Mere five minutes before your college essay on the topic of, oh I don’t know, psychoanalysis is due, you’re panicking. Your level of concentration, extracted from extreme procrastination, is higher than ever, and the world around you reduces to just you and your feverish laptop, its screen beaming bright against your watery eyes. Your tired, sweaty hands start shaking a tad bit as you furiously slam down the last few lines of the conclusion in a state of dire desperation. As the clock ticks even further toward midnight and you catch an error somewhere up in your paper, you wish for time to freeze – for it to stretch out into a slow motion at the very least.
Many college students wish for their days to last longer – bombarded with too many assignments, problem sets, midterms, whatever it may be – in too little time. Regrettably, controlling time is beyond our petty human power. The closest to extending our days then becomes sleeping through less of the 24 hours that we are allowed, making use of that time as efficiently as possible. For some of us, sleep and concentration are too beyond our power – sleep is just an absolute necessity, and concentration comes and goes at its own will. Without any alternative, we see our GPA headed into an endless black hole.
What if, though, you were handed a pill that would help you zero in on whatever it is that you need attention toward? Sounds more reasonable than extending time and more effectual than some fantastical drug from a sci-fi movie (as in Limitless or Lucy) that triggers all of the brain’s neurons and causes cerebral chaos, no?
In the recent field of medicine, the successful use of nootropics (amphetamines, commercially named Adderall, and methylphenidate, commercially named Ritalin and Concerta) in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has led to suggestions that these drugs as well as other similar stimulant drugs could be used to enhance cognitive performance in people without a diagnosed ADHD or other similar mental disorders. These so-called “smart drugs” have been found to work successfully as advertised to enhance cognition – heightening attention, memory, and even intelligence – in “normal” individuals (definition of “normal”, frankly, is an open and too broad of a question).
Before we get too excited, though, it’s a worthwhile expenditure of time to consider – is such a use fair? How is the use of “smart drugs” to enhance cognitive performance in students different from the use of anabolic steroids or “blood doping” (boosting the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells) to increase aerobic capacity and endurance in athletes, which is considered illegal and strictly prohibited by the International Olympic Committee and other athletic organizations? Even if fair, would it have any negative consequences on either the individual or society as a whole?
The initial response of most people reading about smart drugs may be one of immediate and almost automatic criticism – that the use of it is wrong, even immoral. However, such moral intuitions guided by human emotions lack valid reason and often result in a flawed response that could potentially prevent the modern world in which we live from advancing forward, though this is not to deny the existence of a justifiable reason behind condemning the use of such drugs. When taking into consideration the prospect of long-term negative effects of the drugs on the health of users or when perceiving the drugs as providing an unfair advantage on academic examinations only to individuals with the economic means to obtain the drugs, it only seems rational to raise objections. However, long-term effects are not yet recognized with certainty, though there have been substantial indications in the scientific field that the drugs will actually make your brain cells healthier in the long run. As a matter of fact, the drugs have been found to be quite unlikely to cause any side effects at all. The advantage, too, is not so unfair given some thought.
Although some may wonder how such usage of smart drugs is any different from cheating on an exam, these drugs help to maximize an individual’s intellectual capacity already present inwardly in the person as opposed to cheating, which is the dishonest act of using outward sources to gain an unfair advantage. Smart drugs can be seen as analogous to caffeine, also a form of stimulant drug, that reduces tiredness and improves focus, even though to a much lesser extent than smart drugs. Likewise, the use of hypnotic or soporific drugs, a class of psychoactive drugs, to induce sleep is very much common, not at all illegal or seen as immoral. So why is it that smart drugs which simply have the opposite effect of these hypnotics remain illegal and taken to be so morally unjust?
The use of smart drugs to enhance cognitive performance in students is different from the use of anabolic steroids or “blood doping” to increase aerobic capacity and endurance in athletes. Education is different from sports. In the realm of sports, if one player has an advantage, every other player competing against that individual is negatively impacted with the likelihood of their win diminished. Contrarily to sports, the ultimate objective in education is not competition, although the social construction of education today falsely places such notion into students. The goal is not to win but rather for everyone to learn as much as possible, which would lead to benefit the current society as a whole. It is a pity that in most countries that place emphasis on education, especially South Korea, fail to realize the lattermost point about the purpose of education and regard it as nothing other than competition itself.
It is also important to note the effects of such drug use on our society as a whole. The gap between the rich and the poor will further increase. The obtainment of these costly drugs will obviously be easier for the already rich. Sequentially, the rich – having gained that ability to use the drugs to reach higher knowledge – will climb even higher on the economic ladder. With the incessant increase of social inequality, there also exists this gap between the intellectual capacities of people with a diagnosed ADHD and people without it. People with ADHD take these medications in an attempt to catch up to the intellectual capacities of the normal people around them, but if those normal people take the same types of medications to further increase their own intellectual capacities, people with ADHD are always racing towards an insuperable barrier.
Lastly, I want to note that many people with concentration deficits (even to extremity) are not always diagnosed with ADHD, but still find concentration, and therefore all of school, very frustrating. Considering such individuals, it almost seems discriminatory to limit the use of smart drugs for everyone on the basis of the problematic points mentioned previously, which I personally find to be inferior to the overall impact of the drugs on society.
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