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Society upto speed?
December 8, 2008 11:59 PM   Subscribe

Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy - a commentary in Nature that says, "we call for a presumption that mentally competent adults should be able to engage in cognitive enhancement using drugs". Farkesque debate here. posted by daksya (57 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
Rather then letting people take drugs that would help them enjoy the lives they already have, we should let them take drugs that will make them work even harder in order to earn money to buys stuff they never have time to use because they're always working.

That said I would totally take these if they were legal. Which they never will be, at least not in any hear term horizon, I bet pot will be legal before these are.

But I could be wrong.
posted by delmoi at 12:05 AM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I went through this phase about - jebus - 18 years ago. The Internet not being what it is now, I read books and newsletters on the subject. At that time there was a mail order pharmacy out of England called Interlab that sold a number of these drugs. This was legal due to a landmark legal decision that arose because AIDS patients were importing drugs from overseas and they were being confiscated by customs.

The outcry form the AIDS groups managed to change customs policy to allow importation of many drugs, though excluding controlled substances and "non-approved" substances like RU-486, and I believe laetrile.

Only one substance had any positive mental effect on me, a drug called "Ordinator". Sadly, Interlab sent out a notice that the product was no longer being manufactured.

I threw up an AskMeFi about it, but no one seems to know anything about it.

My point in all this? There are drugs that really do work, at least subjectively, yet don't have the abuse potential of straight amphetamines.

Given the choice of bringing back Space Food Sticks or Ordinator, I'd go with Ordinator...
posted by Tube at 12:21 AM on December 9, 2008


I've been taking piracetam daily for the last month. The effects are very subtle, and I'm not absolutely certain they aren't entirely psychosomatic. Either way, I have noticed what feels like an increase in alertness, and a generally higher threshold of intellectual tenacity; that is, I'll spend more time investigating/considering a problem before deciding it's too difficult to be worth my time and effort to pursue. It's a bit like I can hold a few more variables in my head. I also feel like I've been more mentally organized and able to take care of my living space and do the household and life improvement chores I tend to blow off.

It's really hard for me to say just what it does or that it does anything at all, "improved cognition" being an incredibly tricky thing to measure or even define in a useful way. I can say that my performance of day-to-day activities has improved, at least in the short-term, in a way that seems consistent with a modest boost in cognitive function. Whether those gains are temporary and whether they were caused by the drug (rather than my expectations for the drug) are open questions in my mind, but I'm glad for the tangible benefits I've experienced, whatever their cause.

delmoi: Some nootropics, piracetam included, are sold legally as "nutritional supplements," circumventing FDA efficacy approval. Piracetam can be purchased on Amazon or from where I bought mine, ktbotanicals (I'm not affiliated with them and have only made the one purchase, but my experience was positive.)
posted by contraption at 12:37 AM on December 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


I threw up an AskMeFi

Christ, man, what did you EAT?
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:44 AM on December 9, 2008 [21 favorites]


Adrafinil is pretty good stuff.
posted by signalnine at 12:45 AM on December 9, 2008


You don't have permission to access brain steroids.
posted by twoleftfeet at 1:00 AM on December 9, 2008


I second Adrafinil. Much cheaper than Modafinil. Helps to stay awake when desperately needed. Some people report upset stomach and other unwelcome (but not too severe) side-effects. Makes my urine smell like sulphur, and gives me pimples after heavy use, but that's usually worth it on the rare occasions when it's needed. Definitely does not have abuse potential anywhere near straight amphetamines. Seems less detrimental than coffee to me. But i am curious as to what the long term side-effects might turn out to be..
posted by morizky at 1:06 AM on December 9, 2008


Wow. What a great essay. The arguments are are elucidated and countered (and "What about caffeine?" sees a lot of use). The suggestions describe exactly what needs to happen for us to even have a reasonable discussion about the subject.

It's tough to talk about drug abuse when we're talking about changing norms. One (of various) ways to define drug abuse is as drug use for purposes for which it isn't prescribed or normal. This means that as long as we refuse to prescribe drugs for performance-enhancement, such use is abuse; if we ever change our mind and, say, decide it's okay to use amphetamines to make it through a last-minute paper, such use would no longer constitute abuse.

