Brain Steroids: Ban Or Boost?

Last Updated Mar 24, 2008 10:40 PM EDT

Drugs are bad for productivity, right? Well, maybe not. While you can probably correlate productivity increases with declines in per capita drinking, what about coffee (or Diet Coke)? These can act as mild stimulants.

Then there's full-fledged brain steroids, say, a drug like Provigil, which is blandly marketed as 'improving wakefulness.' Over on the Becker-Posner blog, Judge Richard Posner posted his take on such brain steroids, which he calls 'intelligence doping." Without saying he's interested in taking them himself, he's clearly against banning them. His co-blogger, Gary Becker, posted a comment supporting Posner, because unlike alcohol, stimulants probably help individuals create benefits for larger groups. He also makes the argument that no one thinks sleeping pills are bad, though by boosting sleep, they act as a sort of brain enhancer.

Unfortunately, both of these posts are really more about steroids in sports than steroids in business. I'd like to have seen them focus more on what we know about the actual effects and side-effects of things like Ritalin, Adderall and other prescription-strength stimulants, which can focus the mind and improve recall. I know people who've been prescribed such drugs and have found them effective. But what about people who don't need the drugs and use them anyway? This appears to be a widespread phenomenon, at least in colleges and universities, as A Dose of Genius examined in 2006.

As that article notes, drugs like Ritalin are crude precursors to what we'll be able to do in the future. These drugs are apparently freely available, and your business may well employ people who use them. Perhaps they're even star performers. Perhaps, though, they're management headaches, thanks to the side effects that can come with any drug.

What do you think? Are brain boosters going to be good for business?

  • Michael Fitzgerald

    Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.