Post No.: 0614
In ‘everyday’ life nowadays, many people take drugs in the hope of losing weight, fighting ageing, improving their sexual performance, and now increasingly to hopefully enhance their productivity or academic performance.
‘Nootropics’ or ‘smart drugs’ are drugs or supplements that are marketed and sold on the basis that they’ll improve an otherwise healthy individual’s focus, memory, creativity, motivation, inhibitory control or other executive functions.
But where should the line be drawn between legitimate forms of enhancement and cheating when it comes to academic tests or exams? Coffee, tea and cola, and other products that contain caffeine (which is a drug), are examples of nootropics, and if caffeine is an allowed stimulant then what about other types of nootropics like those that contain modafinil or methylphenidate?
Where’s the line between natural and artificial anyway? It’s like if beaver dams are natural then why aren’t human-made bridges since humans are natural creatures too? If consuming certain vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables to enhance one’s performance is natural then why not other – whether naturally-occurring or synthesised – chemicals?
Regarding doping in sports – there are similar questions of where to draw the lines. Why are some drugs or technologies allowed but not others?
Well factors to consider include its long-term safety and health, ‘naturalness’, and the telos or main point of a given sport. The long-term safety and health risk posed by a performance-enhancing drug can be researched scientifically, yet how much risk is ‘too much’? ‘Naturalness’ is subjective. And, say, if the main point of a particular sport is to test an athlete’s natural musculoskeletal and cardiovascular endurance then perhaps a drug that improves muscular endurance isn’t okay but a technology that somehow prevents blisters is?
The same considerations of long-term safety and health, ‘naturalness’, and the telos or main point of a given academic test or activity, could perhaps be used to answer if particular nootropics are legitimate forms of cognitive enhancement or not.
I guess in sports where there are ‘manufacturers’ titles’, like in motorsport, this makes it clear that the competition between technologies is a part of the purpose of that sport. This suggests that if there’s no such award for the best technology supplier in a competition then the technologies used in that particular sport should not override or mask the endeavours of the athletes’ own relatively raw attributes. For instance, in golf, it should be about the golfer’s own golfing prowess rather than the technology in the clubs, balls and other gear that’s used – otherwise there should be an award for the best equipment manufacturer in every golf competition too. (The PGA and USGA therefore have a tricky balancing act of welcoming innovation that keeps their sport fresh, but at the same time making sure that winning and enjoyment isn’t about who can afford the best gear.)
Where’s the line between necessity and luxury? It’s like we can technically survive without shoes but most people wouldn’t consider having one pair a luxury.
Because drug use is commonplace in contexts like dieting, cuppas of caffeine are needed just to get people through the working day, popping vitamin and mineral supplements is growingly ubiquitous for adults of all ages rather than just the elderly or sick (these aren’t classed as drugs but food supplements but they still typically come in pill or capsule form), and recreational drug use is widespread (alcohol is a drug too) – many athletes live in a culture where drug or supplement-taking appears normalised.
Taking anabolic steroids and other now-banned drugs actually used to be the norm in sports about a century ago – until it was deemed against the spirit of sporting performance. In the UK at least, the supply of anabolic steroids is illegal but their private use is not, but they are banned substances in most sports at the professional level. So doping is disallowed, and every athlete today has been born and bred in an era where doping in sports is disallowed. Thus athletes know the rules, have chosen to compete in a sport that no one has forced them to compete in, and so they must follow the rules – they can take another career if they don’t like these rules. So some lorry drivers, for instance, may take drugs for their work – but sportspeople compete in sports that are defined and regulated by their rules. (Read Post No.: 0218 for more on this topic.)
But in other contexts, many people already frequently use drugs like caffeine to increase alertness, and other nootropics are being created and marketed all of the time – with varying scientific support for their effectiveness. (Indeed, most nootropics or ‘cognitive enhancers’, at least currently, are more like snake oil scams!)
Although seldom discussed or disclosed – various (experimental) cognitive and physical performance-enhancing drugs have been and are often used by armed forces too, like amphetamine and methamphetamine. Overall, ‘hacking’ the brain is an area that’s only going to expand over time. The research is still reasonably young but will continue to build.
But is even taking caffeine cheating? Do we want people who can only function well if they use nootropics? Even if we agree that a certain goal is admirable, the way we seek and achieve it seems to matter to us – like exercise versus using drugs or genetic modifications to obtain stronger muscles, which is arguably comparable to legitimate business versus crime to obtain riches, where the goal and end result for a person can be the same but they differ in their methods.
If we argue that the distinction between ‘disabled’ and ‘normal’ is fuzzy then so is the distinction between ‘normal’ and ‘enhanced’. So what about human enhancements such as cyborg parts or genetic engineering? Where do we draw the line between ‘fixing’ and ‘enhancing’?