Still, most of us have met tweakers. Why are they tweaking on meth and not ritalin? Is it the relative availability? (What does that say when schedule I drugs are more available than schedule II?)

Plus, what kind of costs/benefit ratio can we accept? People die from chemotherapy; we accept the risks of chemotherapy, recognizing that probably benefits are greater. Hell, people die from CT scans. Could some performance benefit be worth some potential for abuse?

A friend had a good point: "It's like there's some imaginary zero-point of health. If you're at negative health, it's fine to treat up to zero health. But you can never, ever treat somebody at zero health to positive health." It's not hard to see that that zero-point, that imaginary "healthy," is doomed to someday be recognized as the myth that it is. Look at mental health criticism: mental health is determined both by what's functional and normal. Yet none of us are normal; morbidity estimates by various disease advocates, excepting unaccepted massive comorbidity, suggest that mental illness is normal. And none of us are functional, not in any kind of absolute sense. We all have stupid moments, errors. Cognitive biases are normal, but still dysfunctional.

Yet, so much of mental health discussion is spent arguing where that imaginary zero point lies. Anti-depressants, we're told by unlicensed experts, aren't happy pills, and won't work unless you're clinically depressed. So what if they were? What's wrong with happy pills? Then the unlicensed experts tell us that Ritalin improves concentration in patients suffering with ADD, and that's how we can tell that ADD is a "real" disorder-- after all, isn't speed supposed to make you flighty? ask the people who have never actually tried speed, certainly never in reasonable doses. (As an aside, one off-label use of amphetamines like Ritalin is treatment for depression.)

But this reasoning leads to an uncomfortable position. After all, if a person is made happy by a pill, don't they suffer from depression, even if from a depression relieved by off-label pharms? If Ritalin improves a person's concentration, doesn't that person suffer from ADD? We're left with a position where this is no hard line between sufferers of ADD or depression and anybody else-- just a big, gray gradient, where the only zero is a median that shifts every time we treat,
posted by nathan v at 2:04 AM on December 9, 2008 [25 favorites]



Americans drop bombs on Canadians when they take this stuff.
posted by srboisvert at 2:11 AM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oh c'mon!

Speed is speed is speed. You're talking about legalities and consistency of dose, really. Which you may or may not be getting, depending on the actual manufacture of the tablet.

Think about why you're taking it in the first place. Seriously. Just think for a minute. How many people do you know who've taken it just to get through one project, then another, then another, then because they have so much on that they can't just zoom through without it?

To clarify: I'm not anti-drug in the least. Take what you want. But you have to be honest about what you're doing and why you're doing it. As someone who's used speed in the distant past, I'd say that the only advantage to this is that it doesn't involve associating with dodgy people and you're confident that you're getting what you pay for. You won't be up at 4AM cleaning the edges of your kitchen countertops with a toothpick because you haven't started coming down yet. Ahem.

I do have a problem with the idea behind using the drugs. It's all about gaining an advantage or sustaining a lifestyle that is unsustainable without the tablets. What's so terrible about having an off day? Or needing sleep? I've pulled some horrific hours in my working life, usually around projects. We're talking 80 hr weeks. One or two days of those weeks were simply unavoidable. The rest? Down to bad planning, bad communication between departments, etc, that went back months before I'd even arrived. Why should I pop pills to get through the bad project management or bad decisions of people who are paid a helluva lot more than I am to make sure things run smoothly?

Anyway, you'll be able to pop them in peace for a very long time. As the population ages, I think you'll see more of these sorts of drugs in development. I'm old enough to be sympathetic to the older people I know who feel a disadvantage at work in terms of memory, overall acuity, ability to work longer hours, etc. Not saying they actually are at a disadvantage. It's just that they think they might be. They pop gingko tablets and DHEA and coenzyme Q10 and read up on optimal sleep and superfoods with a kind of fervor you just don't see in many folks under 40.

