In the spirit of triple-venti lattes, abundant stress and 24-hour library marathons, I thought I’d weigh in an issue that seems to be “popping” up (sorry, couldn’t resist) everywhere: academic doping.
A few days ago, seven heavyweight academics published this article in Nature, calling for the legalization of “brain-enhancing” drugs. Apparently, prescription drugs, such as Ritalin and Adderall, have been all the rage in universities for years, common among students trying to get an edge on the competition:
Yet one survey1 estimated that almost 7% of students in US universities have used prescription stimulants in this way, and that on some campuses, up to 25% of students had used them in the past year. These students are early adopters of a trend that is likely to grow, and indications suggest that they’re not alone2.
The medication, which is widely prescribed to ADHD patients, has the ability to enhance concentration and memory, while also decreasing fatigue. Short-term side effects range from nausea to hallucinations and even seizures. Long-term side effects are currently unknown.
Now that I’m in the throes of the exam season, I could see how these drugs would be incredibly appealing to anybody trying to learn an entire semester’s worth of course material in 24 hours (ahem). The real key for me is the question of safety. We don’t really know what the long term effects of taking these drugs are- that’s certainly a legitimate reason not to use them. I suppose if you’re willing to potentially mortgage off future mental capacity for some small present gain (clearly, there are many who would make that trade-off), then who am I to oppose that. I can’t really think of any good reason why they should be banned, if they are really as safe as any other drug.
Well, actually one- they’re wholly unnecessary. But I suppose, so are alcohol, caffeine and sleeping pills. But, I think that might just be a general criticism of society itself- the fact that certain students feel the need to resort to cognitive enhancing drugs speaks volumes about all the wrong types of competitive pressures inherent in academic environments. Now, I can’t say from personal experience, but from what I understand, the drugs basically make you more efficient at performing monotonous tasks (such as rote memorization). What you would gain in that arena, you lose in the ability to think conceptually and creatively.The fact that this could convey some sort of advantage is a bit sad, in itself. Why are we memorizing and regurgitating, anyway? I suppose school (at least not my program) isn’t exactly built to instill intellectual curiousity. That, I would say, is the real problem.
Anyways, I do worry, however, that legalization and open access to these drugs, would place unnecessary pressure on everyone to be on them. An abstention might certainly be conceived as a disadvantage. Can’t help but conjure up some Brave New World type imagery- what could be less interesting than an army of robotic studying machines?