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.