If enough people believe these drugs are what saves them from an academic or career scrapheap, I'd be amazed if there weren't calls to have 'em added to the drinking water. The potential for abuse isn't going to come from any physically addictive potential. It'll come from people who are convinced they simply can't go through life without 'em, or who think that two pills will work just that much better than one. Or that they have to take these drugs just to keep up with everyone else who's taking them.
posted by Grrlscout at 2:25 AM on December 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


Drugs are bad, m'kay?
posted by moonbiter at 3:01 AM on December 9, 2008


"we call for a presumption that mentally competent adults should be able to (...)"

Get in line.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 3:18 AM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


I call for a presumption that mentally competent adults should be able to engage in any kind of drug they want as long as they don't fuck anything up but themselves.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 4:08 AM on December 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


Why are they tweaking on meth and not ritalin?

Who says they aren't? I've known plenty of "tweakers" who are taking non-prescribed doses of ritalin. I knew a guy that took mega doses of ritalin and acid and went on a violent, naked tear through the city that ended with him being choked to death by cops.
posted by Pollomacho at 4:55 AM on December 9, 2008


I, for one, welcome our super-intelligent, depressive, all-female fish overladies.
posted by davemee at 5:01 AM on December 9, 2008


Adrafinil is pretty good stuff.

As a daily user of modafinil (prescription), I'd have to beg to differ. Or at least, I'd say, if that is what they call "smart drugs"... well, they've got a LONG way to go. Because *afinil is essentially a slave drug. Designed to keep people up, alert & functioning at their repetitive, cog-in-the-machine-like task for (potentially) days. That's not smart. If you end up channeling that alertness into studying an extra 200 pages of notes before the big exam, great, but it's not like you remember things any better. You still have to actually study. These drugs are physical performance enhancers, not mental ones.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:05 AM on December 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


When I was an undergrad, I felt like Kaplan test prep programs were cheating - rather than learning the material, people were learning how to answer questions they didn't know. If you have test anxiety, I can see now why these programs would help, but still.

Now it's drugs to improve grades? Great. Because everyone knows the only thing that can make America better is MORE prescription drugs. North Americans spend more money on drugs than any other region in the world, and we have the fewest health problems to worry about. Granted, part of the relative good health we enjoy is due to the drugs, but I just can't understand the constant need to develop drugs to address lifestyle issues rather than actual medical problems.

Give it a few years, and one of the big pharma companies will have described a new medical condition with a catchy acronym like SMURFS (Student Mental Unpreparedness and Mild Fatigue Syndrome), because once it has a name it's OK to take a drug to "fix" it.

Ooh ooh I think I suffer from HDLAS (Humor Deficiency and Lack of Appetite Syndrome) does that mean it's OK for me to start taking bong hits? Oops, I forgot, we only think it's OK to take drugs that were designed in a lab and cost thousands of dollars annually and come in pill form. The kind that you can find growing wild, there's no value there.
posted by caution live frogs at 5:32 AM on December 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


How effective are these compared with merely not drinking alcohol?
posted by jeffburdges at 5:36 AM on December 9, 2008 [3 favorites]


Why are they tweaking on meth and not ritalin?

Probably because a line of Ritalin feels like too much coffee and an IV shot of good glass feels like God is giving you a blowjob.
posted by The Straightener at 5:43 AM on December 9, 2008 [8 favorites]


Speed is speed is speed.

No it's not. Meth is really bad for you and I wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole. I've known people to get addicted to Ritalin, but I've also known people who popped a few pills to get through some exams and go on to highly successful careers. Pseudoephedrine is the perfect decongestant for daytime use, and it is endlessly annoying that it is regulated so heavily in the states.

Different drugs, even those in the same family, have vastly varying Psychopharmacological effects. Crack is much more addictive than cocaine for example. It would be in societies interest to encourage people to use the more benign forms of recreational drugs rather than let criminals decide for us based on whatever is cheapest to make.
posted by afu at 5:53 AM on December 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


Actually, afu, lots of people take meth successfully every day by prescription-- it's called Desoxyn. Same drug, different set and setting, different dose.

