In the 20/27 December 2007 issue of Nature, there’s a fascinating commentary by Cambridge University neuroscientists Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir. Entitled “Professor’s little helper,” this commentary explores, among other things, how “cognitive-enhancing drugs” are starting to find their way into the lifestyles of professors and students on university campuses, a development which raises some interesting ethical questions.
The questions are sufficiently rich here that this post will just serve as my first attempt to get some of the important issues on the table and to open it up for discussion. (There will also be an ongoing discussion of this commentary on the Nature Network website, in case you’re interested.)
Is there something unfair about taking cognitive enhancers in an academic setting?
Sometimes it seems the rules in academe are a lot fuzzier than the rules in baseball or cycling. Sahakian and Morein-Zamir found, in informal discussions with colleagues in the U.S. and the U.K., that academic scientists are already making use of compounds like modafinil (sometimes bought online) “to enhance productivity or mental energy, or to deal with demanding and important intellectual challenges.” (1158) They write:
For many, it seems that the immediate and tangible benefits of taking these drugs are more persuasive than concerns about legal status and adverse effects. There are clear trends suggesting that the use of stimulants such as methylphenidate on college campuses is on the rise, and is becoming more commonplace in ever younger students. Universities may have to decide whether to ban drug use altogether, or to tolerate it in some situations (whether to enable all-night study sessions or to boost alertness during lectures).
Are cognitive enhancers on a par with steroids in sports?
Or are they simply an alternative for the kids who don’t like cola or cappuccino? Verily, the use of caffeine to enhance alertness and concentration is widespread, and you can obtain it legally, with no prescription, on nearly every block around an urban campus.
And really, if we have a worry that other sorts of substances (especially ones that aren’t clearly illegal) may be giving our colleagues or classmates an unfair edge, I think we have to dig a little deeper to ask some questions about the nature of the academic endeavor.
Should we think of the activity of students or scholars primarily as a competition to see who is the best?
If people make use of cognitive enhancers, are they significantly advantaged over their peers who do not? Is this the kind of thing that could screw up the curve in courses, make winning tenure easier for the chemically enhanced and harder for those working without the enhancers, and skew awards of grants toward the folks with the magic pills?
Even if cognitive enhancers had the potential to shift the standings in the competitions between students and between scholars to a dramatic degree, should we say that there’s a problem with the use of these drugs — or instead with the way the system is set up? Is it more unfair that some professors use a drug that gives them the mental energy to grade papers until 3 AM, or that the workload on professors is such that they have to stay up grading papers until 3 AM in order to have time to meet the obligations of their job?
I know there are professors who see teaching (and grading) students primarily in terms of weeding out and ranking. I’m not one of those professors. My goal is to help my students understand the material I’m teaching (as well as gain insight into how philosophers approach problems), and to help them hone their skills in critical thinking, reading, writing, and speaking, so they can go out into the world and take on the problems they want or need to solve.
Possibly some of my students would have an easier time achieving what I’d like them to achieve with the help of cognitive enhancers. (Others of my students may already be using cognitive enhancers prescribed for diagnosed disabilities.) I’m not sure I’d want to forbid my students making choices that helped put them in a state where they were better able to learn. Indeed, given how exhausted my students can be, I’ve sometimes been tempted to bring coffee to class.
But I have worries.
It could be that the demands on todays students are unreasonable (at least in terms of the time required to discharge them). Seventh graders are drinking coffee! High school students are staying up till 2 AM to get their school work done. Maybe giving the kids drugs to make these crazy schedules manageable is not the best response to the problem.
Do we know enough about long-term effects to accept drugs as a route to (possible) short-term improvements?
Do we even know much at this point about who will get an appreciable cognitive boost from these drugs? Some kind of reliable evidence — about efficacy and safety — would at least allow people to make informed choices before popping the pill their classmates are taking.
Are cognitive enhancers going to end up in the hands of the people who could most use the enhancement, or in the hands of the people who are already advantaged?
If the drugs are being purchased on the internet for enhancement rather than being prescribed for “legitimate needs” (as construed by doctors and health insurance carriers), it seems likely that more rich kids than poor kids will be using them. These are the same kids who are more likely to show up at university with the benefit of an excellent secondary education (and possibly private tutoring) — in other words, the kids who were already doing well rather than struggling.
Well, maybe it’s up to rich kids to decide how to spend their money. But what kind of impact would increasing the disparities have on our mission to educate all the students who come to us? How much harder will it be for us to bring the under-prepared kids up to where they should be if they are also “under-enhanced”?
Would I take cognitive enhancers?
I don’t think that I would.
I confess that I have a serious caffeine dependency right now, and I’d like to try to quit. The cognitive enhancer I’d really like to use is adequate sleep.
But I think I’d take a pass on the other options, even if I had reason to believe that most of my colleagues were using them.
I think I’d worry whether the good work I did was really mine.
Honestly, I’m conflicted about this attitude of mine towards the products of thinking with my “natural” brain. I don’t think the work of my colleagues who take medications for their depression or ADHD or anxiety is any less their work. I understand that they need their meds to function in the ways that feel “proper” to them.
But I find myself feeling that my brain ought to function pretty well as it is, and that making it do so is primarily a matter of discipline. I want to know what I can do with what I’ve got. The competition is a matter of living up to my own potential rather than ranking favorably compared to someone else.
I’m still thinking this through. Maybe more coffee will help, but so will your thoughts on these issues, so lay them on me.
Update: Shelley weighs in here.