Cognitively Enhanced College Students

It’s likely that only a very small number of people are surprised to learn that Adderall, a methamphetamine-based prescription drug used to treat symptoms associated with ADHD, is often used by college students who do not have ADHD to help them study.

Perhaps even fewer people are surprised that most athletes take some form of methamphetamine before a game to help them stay focused.

So it should come as no surprise that often professors and researchers use Adderall to help them push through a deadline. American pilots often will use some form of methamphetamines to help them focus. Some lawyers use it to help prep for a big case.

A recent CNN report discusses the advantages and drawbacks to college students taking ADHD drugs to boost their grades.  Here are some of the key points from the article:

  • Adderall is abused more than marijuana on college campuses and is easier to get
  • 30% of students on college campuses have illegally used Adderall or Ritalin and the percentage increases with upper classmen.
  • 80% of upperclassmen in fraternities and sororities have taken Adderall or Ritalin
  • A Nature article that advocates regulated use of these drugs for improving performance suggests that these drugs would be better for the individual and society:  “In the journal Nature in 2008, a commentary by five researchers said, “We should welcome new methods of improving our brain function.” They added, “Safe and effective cognitive enhancers will benefit both the individual and society.””
  • The student in the interview saw marked improvement in his grades.
  • Students consider Adderall slightly more dangerous than Mountain Dew, and not nearly as dangerous as drinking beer or smoking.
  • The article points out several of Adderall’s side effects.

While the article touches on this, I am not writing to discuss the health hazards or side effects associated with stimulants such as Adderall or Ritalin or methamphetamines in general. I am also not writing about ADHD. I do think ADHD is an important topic, but that is not the point. My point is to ask should “study drugs” be legal for people to use?

The Nature article mentioned above seems to think so. However, after having recently read through another book on the eugenics movement, the language in the quote above sounds strangely familiar. More productive people could certainly benefit society, but how this benefits the individual is a stretch. For example, if everyone were to take cognitive enhancers, then those that were at an advantage have now gone back to being “average” or “sub-average.” The competition remains the same, only the standards are higher. The only time the individual obtains some benefit from methamphetamines is when he is one of the few using them while the standards are still based on prior capabilities. Having the advantage is relative.

Implied in the language of “benefitting society” is the idea of the perfectly productive person, or what a person should be. The message that “you are a better person when you are on drugs” should not be taken lightly. This idea assumes that a very narrow range of particular personality types are better than others. Then this personality is valued (perhaps implicitly) as the norm. As Carl Elliot astutely observes in his book Better than Well,

Perhaps some people are simply temperamentally unsuited to life at this fever pitch – drinking espresso in front of a computer screen, fax humming, speakerphone on, e-mail zipping in and out, lunch at the desk, people popping in and out of the office. Not everyone wants to live their life as if they were on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, even if they could handle the pace. Maybe those who worry about Ritalin are really worrying that we have sped up the rhythm of American life to such a frenzied drum roll that those who march to the beat of a different drummer – or rather, who idle slowly rather than march – will simply be left behind (Elliot, Carl Better than Well 260, 261).

Replace that list with the college years: staying up all night with friends, going to parties every weekend, dealing with relationships, work, going to classes following by forty hours per week reading and studying for the 3 big tests that always seem to have the importance of determining your future all while averaging four to five hours of sleep on a diet with all of the nutrients that Raman noodles and pizza has to offer. And then the student in the interview complains about not being able to concentrate. Very few people can handle this pace, but beginning in college and carried on through adulthood, it is expected. No one wants to admit that he or she can’t handle it.

Secondly, in the article, the senior college student interviewed is quoted as saying that when he takes study drugs, “I’m more driven. I don’t focus on anything else…No distractions, no socializing, just on with it.” The ability to concentrate on one thing (something Lord Chesterfield considered a mark of genius), the ability to focus and commit to one project, the ability to manage your time, the ability to make a conscious decision for delayed gratification – These skills are some of the most important lessons learned in undergraduate and graduate school. With the aid of study drugs, students don’t learn these skills. What they do learn are the facts to pass the test. However, with the advent of Google, anyone can look up facts. Google has changed the way we do academics. No longer is the guy with the biggest database of facts the most valuable player in your company (or medical team, or research team), it’s the guy who knows how to find, filter, and assess the facts in such a way that he arrives at creative solutions. Most people decide to go to college in hopes of landing a good job after graduation. Thus far, there is no pill for ingenuity and resourcefulness. Facts are cheap, and the last thing an employer needs is a $50,000 database.

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