Brain Gain

A fascinating article in The New Yorker by Margaret Talbot, Brain Gain: The underground world of “neuroenhancing” drugs, discusses the rising off-label use of prescriptive medicines commonly used to treat ADD and ADHD, in order to achieve a heightened sense of focus in crunch time. Talbot thoroughly explores the intrigue and dangers of these ‘steroids for the brain’.

“Don’t neuroenhancers confer yet another advantage on the kind of people who already can afford private tutors and prep courses? At many colleges, students have begun calling the off-label use of neuroenhancers a form of cheating. Writing last year in the Cavalier Daily, the student newspaper of the University of Virginia, a columnist named Greg Crapanzano argued that neuroenhancers “create an unfair advantage for the users who are willing to break the law in order to gain an edge. These students create work that is dependent on the use of a pill rather than their own work ethic.” Of course, it’s hard to imagine a university administration that would require students to pee in a cup before they get their blue books. And though secretly taking a neuroenhancer for a three-hour exam does seem unfair, condemning the drugs use seems extreme. Even with the aid of a neuroenhancer, you still have to write the essay, conceive the screenplay, or finish the grant proposal, and if you can take credit for work you’ve done on caffeine or nicotine, then you can take credit for work produced on Provigil.”

Talbot argues that, like cosmetic surgery, cosmetic neurology is probably here to stay. But, while the comparison to caffeine and nicotine can be drawn, the heart of the problem, as it seems to me, is the lifestyle choice behind such an impulse. While many Americans might perceive neuroenhancers as giving them a competitive advantage and increasing work productivity, it reeks of the mentality that life is about work and nothing more.

One of the supposed benefits of neuroenhancers are that they could reduce intellectual equality across social and economical sectors. Rather than suggesting we should turn to a pill to solve such problem, I have to side with Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column that intellectual ineqaulity can be leveled by promoting the right environment.

But, in the end, neuroenhancers aren’t so much about intelligence and creativity as they are about efficiency and productivity. And, in this era, it’s hard to imagine that the Creative Class will be ousted by straight-faced robots.

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