e. math) while (temporarily, I hope) impairing creative abilities.

    All other things being equal, is there really a moral difference between using of amphetamines to enhance mental performance and using caffeine for the same purpose? I have trouble finding one. On the particular ethics of amphetamine use in school today, however, I’m with you, Ben — I’m troubled, and for exactly the reasons you give. I think I might not be troubled, however, if everyone were allowed to use them (assuming they’re found to be reasonably safe to consume long-term). I’ve never tried such drugs myself. Maybe I should.

    If I had to place a bet, I’d say that in the not-too-distant future we’ll be seeing a variety of (non-pill) products with these drugs added in — I’m especially imagining new energy drinks a la Red Bull (something also consumed in high quantities on college campuses these days). Red Bull Turbo?

    @Cal: “A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems.” 😛

  • I studied for 1 week while on Adderall back in high school and managed to score well on AP tests for classes I never even took. I think the problem is not with the students, it’s the pressure put on them.

  • I am not very much into the topic, but I’d like to comment the paragraph about laptops.
    I think that people who type fast will have an advantage over those who don’t, but there are also people who write faster that others!

    In Portugal, it’s a shame computers are not more widespread in classes…

  • I guess I’m on another page. We live in a society of functioning drug users. Prescription drugs, illicit drugs…nothing is really illicit anymore is it? And…why do we care?

    I think a more interesting question regarding baseball players using steroids exists. Most everyone took time out to observe the Roger Clemens hearing. Shouldn’t their be riots? Honestly!!!???

    I watched in horror…as I witnessed how our government works. Hello!!!??? Roger Waters is ringing in my head! Is there anybody out there?

    Maybe American entertainer and songwriter Willie Nelson should sing a little louder. I’m guessing most people have no idea…but Nelson goes off the deep end with “things profound” in his lyrics Undo the Right.

    What a world we live in.

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