Your brain on (performance enhancing) drugs

In last week’s episode of TWIS, Kirsten and guest co-host Andy Fell reported on an online survey by Nature magazine in which 20% of respondents claimed to have taken medications to improve focus or mental performance. An April Fools’ article about the “World Anti Brain-Doping Authority” apparently spawned this survey, which despite the silliness actually raises some serious questions.

At this point, reveals that we have medications which allow us to improve the functionality of our existing cognitive abilities, but in the near future it is possible that we will see the development of drugs for treating Alzheimer’s disease and similar conditions which could be capable of actually making our brains better.

Is this really comparable to doping by athletes? Should we be worried about keeping scientists from doping in order to maintain some sort of fairness in academic grading and grant distribution? Would you take drugs to make yourself smarter? Should anyone?

I don’t think it is the same as athletic doping. Yes, on a biological level, the principle is identical–taking drugs to make your body work better, but to me, the difference lies in the goal (yes, I am about to argue that the end may justify the means in this case). Before I begin, let me just say that I am a pretty avid baseball fan (go Twins!). Having said that, when it comes down to it I don’t think the outcome of a sports event really makes that much difference to our survival and well-being as a species. Because of the fact that games are about competition for its own sake, I think it is reasonable to expect to maintain a standard of fairness when it comes to what the players are or are not allowed to do to improve their performance. These rules serve to level the playing field as well as protect the health of players who feel pressure to do everything they can to keep up with the next player.

In science, competition for grants is not competition for its own sake. It is competition to see who gets to be paid to advance science. Yes, scientists want to be the one to make that big breakthrough and be remembered forever, but the individual scientist, whether community-minded or self-serving, is never the sole beneficiary of a breakthrough’s rewards. Science benefits all of humanity, so I can’t see how it matters who makes a discovery or whether they take drugs to help them do it.

Would I take drugs to make me smarter? Maybe. It’s a tempting proposition a la “Charley”. I’d probably have to weigh the side effects with the possible outcomes and go from there. I don’t know. If I could hypothetically take something that would make me better able to improve people’s lives, even if it had negative side effects, I’d have to seriously consider doing it. Maybe that’s just me, but I suspect there are others who feel the same way.

What do you think? Would you do it?

Related Articles


  1. Yep, probably. Like you, I’d want to know the side effects first. I’ve thought about checking into the drugs discussed in these articles. But the idea also does make me a little nervous.

  2. As it happens, there was an article in the Wired Magazine RSS yesterday that discussed drugs that improve concentration, attention, stamina, alertness, focus, whatever. I read the list of side effects. Even given the troubles I’ve had in my professional career recently, I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting my body on the line for a competitive edge. I’ll stick to caffeine.

  3. i have an adhd diagnosis, and have tried some of these drugs. i don’t take them regularly because i’ve become used to being able to do several things simultaneously and the medication gives me such an intense focus that i’m incapable of multitasking, which is bad when i’m driving or working and need to be aware of my surroundings.
    i do occasionally use it if i need to focus on something. i have a paper to write over the next few weeks, and i will undoubtedly be “doping” to get it done.

  4. So, I just read this article while taking a break from studying for a big organic chemistry exam that I have tomorrow. In all seriousness, I would inject the drugs in question straight up my urethra, if need be. Anything to transform my rapidly deteriorating delusion of adequacy into reality!

  5. Does the smart drug make me stupidly aggressive and cause my testicles to shrink and women to grow beards? If so, I’m against it. They should also do a urinalysis before Jeopardy

  6. They should also do a urinalysis before Jeopardy


    i hadn’t even thought of that possibility…

  7. Enhancements are never a good solution but it is a personal choice and see no problem with them.
    Read Achilles Heel by Larry Niven.
    It illustrates the extreme and the cost.
    Being an intellectual if my brain was deteriorating and there was an enhancement …I can say ‘How much’ VERY quickly.

  8. The problem is that taking mind enhancing drugs drugs turns the commodity from the science to the scientist. Granted this happens to a degree already, but it is generally the goal of scientists (as I understand it) to make their work about the research/facts. This would make it about the researcher.

  9. Those of us with ADD (points to self), allready have free brain-pills on prescription. Of course, with the years I learned to deal with ADD without taking the pills, but they come in mighty handy during exams and big reports.

    If I didn’t take ritalin-like pills in university, I would have flunked all but the simplest classes.

  10. This would make it about the researcher.

    i’m not sure i agree. maybe it would make it more about the researcher, but that doesn’t change the outcome. you’d still get better results.

  11. I think the relevant issue is whether drug-taking is a zero-sum (or worse) game.
    With sports, if one athelete takes drugs, they’ll have an advantage over the competition. To compete, other atheletes will have to take drugs
    as well. The end result is exactly the same as the initial state, except that now the atheletes have to suffer the side effects of drugs.
    This is a classic prisoner’s dilemma situation. If both sides defect (taking drugs) they both end up in a worse situation, so its in the athelete’s
    interests to create rules to prevent this arms race from occurring.

    With science, its a different matter. Scientists aren’t competing against each other, so if two scientists both
    improve their ability, the result is more/better science from both, not the same status quo. If they feel the side
    effects are worth the gains, then why not?

    The closest equivalent to competition here is taking exams, where the object isn’t to make new discoveries, but
    test how effective people are. Here, there’s probably a good argument for restricting drugs if possible, but when
    it comes down to it, this is nothing new. How many people have taken caffeine to stay up all night finishing an essay?

