Last year, a friend of Greta’s died tragically young. He was a pillar of the community, and Greta was honored to learn that he wanted her to play the oboe at his memorial service, which would be attended by hundreds of people. Greta has performed in countless concerts, with audiences just as large, but the thought of flubbing up at a ceremony honoring the life of a great man was absolutely nerve-wracking. The problem was compounded by the fact that Greta herself was in mourning for her friend.
In the end, she was able to summon up the courage to play beautifully, and received dozens of compliments after the service. One friend, a professional musician, asked about how she handled her nerves. She honestly told him that she didn’t know: she just started playing and hoped for the best. He said that for high-pressure performances like that, he always used a beta-blocker — a prescription medication for clinical anxiety. Indeed, the International Herald Tribune reports that using such drugs is becoming routine for musicians, whose reputation can be shattered by an ill-timed crack or bobble.
I certainly wouldn’t have faulted Greta if she had sought out a prescription for such a drug when she learned of her friend’s request in the weeks before he died. It’s an exceptional situation, and if a little medication could help, wouldn’t it be better for all concerned? But if musicians routinely depend on such drugs for everyday performances, then where does it stop? Should we prescribe the drugs for students? At what age should they start?
This is just one facet of a broad debate opened up by a recent commentary in Nature magazine. Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir argue that there are certain situations where cognitive enhancing drugs are perfectly reasonable. When someone suffers from a truly debilitating disorder, then if a drug can return some semblance of normal functioning, there’s little question that it should be used, especially if there’s no effective alternative treatment. But what about borderline cases?
Is it okay for a professor to take Modafinil to overcome jet-lag after returning from a conference? How about if she hasn’t traveled anywhere but finds she needs to stay up until 3 a.m. grading papers? What if another professor says he needs it just to keep up with the everyday pace of his career? One person’s occasional boost might become a chemical dependency.
I asked my daughter Nora what she thought of the idea of taking a pill like Ritalin to improve her mental ability and she said it sounded like cheating. But what if everyone was taking the pills and she was struggling to keep up? Would it be okay then? “That still sounds like cheating,” she said.
Shelley Batts argues that if a cognitive enhancing drug with no side effects was available, the decision to use it would be a no-brainer. The problem for Shelley is, we don’t yet know the full impact of these drugs, especially in the long term. I’m personally a big fan of caffeine, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve found that it gives me an upset stomach. So much for “no side effects.”
Janet Stemwedel is uncomfortable with the idea of using cognitive-enhancing drugs at all, and even feels guilty about her use of caffeine.
John Wilkins argues that these drugs may not be effective in the long term.
But what if they were? What if we really could improve our cognitive function without deleterious physical or cognitive side effects? What if we could work 18 or 20 hours a day, seven days a week? Think of what we could accomplish! One person could do the work of two, or even three people, when you count weekends. If the drug had no side effects. But at some point, doesn’t the primary effect of the drug itself become a side effect? If a person’s life becomes all work, with no down time, no relaxation, ever, I’m not sure that’s a life worth living. If that happened to me, I’m not sure I’d even be the same person I was before I started taking the drug.
Ultimately, even if we could create drugs that were truly side-effect free, I think we’d still have to regulate them in order to protect us from ourselves. Just as the regulation of steroids in athletics is done mainly to protect the athletes, so even “perfect” cognitive enhancers will need to be restricted in their use, lest we become of planet of work-immersed zombies.