I have a post on this on Huffington that was on the front page yesterday, looking at what it means for the war on some drugs that essentially, most scientists have become defectors.
posted by Maias at 6:02 AM on December 9, 2008


delmoi, it's called cocaine.
posted by liza at 6:12 AM on December 9, 2008


Still, most of us have met tweakers. Why are they tweaking on meth and not ritalin? Is it the relative availability? (What does that say when schedule I drugs are more available than schedule II?)

First of all, Meth is a schedule II drug, it is prescribed in the U.S for hyperactivity, just like Ritalin (but not as much, I think). That said, the obvious reason tweakers use it is because it's easy to make. People can make it at home on a stovetop with a few simple, widely available ingredients, although one of the ingredients has been put under more control lately (psudoephedrine)
posted by delmoi at 6:42 AM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Desoxyn is taken as a a pill, while meth is usually snorted or smoked, which leads to totally different effects. Which just proves my point that "Speed is speed is speed" is dead wrong.
posted by afu at 6:56 AM on December 9, 2008


Why are they tweaking on meth and not ritalin?

It's a bad analogy, because ritalin is basically meth in low doses.

Meth is easy, albeit dangerous, to cook up. The ingredients are readily available, so it is easy to obtain, because it doesn't have to be shipped in from Colombia or Afghanistan. It's extremely potent, and has a half-life of 12 hours in the average person, so small doses keep you high for a very long time - and in its active form it is not easily detectable (like pot is). And of course, it gets you very, very high. All of this contributes to its popularity, but the last is the most important. There are thousands of drugs that are everywhere and are rarely or never abused because they aren't any fun.

Drugs like Adrafinil are not fun, they are simply functional, like Advil or Pepto-Bismol. And for disclosure's sake, yes, I occasionally use Adrafinil... it basically allows you to function at 100% in the unfortunate event you have to pull an all-nighter, instead of staggering around like a zombie. It's a wonderful thing for a procrastinator to keep in their medicine cabinet.

Crack is much more addictive than cocaine for example.

Careful, now. Statistically you're correct, but there is a massive amount of evidence that indicates that these differences are sociological, and related to the context of the drug use, rather than some inherent chemical property of "addictiveness". You can assert that "more people repeatedly use crack than cocaine" but that doesn't mean that "crack is more addictive than cocaine" because correlation is not causation. To prove the point, if everyone could have limitless quantities of either crack or cocaine, which would people pick? (I suppose this question is much easier to answer for an actual drug user...)
posted by mek at 7:27 AM on December 9, 2008


That, and prescription meth is cut with all kinds of doesn't-do-anything so that the microscopic doses can actually form a pill. Backwoods meth is rather horrifying by comparison.

I take Ritalin so I can function at all. That there are people who take such things to get a leg up on the competition gets me a tad miffed. And I really don't see how relying on drugs to maintain an unusually advanced position can be even remotely good in the long run.

It's like steroids: If you've already got 99% of the general population beat in terms of muscular ginormousness, why would you still feel the need to out-bulge the shirts of the remaining 1%? What is to be gained, besides all that meat? Once you've "beaten" everyone, and your testicles are like sultanas, and you're having a stroke every couple of days, what then?

God forbid an artificial enhancement should get a person to a position of power, where their inevitable burnout could affect other people.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:50 AM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


If it becomes normal for people to take performance enhancing drugs, people who cannot afford such drugs will have yet another disadvantage in school compared to their juiced-up classmates.

Accepting such drugs as normal can possibly, in time, force people to meet superhuman working standards. It's already "normal"* in some professions to stay way past your official hours, take your work home with you, and carry a blackberry everywhere*. Since such jobs already demand nearly all their employees' time, what's to stop them from demanding that they dose up? It just takes a few promotion-minded employees to start the trend, especially since they might not tell everyone that that's what they're doing, in order to seem like they're just that good.