    More extreme examples in science are also nothing new – Paul Erdos for instance took amphetamines, and stated that going without them for a period had set his mathematics
    back a month.

  12. you’d still get better results.

    Nope. You’d just get results more quickly. That’s the beauty of peer review – only the best results remain.

    But how could results by an enhanced scientist be reviewed by a non-enhanced scientist? They aren’t peers; they just don’t understand. It would be like a marine biologist reviewing a particle physics paper.

  13. It would be like a marine biologist reviewing a particle physics paper.

    No, it would be like a particle physicist reviewing a particle physics paper, without the benefit of performance enhancements. It shouldn’t matter if they’re enhanced or not. All that should matter is that they’re competent enough to understand the subject matter, check the math, and verify facts.

  14. slxpluvs – I think there are different kinds of enhancement at work here.

    Enhancement to be able to think the same as normally, but faster, wouldn’t produce any results that couldn’t be interpreted by “unenhanced” scientists.

    Enhancement that enables new methods of thinking is going to be highly suspect. They may allow a breakthrough realization, but a paper inspired by such thought methods would still be required to show rigorous scientific proof that the idea is correct; this proof would be within the ability of unenhanced scientists to analyze, or else it would be rejected.

    Wikipedia has some good reading on the subject, but as always may be inaccurate.

    Caffeine provides proven increases in alertness and thought speed while nicotine increases focus. Scientists already use caffeine heavily; perhaps those little nicotine patches may get put into use soon too?

  15. Ah! found it.

    Some of the other links are quite telling as well. Having a small dose of caffeine, spread out through the day, is better than downing a whole pot of coffee first thing in the morning. Score one for tea time.

  16. Enhancement that enables new methods of thinking is going to be highly suspect.

    I can’t help but picture these enhancements eventually simulating “diseases of genius”. Synesthesia gives the ability to distinguish sensory input in less “fuzzy” ways. Mild schizophrenia helps problem solving / creativity. People with Asperger’s seem to have accelerated data management abilities. And it seems to me that people who have experienced extreme physical pain, especially chronic conditions, have increased wisdom and understanding about how things change. (I’m not an expert in any of these areas, but these are my understandings)

    If there was a drug cocktail that could be administered to developing children to give them the optimum* amount of these diseases, then it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that these people would talk down to normal people the same way we talk down to people who are deaf (“no, your child NEEDS a cochlear implant – she’ll be happier if she can hear.”). While the unenhanced *could* contribute, the focus would always be on the lack of enhancement, not the research.

    Of course, the scientific community would NEVER focus on the scientists disability, err, lack of enhanced ability. But the media would. And non-enhanced people would feel that they could be scientists, or that they would always have that asterisk.

    Eugenics has been seen as a bad thing by scientists. A common reason for this is the lack of genetic diversity. Neurological enhancement would decrease the diversity of ways to generate ideas – they would mostly be made with the “optimum” method.

    Oh, crap…I’m ranting. I’ll stop now.

    *max benefits with minimum side effects

  17. brianm–exactly what i’m saying…

    slxplvs–i am in no way advocating administration of enhancements to people who do not choose for themselves (or children). you make a good argument against enhancements by taking it to its end.
    i still don’t know…it seems like we will reach a point where this sort of thing becomes inevitable. look at plastic surgery. the social stigma attached to it has pretty much disappeared, and more and more “regular” people are having things done to enhance their appearance. this does nothing to take away from people who are naturally beautiful.

    as i said…interesting questions…

  18. Carr2d2 – thanks for making me feel appreciated.

    I think that, however, plastic surgery (the enhancement kind as much as the recovery kind) effects people’s perceptions of normal people quite a bit. By exposing males to a false sense of sexual dimorphism cases men to act as if there was that dimorphism. Increased perception of sexual dimorphism makes men act more man-like, as well as increasing male-male competition for the “best mates”. Men insist that their mate fit that role.

    Any time we augment beauty or intelligence the general population will change their expectations and reactions to less-than-extreme qualities. I’ve seen how people attempting to understand science while still holding their beliefs are treated at the Pharyngula blog. Frankly, they treat them like they are stupid and ignorant because, in comparison to many people who comment, they are. Enhanced scientists would have as much or more contempt for unenhanced scientists, and so would the public and the media.

  19. I wear glasses. They allow me to see to the same standard as the average person. Why is it we spend vast amounts of time trying to get everyone up to the average level and then stop there? Surely the level of performance is artificially set by what we happen to be biologically and sociologically capable of at that particular time. Any ability based on biology is randomly generated anyway (filtered by evolution but still), why should we regard the current average level as some sacred perfect quality and regard improving beyond it as unfair. It’s already unfair. I’d improve any aspect of myself using any available technique, assuming side effects were not severe and no-one else was hurt in the process.

  20. @neverclear5:

    It’s already unfair.

    Social evolution is different that genetic evolution. There is a social contract that allows people to let down their guard against murder so they can become better farmers (or whatever). The social contract establishes rules that make “it” fair.

    The social contract is most easily enforceable when the members of the society are similar – this is principle to equality (you get what you give). For a contrast, the social contract between humans and dogs is very lopsided. When blacks were slaves in America, their social contract with whites was very lopsided. Now that blacks and whites are seen as equals, their social contract is more equal.

    Enhancement of any kind, including medical, decreases the perceived equality. Because decreased equality makes for an increased chance for anti-social behavior (e.g. murder), it is damaging to everyone.

    Although it is already unfair, our efforts should be towards making it more fair so that we are able to perform our best in our society and so society is best able to help us.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button