This is your mind on maximum: Hemmel Amrania on the potential of smart drugs
Brain-boosting drugs can help students and academics alike to unlock their potential, argues Hemmel Amrania
The notions of incorporating machines into our bodies or using genetic engineering to alter our DNA have been staples of science fiction, comic books and popular philosophy for many years.
There is, however, a world in which human development is actually taking place now, and while not exactly secret, it is beyond the everyday knowledge of most people.
While our exposure to the ideas of becoming “more than human” might be limited to watching the human cloning drama Orphan Black on Netflix, advancement in this area is happening all around us. Massive leaps in transplanting organs and tissues – be they from one person to another, artificial organs or those from animals – are revolutionising medical care. Synthetic body parts and advanced robotic prosthetics are helping to transform the lives of amputees, people with birth defects and others suffering from any number of illnesses or medical problems.
However, huge advances in medicine are being held back by the public, politicians, religious groups and policymakers not being able to grapple with these big issues as fast as science is moving. Our moral sense on issues such as stem-cell research is not adapting as quickly as science needs it to. Medicine, philosophy and society more generally will have to grapple with the idea of perfectly healthy people requesting amputations so they can have advanced prosthetics fitted. When experimental cybernetic implants come along, doctors will have to re-examine the “do no harm” vow that has guided them for millennia.
Doping in sport and the associated efforts to hide the practice and evade detection are big news. Many major sports tournaments – most recently the world athletics championships in London – are overshadowed by speculation as to who is “clean” or not. Top athletes are supposed to show us what the human body is capable of. So is the enhancement of human performance with drugs demeaning or merely an extension of our natural abilities? Could it be that, in the future, we allow athletes to use whatever tactics and techniques they see fit?
What about everyday people? Thousands of college students falsely obtain prescriptions for Adderall and Ritalin, drugs used to treat attention-deficit disorder, because for those who do not have ADHD they promote concentration and focus. Pro Plus, a caffeine pill, is a staple on university campuses everywhere, allowing students to stay up all night cramming for an exam. Is this an unfair advantage? Is it acceptable for students to risk their health in pursuit of better grades?
How about the oft-repeated notion that humans use only 10 per cent of their brains? Well, it’s a myth – all of our grey matter is taken up. It is true in a sense that most people are achieving only 10 per cent of their brain’s potential. One way to unlock this potential is with a class of drugs called nootropics, or “smart drugs”. Drugs such as modafinil boost memory by 10 per cent, sharpen focus and concentration, prevent fatigue and improve stamina and endurance. They are used by athletes, Oxbridge students, doctors on night shifts, long-haul lorry drivers and the armed forces. The self-experimenting Tim Ferriss, the millionaire entrepreneur and author of 4-Hour Body fame, is a fan of nootropics, and the nutrition guru Dave Asprey uses modafinil. Is this fundamentally different from using a cup of coffee to wake you up in the morning, aside from the fact that nootropics are safer and have fewer side-effects than caffeine?
It’s thought that about a quarter of students at top universities such as Oxford are taking modafinil, and there are already calls for campuses to introduce sports-style drug screening. Ethical concerns about whether others will soon feel under pressure to take supplements to stay competitive are raging on campus. There’s also the issue of the cost and affordability of such drugs when students are already paying hefty tuition fees for their courses. As students reflect on those high fees, the competitive job market, their busy academic and social schedules and just how much might be at stake, it’s no wonder that they feel the pressure to perform at their maximum and to do whatever they can to get ahead.
The issue of smart drugs raises the question of what constitutes an unfair advantage – after all, modafinil only enhances the brain’s natural abilities. The facts still need to be learned; the essays still need to be written. But smart drugs free us from preconceptions about what is achievable and offer a new level of productivity to those willing to take the step. Ultimately, people should be allowed to make their own choices, and using nootropics stands as just another one of those choices. There’s no more unfair advantage in taking a pill than in chugging litres of caffeine-rich energy drink to stay awake for an all-night study session.
What new heights could humanity reach if we could take full advantage of all that science can offer us? How short-sighted it would be not to keep pushing up against the boundaries of what we are capable of. Prudishness is not going to help us, whether we are liberating ourselves from human limitations or marching blindly towards a future that we can barely comprehend.
How long before we see reports of not just students but also academics turning to smart drugs to keep up with the hectic pace and intense competition of university life? Modafinil is already used to break through creative blocks when writing and to massively increase output, as well as to sustain long sessions of exam marking, not just prep. Given the benefits on offer and the environment we work in, it probably won’t be long at all.