*I know essentially nothing about Hazards Magazine, but some of the links on that page go to the New Internationalist. Anyway, it's just a general background info link.
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 7:55 AM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's a bad analogy, because ritalin is basically meth in low doses.

Bullshit. Structurally and functionally, it's far more similar to cocaine.

Scientists using drugs is nothing new. It's just that their use is often responsible, and doesn't necessarily cross over into the realm of abuse. It's good to hear them speak up in favor of responsible use. I think a healthy attitude toward careful drug use is entirely possible, and I support wholeheartedly this movement.

[Shit, if Gazzaniga's on board, I can't even see getting in trouble for saying so]
posted by solipsophistocracy at 7:56 AM on December 9, 2008


Modafinil is "the shit"(TM). I take it in very low doses (50mg in the morning, 3-4 days a week) and the effect is unnoticeable in the instant - I don't feel "speedy" at all - and yet I find I'm both more productive and creative over the course of the day and a little more cheerful to boot.

I'm not very sensitive to the placebo effect - for example, piracetam and other trendy such drugs didn't work for me - hydergine did have some effect but left me with an intolerable stuffy nose - so I tried them about 10 years ago and gave up almost immediately.

But modafinil, taken in small doses, is amazing...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:41 AM on December 9, 2008


I miss my straight up ephedrine tabs.

Ah, white crosses.
posted by daq at 9:02 AM on December 9, 2008


Bullshit. Structurally and functionally, it's far more similar to cocaine.

Okay. How does that relate to the point I was making? Oh right, the analogy still sucks.

Accepting such drugs as normal can possibly, in time, force people to meet superhuman working standards. It's already "normal"* in some professions to stay way past your official hours, take your work home with you, and carry a blackberry everywhere*.

I think this is a valid concern, but what you are getting at here is a further exacerbation of an already existing problem - which should be dealt with via labour laws (see: France). There already exists enormous pressure in almost every industry to not take sick days when you're actually sick, and instead "abuse" cold/flu medicine to function when you really shouldn't be functioning, and this generally makes you sicker longer and increases the likelihood of infecting others. People who work part time don't even get sick days, and those are the people who come in sick cause they need the money, and then sneeze into your Big Mac. So no, we shouldn't consider these drugs as "normal" any more than we consider any other drug as normal. I hope we would approach them all with the respect they are due and not use any of them irresponsibly. But obviously we can be pressured into doing so by social factors and a failure of government to mandate appropriate working conditions.

When we discuss responsible drug use, I think we are trying to discuss how drugs can improve our quality of life. In many, many cases, drugs can do the opposite - and the last 80 years has shown us that when we try to flat-out prohibit drugs, a lot of drug use occurs that is radically irresponsible. We can't fight this problem with bans: we need genuine responsibility at the individual, societal, and governmental level. Education, regulation, & social support networks.
posted by mek at 9:18 AM on December 9, 2008 [3 favorites]


For those with less appetite for angering the law, I have genuinely felt neurological benefits (almost immediately) from taking fish oil tablets. Then again, I don't have the best diet... Try it once, if only because it's cheap and legal.
posted by gensubuser at 9:37 AM on December 9, 2008


My performance-enhancing drug is making me ill, so I've started having to cut it by brewing it half-decaf. I have no desire to see how messed up my mind and body would become on a cocktail of other drugs.

But fish-oil, I would take that. If only because I can't afford real tasty oily fish.
posted by jb at 9:52 AM on December 9, 2008


This just seems duh to me. When these things work (now?), they should be freely available. I just don't buy that, because some people don't want to go fast, everyone should be forced to go slow.
posted by grobstein at 10:25 AM on December 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


Desoxyn is taken as a a pill, while meth is usually snorted or smoked, which leads to totally different effects. Which just proves my point that "Speed is speed is speed" is dead wrong.

afu: I think you must have a vested interest in drawing a distinction here. You talk about "Desoxyn" being taken as a pill and "meth" being usually snorted or smoked, as though there is a difference between Desoxyn and methamphetamine. There is not.

