There are reports, comments the New York Times, of a rise in the use of prescription stimulant drugs by academics and students in order to induce alertness and so improve scholarly performance.
Dr. Anjan Chatterjee predicts that such “brain enhancement” is a sign of the times:
We worship at the altar of progress, and to the demigod of choice. . . . Both are very strong undercurrents in the culture and the way this is likely to be framed is: ‘Look, we want smart people to be as productive as possible to make everybody’s lives better. We want people performing at the max, and if that means using these medicines, then great, then we should be free to choose what we want as long as we’re not harming someone.’ I’m not taking that position, but we have this winner-take-all culture and that is the way it is likely to go.
Objectors to what Chatterjee calls – again, critically – this “cosmetic neurology” argue that users exhibit irritable, angry, and diffident behavior; the greater availability of these medications will result in their abuse; professors’ “pop-pills-or perish” habit could give bad example to students; and the use of such stimulants could artificially boost the performance bar, thereby increasing the incentive for obtaining the medications.
But Francis Fukuyama voices a more profound consideration: the age-old connection between struggle and the formation of character. To the classical mind, thought led to action, action to habit, habit to character, and character to greatness. Can stimulants such as Adderall enable humans to leapfrog this process? No. The purpose of drugs, as Fukuyama says, is not to “turn people into gods.”
UPDATE: A reader writes:
I thought you would be interested in the case of a swimmer named Ous Melloulis, who swam at USC. He tested positive for banned substances. His excuse was the he, like many college students, was using the PED not to swim fast, but as a study aid. He did not test positive when tested at a number of meets, but was still stripped of medals that he won at the the 2007 Swimming World Championships. He received a lighter-than-usual ban for PED use and some normally outspoken opponents of PED use (like Swimming World magazine) seem sympathetic in this particular case. Here is one article about his situation.