Pill-Popping for the Mind

As demonstrated by the uproar with Lance Armstrong and the AFL drug scandals, our stance against the use of performance enhancing substances in athletics is fairly clear. However, the views on popping mental performance enhancers are quite mixed. In many top universities the world over, campus inhabitants are consuming nootropics (substances that enhance cognition and memory) or abusing prescription analeptics and drugs like Adderall. There are claims that these substances improve concentration and memory, giving users a much-needed mental edge, particularly in periods of high stress. Many would ask how this is different from consuming copious quantities of caffeine or guzzling a can of Mother to pull an all-nighter. It is necessary to declare a conflict of interests at this juncture: my wallet is full of café loyalty cards. That said, caffeine, like other stimulants, comes with jitters and crashes. Stimulants enable one to stay alert longer but do not increase mental performance. Hence, the coffee-addict does not quite fit in the same category as the person self-prescribing Ritalin tabs.


Momentarily stepping away from the intricacies of how these substances work, why do we have such an issue with doping? Many people have concerns with doping going against the ‘spirit of the game.’ Doping confers a certain level of advantage to a select group with access to the substance, skewing the playing field in their favour. As the playing field skews, the pressure to ‘keep up’ increases. People gifted with better mental acuity, for example, who do not opt to ‘augment’ their performance will be no different from an average individual consuming enhancers. This creates a coercive pressure to start taking brain boosters, paradoxically for parity, lest we be left behind.


The matter of equity aside, access is another controversial point. At present, students who opt to take brain boosters acquire them via a number of means. Precluding those with genuine neuropsychiatric conditions that require treatment, some people get prescription cognitive enhancers by faking symptoms such as trouble sleeping, jet lag and so on. Another option would be to filch a stash of an actual patient’s medication: not too difficult to do if one has a roommate or family member with a legitimate prescription. There are also patients who opt to sell their prescriptions or meds to desperate seekers. Then, of course, there is the Internet. One could just order an overseas consignment. All these methods of obtaining brain boosting substances raise a host of socio-ethical dilemmas in themselves. Questionable means of access aside, without a proper prescription, one must face the considerable danger of non-optimal dosing of active ingredients and with online orders, the risk of illegal (and potentially harmful) substances being included.


One way around the matter of dodgy access would be to advocate for unrestricted availability of these drugs. If they were legally accessible, the onus would be on the Therapeutic Goods Administration to ensure the quality, safety and efficacy of the substances. Hence, consumption of these cognitive enhancers could be made less dangerous. A better working brain may, after all, bring about the cure for cancer or a more efficient way of harnessing green energy. Thus, the consumption of cognitive enhancers could arguably be more easily justified than doping in sports. Moreover, does it not become a question of personal autonomy? The decision to enhance our minds may not be all that different from the decision to enhance our bodies.  Since these brain boosters are already widely available, informed use would seem a better choice than ignoring their presence in the market and their increasing use. Furthermore with the right legal policies in place, the potential for abuse could be mitigated.


Whilst acknowledging the potential benefits of mental performance enhancers, it is important to recognise that the long-term consequences of consuming these drugs are not well known. The risk of addiction and other physiological imbalances have not been adequately studied. The current population of mental performance enhancer consumers are non-representative of the general public. They tend to be university students, young executives, and academics: groups that are immersed in high-pressure situations that may require higher than average levels of mental acuity. Hence, the results are likely to be skewed by the sample population studied, even without accounting for potential placebo effects of these drugs. This still begs the question of normalising the use of such enhancers in the first place. Have we become a society that prizes winning at any cost? More prevalent than the pressure to win is the pressure to constantly achieve excellence. Adequacy no longer seems sufficient and the bar is continually being raised. It may be necessary for us to re-examine our lofty ambitions and recognise that the quest for success should be accomplished healthily, in every sense of the word.