Chloe Gregg DRUGS - February 2018

Change the System, Not Your Brain

Written by Chloe Gregg, Staff Writer

Smart drugs, study aids, cognitive enhancers. They’ve taken over Madison Avenue and hacked the offices of Silicon Valley. If you’re studying at university or have a job in a competitive workplace, I bet that you’ve already heard of them. Maybe you’ve already tried them?

These little pills, also known as ‘nootropics’, are prescribed to treat neurological disorders such as sleep-deprivation, narcolepsy, Alzheimer’s, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). One of the most prominent nootropics, Modafinil, was introduced to me through a legitimate prescription.

I had to use Modafinil during my high school final exams to counter the sedative effects of the sleeping pills I had also been prescribed. All I knew about them was that they helped me snap back from the fog my brain was kept in by the sleeping pills. The only times I took Modafinil were on the mornings of an actual test.

I suffered less and less from insomnia during the first year of my bachelor’s degree, so I decided to drop the sleeping pills, and naturally forgot about Modafinil. Then the second year came. Spending entire days with my classmates at the library, we came to discuss ways of keeping up with the workload. Ignorant as I was to the other uses of Modafinil, some mentioned they were using the medication to help them study. They didn’t suffer from sleep-deprivation or any other medical condition that would have allowed for a prescription, rather this was self-medicated, brain-boosting doping.

Scanning through scientific journals and opinion articles, I found that there was an abundance of substances out there that qualified as nootropics. I discovered a multitude of cognitive enhancers ranging from special herbal supplements, ADHD medications such as Adderall and Ritalin, to even legally prescribed methamphetamines. While certain articles warned against the consumption of the most recently developed drugs, for lack of research, many more articles touted a number of benefits which would appeal to the young university student or start-up entrepreneur.

For my fog lifting drug, the effects on reducing fatigue, and enhancing cognition were most noticeable in studies involving sleep-deprived doctors and military personnel, while research conducted in 2012 showed an increase in motivation and performance in completing tasks amongst perfectly healthy individuals. A more consistent and significant result has been the improvement of working memory, which supports the use of Modafinil in preparation for exams. Fewer studies also support claims of an increased sense of well-being and increased attention.

Even with the short-term side effects of using nootropics, like headaches, loss of appetite and insomnia, the potential gains of their occasional use to manage intense periods of work and study can easily outweigh the costs. Especially since the average price of a Modafinil pill sold online is lower than your ordinary take-away coffee.

So why shouldn’t you take it? I’m not here to lecture you on the moral objections against taking cognitive enhancers. Neither am I going to convince you that you should hold off using them because of the gap in scientific knowledge regarding their long-term side effects. Rather, I’d like you to look at the bigger picture. Imagine the way society would look if everyone were to become accustomed to using nootropics.

On the individual level, a person would no longer be able to identify the fruits of his or her labor, and those of the drug. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine this may lower self-esteem, and create a detachment from the self that could eventually lead to much greater alienation. Such an estrangement would only deepen the anxieties that have propagated under the development of Western capitalism.

On the social level, the concentration of nootropics among the academic and professional elite would only deepen the current social inequalities that traverse the industrialized world. Today, the academically privileged often hold an advantage over those left within the traditional education system; even without cognitive enhancers. This is exacerbated by the way smart drugs have infiltrated the lives of healthy human beings – through society’s elite. Their most prominent use is amongst students from high-ranking universities and cutthroat businessmen or entrepreneurs. Spheres that are already ahead of the game. These drugs risk widening the socio-economic gap that persists in post-industrialized societies. Smart jobs draw smart drugs. Giving everyone access to Modafinil would bring all people to a higher cognitive capacity, yet the gap would remain.

As our society becomes increasingly narcotized, it seems that we’re losing touch with our fundamental human nature, which may be tied to consequences we cannot even conceive of yet. In one of his blog entries describing the effects of a variety of cognitive enhancers Dave Asprey, a US entrepreneur who boasts of successfully hacked his own biology, states that “When you first start taking nootropics, sometimes you’ll feel like nothing is happening. That’s what I experienced. Then, a week later, I quit taking them, and noticed their absence immediately”. This statement is a chilling reminder of how close we are to the dystopian novel Brave New World, where most people are numbed and controlled through drugs.

Whether you decide to take ‘noots’ or not, you’re playing a part in defining what our society should look like.

With the intensifying pressure created by competition, it is only natural to seek better ways to keep up the pace. However, self-medicating doesn’t seem to provide a definitive solution. Rather it is a symptom of the neoliberal machinery that has spun out of control, a new tool for perpetuating the system that is compelling us to alter our brain chemistry to better compete.

So let us slow down a moment and imagine where we’re heading. Let us evaluate the consequences of using nootropics and determine whether they promise enough to make it worth exploring their potential. We cannot blindly accept them as another quick fix.

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