Desoxyn is methamphetamine. It's just the trademarked named for it, just like Viagra is sildenafil citrate or Neurontin is gabapentin. There is absolutely no difference between prescription Desoxyn and street methamphetamine save quality control. And meth you get on the street is a lot purer than it used to be since the government made it harder to get lots of pseudoephedrine so much street meth comes from Mexican pharmaceutical labs now.

If you take a Desoxyn pill, grind it up with a mortar and pestle, and snort it it is no different than getting a bag of meth on the street and snorting it.

Adderall is much more commonly prescribed than Desoxyn, of course, and the same applies. There is actually a small difference with the Adderall but it's very small, and pointing to this tiny difference is another favorite pasttime of apologists.

Look, I think people should be able to take modafinil whenever they want. I think they should be able to take Adderall whenever they want. But I'm consistent: I also think they should be able to take methamphetamine whenever they want. Some people will screw up their lives by doing so. But here's the thing; they screw up their lives NOW by doing so, and with far fewer recourses and far less safely than if it were legal or at least not criminal.

What I don't do is pretend that some of these drugs on one side of a nebulous, arbitrary line are okay and some on the other side are DEMONS FROM HELL waiting to take your soul one snort at a time. Adderall can be abused just as much as methamphetamine; the reason it is currently abused less is that except in some specific settings (like college campuses) it is actually significantly easier and cheaper to get street methamphetamine than prescription adderall.

This should tell you something about the effectiveness of prohibition.
posted by Justinian at 10:26 AM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oh. There is one class of drugs that should not be available to take whenever anyone wants: antibiotics.

That it is trivially easy to get antibiotics even when you don't need them, with essentially no legal repercussions for misuse while people go to jail for many years for having narcotics (including the doctors who prescribe them) is a symptom of a very sick society. A sane society would let you take Vicodin at will while locking you up for feeding antibiotics to your livestock.
posted by Justinian at 10:32 AM on December 9, 2008 [12 favorites]


“If it becomes normal for people to take performance enhancing drugs, people who cannot afford such drugs will have yet another disadvantage in school compared to their juiced-up classmates.”

And that’s without discussion of the potential downsides or folks who don’t feel the trade off is worth it. I always felt shafted because I didn’t routinely take enhancing drugs. I’ve taken an extra cycle of steroids, once for an injury, the second time because I enjoyed the benefits, but noticed myself *really* enjoying it, so reality set in ‘ah, yeah, mental addiction, right’ so I stopped.
But I’d look at guys who I knew I was training harder than, I had more talent, better moves, etc. but they could just plain out-muscle me because they were on steroids. At those levels, even the slightest edge is greatly magnified.
I decided the trade off wasn’t worth it though. So now, I have perfectly healthy kids, nice virile testicles, healthy liver, no mood swings that aren’t external. Only a modest sum in the bank, but I figure living past 50 is probably worth it.

For kids who don’t - what then? What do you say to someone who’s busting their ass studying, working, whatever and some guy who gets goosed from a bottle can blow him away?
Although I think many schools are focusing on team learning, cooperative methods, stuff like that. Not something that one can just horsepower though.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:38 AM on December 9, 2008


What do you say to someone who’s busting their ass studying, working, whatever and some guy who gets goosed from a bottle can blow him away?

The same thing you say to the long-haul teamster with the immaculate work ethic who refuses to drive a truck, relying on his horse and wagon instead. If drugs could ever make hard book study secondary, then there would be no point in fetishizing burning the midnight oil for its own sake.

There's nothing noble about studying the old-fashioned way (what I'm doing right now, except when I slink away to Metafilter). It's just the most efficient way of assimilating certain knowledge that we've discovered, so far.
posted by grobstein at 10:46 AM on December 9, 2008


What do you say to someone who’s busting their ass studying, working, whatever and some guy who gets goosed from a bottle can blow him away?

