Evolving Thoughts

Janet and Shelley have opened up the question of whether students and others should use drugs to enhance their cognitive performance. Janet thinks one shouldn’t, and Shelley thinks that, in the absence of bad side effects, one might as well. So lacking any particular knowledge, a prerequisite for a philosopher other than Janet, I might as well weigh in.

If neurobiology, and indeed all of biology, is right, then we are the sum of the capacities of our chemical constitution arranged as cells in a coherent organism. What brains can do is in large part dependent upon what chemical signals are passed between cells, in order for those cells to do well what they do.

Brains depend on chemical signaling, but there’s a catch. Ordinarily, one does well cognitively only when one has a prior, which is to say genetic, disposition to send the right chemical signals. Neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine, melatonin and acetylcholine structure, regulate and modulate our neural signals. It is accepted by all but new age mystics now that thinking is a physical process that is constituted by signaling between neurons, and perhaps other cells, in the brain.

So if modern biology is correct, in some ways differences in our ability to learn and think are determined by our genetic inheritance. Now, this is not the whole story of course. Brains do what they do if they are challenged, that is, used, in the process of growing up and developing. Genes do not control everything, but everything involves genes, so the end result is that in a competitive process like education, those who do the same work will not all be equal.

I once knew a fellow who was amazing in his ability to learn and assimilate knowledge. He spoke or read around 20 languages, and when he got bored, as he did one summer, he;d learn a new one (Akkadian in this instance). I’d have hated him, but he was too nice a guy (hi, Jeff, if you’re reading this). Was this just the result of his Calvinist work ethic? Not really. For him, this took little effort. He’d read, revise and then know. I tried to learn Greek (Koine), Hebrew, and Latin and failed miserably at all three. I barely passed German (don’t ask me to speak it now, for pity’s sake). But I worked harder than he did at it. He just had the cognitive skills, and I didn’t.

So, assuming that there are no side effects, a very bad assumption based on the complex interactions of chemicals in the body, why wouldn’t you use cognitive enhancers? In fact, why wouldn’t you do a trade-off calculation even if there were side effects, and use them when they were most needed? Why should I be penalised for my parents’ genes?

Well, the enhancements may work also for the learning disposed as well, although that might not be the case if all the enhancers do is raise the activity in the brain to some natural limit. Neurons can only do so much. But if they help the able minded, they may still outcompete us less endowed. But a more concerning reason lies in the nature of biological systems: the production of the relevant neurotransmitters may decrease if the brain is flooded with synthetic substitutes, as production of these sorts of chemicals is tightly regulated (it has to be or the body would go into wild swings of over- and under-production).

When amphetamines were first introduced to the general public (and a series of “disorders” ranging from housewifely depression to slovenly behaviour were invented to justify the sales, according to historian Nicolas Rasmussen) they were used by fighter pilots on active duty. At first they worked very well, but with constant use, the pilots developed a form of psychosis, some suffering permanent damage. It’s worth noting that Ritalin is an amphetamine; I worry deeply about giving it long term to children.

So the use of cognitive enhancers may only have a temporary effect anyway, and may in the long term cause major deficits, just as the use of steroids causes damage in the long term.

It’s unlikely that we need to worry about the competitive advantage of those who use such drugs overall. The tactical use of them might be relatively benign, and in any case it evens out the genetic lottery a bit (but, given that to get to university, one might not be all that different from your fellows, only a bit). But should we worry that the work we do this way might not be our work, as Janet suggests? I do not think so. I have alert days and sleepy days, but the lack of serotonin in my system doesn’t mean my alert day work isn’t mine. With the best enhancer in the world, it’s still my work. It’s my brain that produces it, even if I’ve supercharged that brain a little. But don’t go expecting everything I do to be that brilliant, because I don’t want to end up any more psychotic than I am.

Oops, I’ve said too much. If you;re reading this, I’ll be around shortly with the machete.


  1. #1 Ally Kendall
    December 20, 2007

    Of course much of the worlds greatest science art and literature was produced under the influence of drugs. Erdos once defined a mathematician as a means of transforming amphetamines into theorems. Francis Crick said that he conceived the double-helix structure of DNA under the influence of LSD. Coleridge found his inspiration in opium, and Baudelaire found his in hashish.

  2. #2 jeff
    December 20, 2007

    If such drugs do become available, and are at least somewhat effective with minimal side effects, then they will almost certainly be used. Competition is everywhere, in every facet of life. Academics are hardly exempt.

    No, you can’t change your neural wiring, but many people already do take supplements like gingko, piracetam, DMAE, etc to give them a bit of an edge, even if it’s only alertness. At various points in my life, I’ve probably experimented with almost every substance known – scheduled as well as OTC. One year I even spent hundreds of dollars trying every OTC herb and vitamin available, most of which did nothing or made me ill, although about 10% of them did have useful effects. Scheduled substances are a mixed bag. Ritalin is actually more like cocaine than amphetamines in the way it works, and clouded my thinking. However (perhaps like Coleridge), I’ve done some of my best work with low dosage opiates. If only there were no side-effects…

    (BTW, I’m a vastly different Jeff, although I do speak some German)

  3. #3 Matt S
    December 20, 2007

    We call consume things to change internal state. Drugs are not distinctly different from food and water and air. If eating a balanced meal helps my thinking, fine. If eating a triple bacon sandwich helps my thinking, but hurt my heart, I have a trade-off. I see nothing different just because something comes in pill form rather than on a plate.

