Oh, wait, I do. Kind of.
As I write this, the ScienceBlogs.com home page “buzz” concerns this editorial in Nature, one of the world’s pre-eminent science journals. Here, a septet of scholarly voices combine to rally behind “brain doping” (apparently a cutting-edge way of saying “taking speed”) as a means of achieving “cognitive enhancement” (or, more formally, “getting high”).
The thrust of the argument the writers make is that the responsible use of stimulant drugs like modanifil (Provigil), methylphenidate (Ritalin) and Adderall (amphetamine and dextroamphetamine) can lead to enhanced cognitive function and thus (careful of this “if A then B,” because I don’t really see it as categorically valid) a better, more productive life. It’s a little strange; these people are taking an old idea and making an old argument in its favor, but because the argument is in Nature and supplemented by more psychopharmacology than you’d see at, say, a NORML convention, people are apt to treat it as novel.
Anyway, my first thoughts when I started reading the article were, not unexpectedly, of sports doping, presently an illegal practice in almost every arena. Most of the authors’ favored drugs are banned by the international governing bodies of practically all major sports as well as pro leagues stateside, since stimulants confer a physical advantage to complement the mental one (or vice versa, depending on whether you want strength or smarts to be merely a side effect). In any event, I expected to learn that the authors are ethical proponents of sports doping to the same extent they are of brain doping, because they essentially argue for both throughout the article but using different words. For example:
Many of the medications used to treat psychiatric and neurological conditions also improve the performance of the healthy.
Very easily becomes
Many of the medications used to treat renal or wasting conditions also improve the performance of the healthy miler or linebacker.
In discussing whether brain doping could be interpreted as “cheating,” the authors write:
In the context of sports, pharmacological performance enhancement is indeed cheating. But, of course, it is cheating because it is against the rules. Any good set of rules would need to distinguish today’s allowed cognitive enhancements, from private tutors to double espressos, from the newer methods, if they are to be banned.
So it’s not yet clear whether they would be happy to see rules against performance-enhancing drugs abolished wholesale. The argument is more nuanced than I make it seem; a lot of sports drugs are downright deadly if used to excess, more so, in all likelihood, than anything the authors would propose stuffing into someone’s forebrain. But later in the pitch, there’s this:
Whether the cognitive enhancement is substantially unfair may depend on its availability, and on the nature of its effects. Does it actually improve learning or does it just temporarily boost exam performance? In the latter case it would prevent a valid measure of the competency of the examinee and would therefore be unfair. But if it were to enhance long-term learning, we may be more willing to accept enhancement. After all, unlike athletic competitions, in many cases cognitive enhancements are not zero-sum games. Cognitive enhancement, unlike enhancement for sports competitions, could lead to substantive improvements in the world.
I’m not sure what is meant here by “zero-sum game.” An athlete who dopes and doesn’t get caught over the arc of his or her career might make millions of dollars more than he or she would have if clean. But this windfall does not have to occur at the expense of other athletes in the same sport. many of whom are also benefiting financially from doping. Better, stronger athletes who are threats to set world records put people in the stands, and the sport itself is literally enriched. Zero-sum?
If, on the other hand, all that the authors are claiming is that sports results are less important than the overall functioning of a society, well, that is not something I needed to crack open Nature to learn.
What I found interesting while halfway through the article, in light of the sum of the authors’ proposals, was their continual emphasis on brain doping being suitable only for those with healthy brains. If those judged not to have such brains cannot partake, I thought, then they will be deprived of the cognitive advantages the authors believe the healthy will develop through responsible use, and the gap between the two groups will widen. Perhaps, I mused, the authors vigorously favor the supervised use of brain doping agents in those with less-than-healthy brains?
Sure enough, this base was covered, as were others tangential to it. And in fact, I’m adding nothing here other than my own biases and a disproportionate interest in sports doping. Just read the article. This is clearly not something that was pulled out of someone’s kiester a few weeks ago–a daunting amount of thought, so much of it concerning ethics, was poured into generating this call to action. I don’t yet have an opinion, but I think that the responsible use of marijuana by people with healthy brains ought to be permitted if this stimulant shit gains traction and legitimacy. I mean, come on. Even if I don’t smoke myself, continuing to keep weed illegal in light of the outrageous number of…OK, old argument. But this new material only empowers it.
On he whole I enjoyed reading this piece and the ideas therein are going to generate some noise for sure. I even got a serious chuckle out of some of the content. Like this:
With rates of ADHD in the range of 4-7% among US college students using DSM criteria4, and stimulant medication the standard therapy, there are plenty of these drugs on campus to divert to enhancement use.
Notice they don’t say, “plenty of these drugs on campus are diverted,” but “to divert,” as if people carrying around controlled substances owing to a prescription are a fertile and even necessary source of “brain doping” for those lacking prescriptions. Mine those ADHDers! (I think this might be a subtle American English-British English transmogrification.)
It’s unapologetic better-living-through-chemistry through and through, and to their credit, the authors do not waver.