It may be down the memory hole pay wall by now, but the New Yorker had an article up last week about college kids taking speed...only they weren't calling it speed, and they were couching it an updated version of the language that was use in the 60s to describe physician prescribed pep pills.
Not long ago, I met with Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania, in his office, which is tucked inside the labyrinthine Penn hospital complex. Chatterjee’s main research interests are in subjects like the neurological basis of spatial understanding, but in the past few years, as he has heard more about students taking cognitive enhancers, he has begun writing about the ethical implications of such behavior. In 2004, he coined the term “cosmetic neurology” to describe the practice of using drugs developed for recognized medical conditions to strengthen ordinary cognition. Chatterjee worries about cosmetic neurology, but he thinks that it will eventually become as acceptable as cosmetic surgery has; in fact, with neuroenhancement it’s harder to argue that it’s frivolous. As he notes in a 2007 paper, “Many sectors of society have winner-take-all conditions in which small advantages produce disproportionate rewards.” At school and at work, the usefulness of being “smarter,” needing less sleep, and learning more quickly are all “abundantly clear.” In the near future, he predicts, some neurologists will refashion themselves as “quality-of-life consultants,” whose role will be “to provide information while abrogating final responsibility for these decisions to patients.” The demand is certainly there: from an aging population that won’t put up with memory loss; from overwrought parents bent on giving their children every possible edge; from anxious employees in an efficiency-obsessed, BlackBerry-equipped office culture, where work never really ends.
Chatterjee told me that many people who come to his clinic are cognitively preoccupied versions of what doctors call the “worried well.” The day I visited his office, he had just seen a middle-aged woman, a successful Philadelphia lawyer, who mentioned having to struggle a bit to come up with certain names. “Here’s an example of someone who by most measures is doing perfectly fine,” Chatterjee said. “She’s not having any trouble at work. But she notices she’s having some problems, and it’s very hard to know how much of that is just getting older.” Of course, people in her position could strive to get regular exercise and plenty of intellectual stimulation, both of which have been shown to help maintain cognitive function. But maybe they’re already doing so and want a bigger mental rev-up, or maybe they want something easier than sweaty workouts and Russian novels: a pill.Recently, I spoke on the phone with Barbara Sahakian, a clinical neuropsychologist at Cambridge University, and the co-author of a December, 2007, article in Nature, “Professor’s Little Helper.” Sahakian, who also consults for several pharmaceutical companies, and her co-author, Sharon Morein-Zamir, reported that a number of their colleagues were using prescription drugs like Adderall and Provigil. Because the drugs are easy to buy online, they wrote, it would be difficult to stop their spread: “The drive for self-enhancement of cognition is likely to be as strong if not stronger than in the realms of ‘enhancement’ of beauty and sexual function.” (In places like Cambridge, at least.)
See what I mean? Take a pill to make yourself "more." Now I happen to be in the camp that would say it is possible to use technology to alter our behavior - this is in some ways self-evident: a pair of running shoes makes it easier to run. A Wing Chun dummy enables one to practice Wing Chun without a partner. A swimming pool helps one practice swimming.
There are limits to this though. Technology will extract a kind of "karmic debt" with everything else - it then becomes a question of one's willingness to use the technology at the price of the karmic debt. I'm having a cup of coffee. If I want coffee in the future I'll have to make more soon - and the whole host of behaviors of having coffee come with the coffee. If I have it late at night I can't sleep. A technology that makes us feel happy all the time robs us of honing the skill of using depression, sadness and grief to benefit all. The same goes for other kinds of technologies besides the chemical.
You get the point. Speed kills now just as it did then. Taking that crap won't make us all John McAfee, but we might be something repugnant anyway.