  4. #4 Brian English
    December 20, 2007

    It is accepted by all but new age mystics now that thinking is a physical process that is constituted by signaling between neurons, and perhaps other cells, in the brain.
    I don’t know how many christians I’ve come across on the net who proclaim some variant of mind dualism. The brain is only the receiver, and thus brain damage is not mind damage, only damage to the receiver……I point out that violates the 1st law of thermodynamics. But if you’re beliefs require mind/sould that is unmeasurable. A little thing like physics isn’t gonna get in your way…….

  5. #5 efrique
    December 20, 2007

    I think the premise of the setup needs to be examined.

    “No side effects” is a claim that’s made about a lot of things, often with insufficient evidence. If there was a drug that I knew had no side effects, I would have little objection to using it (as I use caffeine now, and I know it has side effects – but we’ve had hundreds of years to figure out that they’re mostly not so bad). But the difference is that any deep knowledge of side effects across the broad population won’t be known until the drug has been widely used for several generations.

    Case in point – I had quite serious problems that I felt were caused by a common and widely regarded as safe drug I had been prescribed (one that had been available for decades), possibly in interaction with a second, common drug (with known but generally minor side effects – closely related drugs being available-over-the-counter).

    I went to my GP with the problems, I voiced my concern that it was the drug or drugs. He said that the drug was not causing the problems and sent me to a specialist, who sent me to another and another. Each time I told them I thought the problems were caused by this drug. Every single one of them ignored my concern. I had thousands of dollars worth of tests, and steadily got sicker.

    Eventually, it turned out that it was the drugs that I was concerned about. The particular large constellation of side effects I was experiencing were extremely rare and were not listed in MIMS (though they eventually turned up in a research paper). Funny thing is, not one of the doctors could recall me telling them that the drugs were the problem. And every one of them was astonished that the drugs were in fact the cause of the serious symptoms I had.

    I have moderately serious ongoing health issues arising from having taken those “safe” drugs (though less serious than the ones I was experiencing while taking them). So being assured that a drug is safe is not necessarily sufficient for me if I am playing around with my brain. I’d want one that had been let run a few generations to be reasonably confident that the risks were really known.

    [Note that if the possible side effects of the drugs had been known ahead of time, I have no doubt I would still have taken them. What would be different is that I would not have continued taking them for more than a year, once those side effects began to appear, and I would not be in quite as bad a position now.]

  6. #6 Starhawk Laughingsun
    December 20, 2007

    Ally I’m not sure of the Francis Crick and LSD story. The story is all over the Internet is all I know. But LSD certainly has had a profound impact upon our society. But I hate to say it tho but people that use it alot tend to get all “flakey and metaphysical” in their thinking. I know it’s hard to make that empirical but study the psychedelic intellectuals for a while and aside from maybe Alan Watts you’ll see what I mean. Timothy Leary being a good example. LSD tho is a very profound experience and most of the time after the experience you do not have a good idea or clear memory of what you experienced. For inspiration it is unreliable and creative insight perhaps gained using it are hard to “hang on to”. While in very very low doses it and other psychedelics might help memory in higher doses it doesn’t matter whether it helps because you are going to be unable to do things like study. Psychedelics are mostly used for spiritual or psychological growth if not just used for hedonistic reasons or in a social setting.

    Also according to wikipedia a colleague Of Erdős “Alfr�d R�nyi said, ‘a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems’, and Erdős drank copious quantities. (This quotation is often attributed incorrectly to Erdős)”. But regardless Erdős was actually a user of amphetamines, and I believe this accounts for descriptions of him like “immensely prolific (and famously eccentric)”. I do not think Erdős was an abuser of amphetamines maybe of coffee tho as large amounts of coffee probably is not healthy. I doubt he took large amounts of amphetamines as his math would no longer make any sense, amphetamines will do that to ya ya know. But amphetamines most likely accounts for the prolific amount of math he produced, he was a smart man and kept dosage under control.

    Which brings up another side to nootropic drugs, more is not necessarily better and all nootropic drugs cease to be effective and may be counter effective past a certain dose or if use on a daily basis. And in my humble opinion giving Ritalin or Adderall or stuff like that to kids is ridiculous, fortunately tho for the kids alot of people just get the scripts for their kids and then sell the “speed”. While Ritalin is an amphetamine to drug users that like stuff like that it is kinda regarded as “trash”, Adderall on the other hand is the real deal. With this war on Meth going on in the United states It amazes me they don’t mention or talk about Ritalin or Adderall use and abuse that much. ALL “Meth heads” will and usually do use stuff like that.