Is receiving extra tuition and training cheating? Is it fair for some people to have something and others to not – not by choice or merit (e.g. because some people’s parents simply couldn’t afford it for them when young)? It could lead to a divide between those who can afford something and those who cannot, and the compounding Matthew effect from early differences in fortune.
Nootropics might one day truly enhance things like IQ – but is hyper-intelligence even dangerous (e.g. when used to conjure up even more destructive weapons or invasive methods of commercially commodifying people’s lives)?
It could lead to ‘disease creep’, where once non-pathological states now become regarded as pathological because we now have the ability to ‘fix’ or improve upon them. It could lead to an ‘enhancement treadmill’, where everyone will want and take more and more in order to try to beat their competition (e.g. take more drugs to beat their rival workplace colleagues). Therefore expanding access to enhancements could actually make things worse. What used to be acceptable may no longer be. If a drug enabled employees to not need more than a few hours of sleep per day, employers will perhaps contractually oblige their staff to take those drugs that mean that they can work for longer, and fire those who choose not to take them, even if they might incur long-term harmful effects. In a world where cosmetic enhancements are cheap and perhaps also safer – looking ‘perfect’ bodily-wise could also be regarded as ‘essential’ for work as dressing professionally is.
The prisoner’s dilemma game theory game shows us that sometimes having more choice makes us all worse off. It’s like if no one were able to choose to produce nuclear weapons at all then the world would be better than this arms race and escalation, which makes no one better off.
Vaccination is an artificial enhancement to one’s natural immune system. So why is this considered acceptable?
Well the environmental context seems to matter when we try to consider what’s legitimate or not (e.g. the prevailing current politico-socio-economic climate or level of scientific data, such as the current level of societal inequity or the balance of the risks-to-benefits to the health of a population). So maybe we shouldn’t change ourselves but change the environment?
Nootropics usually come in the form of psychostimulants that raise or enhance dopamine levels, which, amongst other things, can improve focus and concentration. Psychostimulants include caffeine, nicotine or methylphenidate. The latter is a common and highly effective ADHD medication – but here we are talking about users who otherwise have normal levels of dopamine, focus and concentration but wish to ‘boost’ them even more. And the problem with this is that, like with any drug, there are risks of side-effects.
All drugs potentially cause harm – they all have side-effect risks. But they are useful if they alleviate a problem that is more troublesome than the harms that the drug might cause i.e. if the risks make sense in a cost-benefit calculation. It’s like don’t have surgery if you’re healthy because needless surgery can cause problems, or complications, but having surgery might overall be better than not if you have a greater problem that surgery could alleviate. Some vaccines may present an extremely tiny risk of harm or even death to those who take them – but the benefits of taking well-tested vaccines overall far outweigh these potential risks. It’s basically about what’s rational. This will however mean that a small minority of people may unfortunately suffer adverse effects, such as allergic reactions, after taking a vaccine, but governments shouldn’t let millions of children or adults come to the harm of deadly diseases for the sake of a few cases. We cannot help everybody so we arguably must sensibly try to help as many people as we can; and that’s often the best that governments can realistically do and must strive to do.
In the case of nootropics – if one is receiving a regular external source that increases one’s dopamine levels then the response of one’s own body, due to the process of maintaining homeostasis, will be to turn down its sensitivity to dopamine, which can result in one becoming dependent on that regular external source of dopamine just to feel ‘normal’. As a consequence, one might need ever larger doses of the drug just to feel the same desired effect.
Therefore a safer method if you want to improve your focus or concentration is to train to be more mindful – which is precisely all about being presently focused, such as on whatever task you have before you rather than on any distracting thoughts about things going on around you or about the past or future. Our mindfulness can be improved by practising mindfulness meditation. This can also reduce chronic stress, and in turn improve our happiness, fluffy immune function and fight ageing too.
Woof! Things like getting adequate amounts of sleep, vegetables, exercise and being more mindful – they seem to be so good for our health in so many ways that they appear too good to be true, as if panaceas. But that’s only really because modern life is so terrible for our health in so many ways, such as because of electronic device usage close to bedtime (or even in bed), highly-processed foods, sedentary lifestyles and the constant distractions, competing demands for our attention and ceaseless ‘to do’ lists!
(I don’t take any source of caffeine – be it tea, coffee or cola – on a regular basis, or any other types of nootropics at all. I’ve never tried any creatine supplements ever, never mind anabolic steroids or the like. Even for my mental health, I’ve personally avoided medications because I’ve relied on other, more natural, interventions, such as physical exercise and mindfulness exercises. I take vitamin D though. I frequently see people who drink tea or coffee every single day who say they ‘can’t function’ without having a few daily cups – so they’re not ‘boosted’ by the caffeine as much as dependent on it just to feel ‘normal’. I drink tea or coffee socially sometimes and on the odd occasions when I need an alertness shot.)