Since we were on the subject of messing with brain chemistry in the last post, it's worth pointing out an interesting and a more than a little disturbing and provocative article by Margaret Talbot in the New Yorker that deals with the controversial use of stimulant drugs like Adderall and Ritalin.
Talbot especially focuses on Ivy League students who seem to be on a veritable diet of cocktails of these drugs. They not only turn them into supermen and women when it comes to writing papers and doing assignments, but "enhance" their social, romantic and personal lives. Websites on which anonymous users share their experiences with these compounds abound, and these users often are not bashful about sharing not just experiences but samples of such drugs. Nor do doctors seem to hesitate in rather liberally prescribing these medications. Talbot chronicles the experiences of several users who report on an overall enhanced sense of perception and understanding. The phenomenon is of course not limited to Ivy League students, but professors at top schools as well as their students seem to be ideal test cases, considering the pressures of academic life and the myriad ways to cope that they come up with.
So the question naturally is; is this a good thing? The bigger question I want to ask is; in twenty years, when I meet a person, do I want the sum total of his or her personality to be essentially defined by 5 magic pills that are popped into the mouth every morning, like recharging a battery? Are we going to enhance our lives with drugs so much that our intrinsic persona is only vaguely visible, if at all, under a thick blanket of smiles, appropriate social manners, and exuberant behavior that is artificially induced by medication? And of course, do we understand enough about brain chemistry to use these neuroenhancers on a regular basis? (This one's easy; the answer is a terse 'no')
Proponents of the drugs say that these molecules tickle similar receptors in the brain as caffeine. If copious quantities of stimulant black coffee are still kosher, what's wrong with minute quantities of Ritalin taken essentially for the same purpose? It's hard to make an argument against this, but from a long-term perspective I would be much more skeptical about the effects of...I don't know, amphetamines on the brain compared to coffee?. The long-term effects of both Ritalin and Adderall are not known. A related matter is that the temporary stimulation and enhancement induced by these drugs may mask the loss of deeper and important functions that may not be apparent in the short-term. Indeed, perhaps the most troubling side-effect that Talbot documents is a loss of truly creative thinking. As she says, this is not surprising. Truly creative thinking often happens when the mind is wandering, when one is not too focused on a particular task. Ritalin-like compounds that may bring about intense spells of concentration may deprive us of those strokes of insights that actually result from a scatter-brained loss of focus.
Another practical issue that these medicines pose is that of unduly ramping up competitiveness. Consider that your co-worker is on these medicines and it's apparently enhancing his or her productivity. Would you feel pressured to aid your normal faculties with a boost of these babies? Wouldn't you like to stay competitive by asking your doctor for Ritalin so that you are sure that it's you and not your co-worker who bags that lucrative contract or job position? In an era where competitiveness has becoming so mind-numbing that's it's hardly noticed, do we need more incentives for competing even harder? It's a question that is going to constantly rear its head.
In the end though, I have a problem with these enhancers for the same reason that I have a problem with antidepressants. We are in an era where ordinary problems like shyness are being presented as "disorders" that may benefit from a pill. Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder is of course a real, clinical manifestation. But aren't all of us attention deprived to varying extents during the day. Simply as a scientific fact, wouldn't it generally help us if all of us take Ritalin? Who wants to be a member of Ritalin nation?
But that's just my opinion. Our parents' and grandparents' generations exemplified the maxim "Where there is a will, there's a way". Maybe for us it's going to be, "Where there's no will, there is a pill". I cannot wait for the singularity.
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