If drugs can safely give your brain an enhancement, why not bring them? And if you don’t want to, why stop others?
In a era when attention-disorder drugs are regularly – and illegally – getting used for off-label purposes by people seeking a much better grade or year-end job review, these are timely ethical questions.
The latest answer originates from Nature, where seven prominent ethicists and neuroscientists recently published a paper entitled, “Towards a responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy.”
“Mentally competent adults,” they write, “should certainly take part in cognitive enhancement using drugs.”
Roughly seven percent of all the university students, or higher to 20 % of scientists, have already used Ritalin or Adderall – originally intended to treat attention-deficit disorders – to further improve their mental performance.
Some people debate that chemical cognition-enhancement is a type of cheating. Others say that it’s unnatural. The Type authors counter these charges: best brain enhancing drugs are simply cheating, people say, if prohibited through the rules – which require not the case. As for the drugs being unnatural, the authors argue, they’re forget about unnatural than medicine, education and housing.
In many ways, the arguments are compelling. Nobody rejects pasteurized milk or dental anesthesia or central heating because it’s unnatural. And whether a brain is altered by drugs, education or healthy eating, it’s being altered in the same neurobiological level. Making moral distinctions between them is arbitrary.
However, if a number of people use cognition-enhancing drugs, might everybody else have to follow, whether they need to or not?
If enough people improve their performance, then improvement becomes the status quo. Brain-boosting drug use could become a basic job requirement.
Ritalin and Adderall, now ubiquitous as academic pick-me-ups, are merely the first generation of brain boosters. Next up is Provigil, a “wakefulness promoting agent” that lets people opt for days without sleep, and improves memory to boot. More powerful drugs will follow.
Because the Nature authors write, “cognitive enhancements impact the most complex and important human organ and the potential risk of unintended negative effects is therefore both high and consequential.” But even if their safety could be assured, what happens when staff are expected to be competent at marathon bouts of high-functioning sleeplessness?
The majority of people I know already work 50 hours a week and find it hard to find time for friends, family as well as the demands of life. None desire to become fully robotic to keep their jobs. Thus I posed the question to
Michael Gazzaniga, a University of California, Santa Barbara, psychobiologist and Nature article co-author.
“It can be possible to do all of that with existing drugs,” he said.
“One has to set their set goals and know when to tell their boss to have lost!”
That is not, perhaps, probably the most practical career advice today. And University of Pennsylvania neuroethicist Martha Farah, another of your paper’s authors, was really a bit less sanguine.
“First the early adopters make use of the enhancements to obtain an edge. Then, as increasing numbers of people adopt them, people who don’t, feel they should in order to stay competitive with what is, ultimately, a fresh higher standard,” she said.
Citing the now-normal stresses produced by expectations of round-the-clock worker availability and inhuman powers of multitasking, Farah said, “There is surely a risk of this dynamic repeating itself with cognition-enhancing drugs.”
But everyone is already making use of them, she said. Some version of this scenario is inevitable – and also the solution, she said, isn’t to simply state that cognition enhancement is bad.
Instead we need to develop better drugs, understand why people utilize them, promote alternatives and create sensible policies that minimize their harm.
As Gazzaniga also noted, “People might stop research on drugs that could well help forgetfulness from the elderly” – or cognition problems from the young – “due to concerns over misuse 75dexjpky abuse.”
This might definitely be unfortunate collateral damage these days theater of your War on Drugs – and the question of brain enhancement must be observed in the context on this costly and destructive war. As Schedule II substances, Ritalin and Adderall are legally equivalent in the United States to opium or cocaine.
“These laws,” write the type authors, “needs to be adjusted to avoid making felons out of people who seek to use safe cognitive enhancements.”