For years, scientists have been developing “cognitive enhancing drugs” which make the brain more efficient by increasing the amount of oxygen or stimulating nerve growth.
These drugs have really been developed for people suffering from degenerative brain diseases, but more and more healthy people are starting to use them. Why? Because they boost people’s attention span, speed up learning and improve memory.
For example, Modafinil and Ritalin are perceived to help the mind's performance. Available on prescription in the UK, (and on the internet for £20 for 30 pills) Modafinil is advertised as a “mood-brightening memory-enhancing psychostimulant, which enhances wakefulness and vigilance.”
It can also help sleep, weight loss and ‘friendliness’. Despite sounding like the perfect drug, promising to solve all modern-day personal problems, would you, as a healthy human being, take this?
The risks of short-term side-effects are relatively low (you might get a headache, but are more likely to get this from drinking too much coffee), you’ll perform better at work and be able to survive, very well, on four hours sleep.
With such drugs there are still so many ‘unknowns’, not only medically - they may make people more impulsive and reduce the quality of decisions they make.
Then there are the social implications - when people achieve top marks in exams, would this have been possible without the little white pill?
How would you know if getting that promotion was due to your own abilities or because of that prescription the doctor wrote a few weeks ago? Performance enhancers are banned from all sporting activities, not only because of medical implications, but also because using them just isn’t fair.
Following a commentary in the scientific journal, Nature, some scientists are arguing that there is no difference in the moral implications between healthy people using these pills and eating well and getting a good night sleep.
They state that it is in fact society’s rules and educational ideals need to be changed to accommodate the use of enhancers rather than disregard their use altogether - there are many unnatural aspects to our everyday lives anyway, so why draw the line at drugs just because they are drugs? Is there, in fact, any difference between one child having a personal tutor and another taking a pill?
If we are going to start living in a time where smart pills are the norm, we are going to need to investigate exactly what the long term effects of these are, listen to the clinical evidence and set up bodies to regulate their use. Buy why just focus on IQ - what about pills to help develop emotional understanding and empathy? Margaret Thatcher famously survived on four hours sleep a night, but despite being fiercely bright she was not famous for her emotional intelligence.
Siobhan Jones is a Mental Health Promotion & Suicide Prevention Worker