July 27, 2016

Smart Drugs

Smart Drugs
I'm passionate about education, that should be clear. I've spent much of my adult life as a student, some as a teacher, and now I'm in the early stage of developing an educational enterprise. I'm acquainted with the controversies that rage in the academic world and I have an opinion on most of them. One controversy in particular has peaked my interest: drugs.

I'm not talking about opiates or cocaine or even marijuana. I'm talking about that specifically academic (or, indeed, professional) variety, smart drugs. Adderall and Ritalin are among the favorites but there are others. I have never tried smart drugs myself, in part because many of the side effects sound dreadful and in part because it sounds far too expensive; however, I wouldn't rule it out in principle, and given an affordable smart drug without serious side effects in the vein of NZT 48 from Limitless I wouldn't feel the slightest prick of conscious in experimenting. Here's why:

I don't think it's cheating. I don't think it's abuse.

Obviously I have to explain myself. The most common objection I hear is that it gives someone an unfair advantage, like steroids. I've never and will never take steroids, despite my passion for fitness, not because it's unfair but because it's unhealthy. The athletic world has determined strict but somewhat arbitrary guidelines for what is and is not considered doping. Creatine in, maldonium out. Caffeine for training, not for performance. But the point of WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) is to maintain a fair playing field among competetors. Everyone is allowed and disallowed the same substances. The principle purpose is health and fair competition.

Health is preeminent, I agree, but if my purpose in exercise is self-improvement, than fairness isn't a factor. That's why I sometimes use caffeine to boost my focus and stamina in the gym. That's also why I sometimes use caffeine to boost my focus and stamina in the library or at work. So do many of us. We like the cognitive and performance enhancing properties of caffeine when it's not a matter of athletic competition. So why wouldn't we accept performance enhancement in school or at work (with the arbitrary exception of caffeine)?

The fact is, competition is not a good way of looking at school or work. My purpose in studying and work is to simply do the best I can do, and not to beat other people. Cooperation is much better as model of social interactions in academics and the workplace. Whereas competition is 'all against all,' cooperation is 'all for one and one for all.' When I do better, we do better. Any improvement in my performance is good for the student body, for the company, and for the community. Admittedly, many social structures aren't designed to cultivate cooperation, but that's the problem with the structure (another topic entirely).

So the mistake people make is two-fold: they hypocritically permit (and employ) the performance enhancement of caffeine but not other smart drugs, and they mistakenly think that work and school is a competition rather than cooperation.

Not only do I think smart drugs are fair, but I also don't think their use is abuse except when it damages the user's health. This is another reason caffeine is acceptable. (I have my doubts about the more powerful stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin but I haven't done enough research to speak further. All I can say is that I'm skeptical.)

I've heard people with severe disorders become quite indignant at the use of smart drugs to enhance academic performance. Why do they think that because their problems are severe, smaller problems are illegitimate? I've had plantar fasciitis in the past, tightening and pain in the bridge of my foot. I wasn't paralyzed or bound to a wheel chair, but it hurt when I walked. So I learned about the condition and took measures to improve my situation.A sufferer of paraplegia wouldn't criticize me for going to the doctor just because my problem is so small compared to his. Why can't someone do the same with cognitive issues? Adderall is prescribed for narcolepsy. If someone has a hard time concentrating, it's not as debilitating as narcolepsy, but it's still a problem. Should I object to them taking a drug to improve their situation just because it's not as big of a problem as what someone else faces?

But maybe a smart drug user doesn't even think of it as 'solving a problem.' Maybe it's just performance enhancement: I'm good, I could be better. One time I read a truck driver's argument that he used a specific medication for the legitimate purpose of long haul trucking. Writing a PhD dissertation wasn't, in his book, legitimate. Why? It's intensly difficult (and ineffective) to to study philosophy for more than half a dozen hours in a day, but someone doing a PhD will be more successful studying 10 hours a day. Why is a trucker's need to work long hours more legitimate than an academic's? I sleep, eat (relatively) healthy, exercise, and listen to music, all to improve my cognitive performance. Why can't I take a pill too?

In each of these cases, with severe disorders and trucking, we have one person claiming 'my use is legitimate, your use is abuse.' I'm unconvinced on both counts. It seems like a egoistic lack of empathy.

My point is that we need to be wary of our use of the epithet "abuse." If it's physically, mentally, or socially damaging, then I'd use the term. In my book, addiction qualifies. But 'use for self-improvement' is not in its own right abuse. (And of course, I don't take the FDA as the grand arbiter of legitimate practice.)

All this is to say that if I found another smart drug as effective (or more effective) than caffeine with side effects as slight (or less than) caffeine, I would willingly try it. I haven't found it but if I do I think I could be a better person, not only for myself but for others around me as well.