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Popping Productivity in a Pill

59259529_68336a92e0_m.jpgIs it ethical to take memory-enhancing drugs or stimulants to boost your productivity and performance at work?

And even if it is, would you be willing to risk potential health consequences to get ahead?

Those are key questions surrounding the debate about "brain doping," the use of stimulants and drugs by healthy people to obtain a cognitive edge. This week, leading academics writing in Nature magazine sparked controversy by calling for the wider use of brain-boosting drugs. Seven co-authors from top universities, including Harvard and Stanford, wrote:

"(Drugs), along with newer technologies such as brain stimulation and prosthetic brain chips, should be viewed in the same general category as education, good health habits, and information technology -- ways that our uniquely innovative species tries to improve itself... Based on our considerations, we call for a presumption that mentally competent adults should be able to engage in cognitive enhancement using drugs."
Three arguments against the use of such drugs -- that it's cheating, that it's unnatural, and that it's drug abuse -- were countered by the authors.
  1. "(Something is) cheating because it is against the rules. Any good set of rules would need to distinguish today's allowed cognitive enhancements, from private tutors to double espressos, from the newer methods, if they are to be banned."
  2. "The lives of almost all living humans are deeply unnatural; our homes, our clothes and our food -- to say nothing of the medical care we enjoy -- bear little relation to our species' 'natural' state. Given the many cognitive-enhancing tools we accept already, from writing to laptop computers, why draw the line here and say, thus far but no further?"
  3. "Drugs are regulated on a scale that subjectively judges the potential for harm from the very dangerous (heroin) to the relatively harmless (caffeine). Given such regulation, the mere fact that cognitive enhancers are drugs is no reason to outlaw them."
The San Francisco Chronicle surfaced six other concerns about the use of so-called "brain steroids":
  • the increase of prescribing pressure on physicians
  • people obtaining drugs illegally, either from friends or the Internet
  • the risk of side effects (little is known about the risks for healthy people taking medicines approved to treat mental impairments)
  • an unfair economic advantage, where wealthier people who could easily afford the drugs could outperform peers of more modest means
  • the risk of coercion, if workers or students were pressured to take drugs to maintain or improve their competitive edge
  • a loss of personal freedom -- for example, if soldiers were required as part of the job to take drugs to increase vigilance
What do you think?

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(image by e-magic via Flickr, CC 2.0)

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