Bioethics Blogs

Why ‘smart drugs’ can make you less clever

Nadira Faber

Originally posted at The Conversation 

It is an open secret: while athletes dope their bodies, regular office workers dope their brains. They buy prescription drugs such as Ritalin or Provigil on the internet’s flourishing black market to boost their cognitive performance.

It is hard to get reliable data on how many people take such “smart drugs” or “pharmacological cognitive enhancement substances”, as scientists call them. Prevalence studies and surveys suggest, though, that people from different walks of life use them, such as researchers, surgeons, and students. In an informal poll among readers of the journal Nature, 20% reported that they had taken smart drugs. And it seems that their use is on the rise.

So, if you are in a demanding and competitive job, some of your colleagues probably take smart drugs. Does this thought worry you? If so, you are not alone. Studies consistently find that people see brain doping negatively.

A main concern is fairness. Imagine that while you are going for a run to boost your mental energy, your colleague is popping Ritalin instead. While you believe in your afternoon nap to regain concentration, your office mate relies on Provigil. Unfair? The general public thinks that taking smart drugs is cheating, because it can give users a competitive edge. In fact, even several academics have argued that brain doping is unfair towards people who don’t do it.

Mixed effects

So, if your colleague gets a better performance report than you do, is it really because of the Ritalin she takes?

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.