    I myself believe in Nootropic drugs why not research them and use them? It’s all a matter of Risks and it’s only up to me to decide what is an appropriate risk for whatever gain i might get. Unfortunately most drugs and herbs hyped as nootropic probably don’t work or work much. To a certain extent tho just about all stimulants work to some degree. Regular use tho of most stimulants is probably a bad idea. As is jeffs use of “low dosage opiates”, in jeffs case he is playing with a Dragon and maybe lost in illusion as opiates certainly have no nootropic effects. Maybe perhaps a few lucky souls have experienced either heaven or hell there and wrote elegantly of it or perhaps they were just rock stars but most people are not going to be creatively inspired by opiate usage. And further some are going to be lead into a downward spiral and turn in to be blunt junkies. That’s not a pretty sight, jeff.

    Also wreckless use of herbs is not a good idea. I use herbs and am sorta an herbalist and while most herbs you can legally buy and actually find are usually safe enough, they are still drugs medicine of a sort if you will. And some of them can hurt you and also not much is known about the effects of mixing them. And sometimes books on herbal medicine will recommend stuff I would regard as dangerous

    And as to your work really being your work when using nootropics or other drugs, of course it’s your work. Anything ya might figure out anything ya might write down any computer code ya might type in anything like that is clearly your work. Whether you was high or not is irrelevant to me. And as to using memory enhancing drugs to help you study the point of learning is to actually get it into long term memory preferably something you will never forget, so using speed to cram for test is a bad idea as cramming is a bad idea. But if ya use nootropics stimulants or otherwise and actually learn the stuff then great.

  7. #7 Dr. Free-Ride
    December 21, 2007

    Actually, I said I wouldn’t, not that one shouldn’t.

  8. #8 John S. Wilkins
    December 21, 2007

    Thanks for the clarification, Janet.

  9. #9 jeff
    December 21, 2007

    As is jeffs use of “low dosage opiates”, in jeffs case he is playing with a Dragon and maybe lost in illusion as opiates certainly have no nootropic effects.

    Not “is”, but “was”, and with a prescription. What can I say, they helped me focus better than anything – and I’ve tried almost every nootropic there is. Your mileage may vary.

  10. #10 Stelios
    December 23, 2007

    So the use of cognitive enhancers may only have a temporary effect anyway.

    This reminded me of the 1968 film Charlie. Distant past, but quite relevant to Janet and Shelley’s question, although the enhancing method in the film involved brain surgery.

  11. #11 John S. Wilkins
    December 23, 2007

    Not in the original story, “Flowers for Algernon”, which is a classic of SF.

  12. #12 SeanH
    December 27, 2007

    But should we worry that the work we do this way might not be our work, as Janet suggests? I do not think so.

    I’m not a philosopher, but I you’re right and it’s our work. Logically, it seems to me the only way it wouldn’t be our work is if we were literally no longer ourselves while under under the influence of drugs. I don’t know much about the whole philosophy of self can of worms, but I’m pretty sure I’m always me.

  13. #13 DuWayne
    April 1, 2009

    Chalk me up as one who is very grateful for the slowdown that stimulant therapy (Ritalin) provides me. That, coupled with Welbutrin, Clonidine and the occasional Xanax, makes it possible for me to actually focus enough on one thing to functionally get my school work done.

    I would note that as a baseline, I only sleep an average of two and a half, to four hours a night. These days I get closer to six, occasionally seven – yet I am a hell of a lot more productive now than I ever have been. And I have had no problems with retention thus far.

    As an aside, I am also finding that I have no desire at all to drink, smoke pot or use hallucinogens (the latter being something of a serious problem for me in the past) and I am finding that I have less and less urge to step out for a cigarette.

    And I have no qualms about calling the work I do on these drugs my own. It’s not like there is a problem with me having the ideas without them, the problem is that I can’t stem the tide of more and more ideas without them. It’s really hard to function when you are existing in a constant barrage of ideas for this or that song you’re writing, several ideas about how the mind works and why. engineering solutions for complicated architectural deigns – on and on, all at the same damned time.

    I smoked immense amounts of pot for years, because doing so slowed me down enough that I could functionally work. The medications I am on now just do that with a great deal better control (at least the Welbutrin and Clonidine seem to be – they’re rather new to my regime).

    Starhawk –

    And in my humble opinion giving Ritalin or Adderall or stuff like that to kids is ridiculous, fortunately tho for the kids alot of people just get the scripts for their kids and then sell the “speed”.

    As the parent of a child with severe ADHD and someone who has severe ADHD, let me just mention that you haven’t the slightest clue what you’re talking about. While I am not keen on seeing these drugs prescribed at the levels they’re prescribed at, there are kids who need something and of the options out there, stimulant therapies are generally the safest.

    And there is quite a bit of evidence now, that adults with ADHD are far less likely to have problems with substance abuse or ADHD, if they are medicated for it as a tweener and/or teen.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.