Incidentally, isn't this a dilemma we have to address about talent as well as technology? What do you say to someone who's busting his ass but isn't that bright, when the talented kid can blow him away with his hands behind his back? (A common strategy seems to be denying that this ever happens, but that is dishonest.)
posted by grobstein at 10:54 AM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


One thing I remember coming up in a previous MeFi discussion of such things was that while there is a definite similarity between steroids and these drugs / potential drugs, there is also a critical difference. In the case of work/study/research, the benefits of the drug could potentially be quite far-reaching, even if only a few people take them. A breakthrough in research fueled by such drugs could have a huge impact in a way that a steroid-fueled athlete cannot.

In other words, even if you don't want to take these drugs, their existence could profoundly impact your life. Of course, this could be "positive" or "negative", but the potential is there either way.

(This is separate from the issue of whether you personally would be at a competitive disadvantage in academia or the workforce).
posted by wildcrdj at 12:48 PM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


> "A breakthrough in research fueled by such drugs could have a huge impact in a way that a steroid-fueled athlete cannot. "

Yes!
Why limit the effectiveness of those among us who would advance the human condition? Fears of discrimination or worker health and safety? Isn't it the mission of the EEOC and OSHA (and their non-American counterparts) to tackle that issue?
posted by simoncion at 3:12 PM on December 9, 2008


It's not just about competition with other people either. Sometimes you just want to know more. I'd be much happier if I could spend more time studying, and less time tired or procrastinating.
posted by delmoi at 4:16 PM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


When I want to use drugs to push myself creatively, never once do I ever think of speed or coke. Maybe it's because I'm an artist, or maybe it's because I just detest uppers.
About a year ago now, a friend of a friend posted a bulletin on Myspace about how this warehouse that kids use to throw raves down here in Phoenix was getting a fresh coat of paint. The guy who was the property manager of said warehouse had put up the bulletin because he was hoping the party scene here would put it's PLUR where its mouth was and come down to help clean up since it was a very popular venue and so many people had complained about it being dirty and, you know, lacking visual appeal.
My wife, ever the pusher when it comes to my art, dropped the guy an email with a link to my portfolio. He called me and the next thing I know, I'm in charge of painting all the walls inside this giant 3 story warehouse in downtown Phoenix. I was a nervous wreck because it had been years since I'd painted and I'd never used spray paint before. I called artist friends and put up an ad on CL asking people to come and paint. Nobody was getting paid, but all the paint was free and it was a great way to contribute to the local 'rave scene' plus get your name out. It promised to be great fun.
ANYWAYS, I decided to get inspired the evening I started the project. Since I was sort of the 'leader', having put the whole thing together, I told everyone to paint whatever they wanted, but I wanted to try and incorporate a unifying theme throughout of mystery. I put mathmatical equations upside down in corners, painted strange latin words in blacklight reactive paint on the ceiling, and painted a yellow brick road leading into the abyss on the cement floor. I took a week off of work, took somewhere between 2-10 hits of acid every other day, sometimes adding a pill of e if needed, and then, to really find my insanity 'sweet spot', I started doing lines of K whilst peaking on cid. I was having the most vivid, insane images constructing and deconstructing in my mind... the hardest part was finding the motor skills to commit the ideas and sketches to paper. Painting on cid was easy, but doing anything besides lying on the ground, holding on to the floor when your on K is very difficult.
Anyways, the warehouse turned out awesome. I have a ton of pictures up on a flickr stream somewhere. They threw one party after we'd finished the project, and then the property manager ended up in the newspaper for something not good and they shut the warehouse down. THAT sucked. Now I work, like, less than a mile from the warehouse, which still stands, vacant, with all of my (and several other terrific local artists) work inside... locked up and hidden away from the public eye. C'est la vi, I guess.

For the record, I'm totally straight now. I'm too old for all that stuff. Except for K. I just can't find that anymore.
posted by Bageena at 4:22 PM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


For the record, I'm totally straight now. I'm too old for all that stuff. Except for K. I just can't find that anymore.

People, they do differ. I wouldn't do K if you paid me. Less than $500 anyway. It's like hell in a convenient single serve package!
posted by Justinian at 4:47 PM on December 9, 2008


Justinian, I think I'm the only one who differs on that - everyone else I know who've tried it wouldn't do it again either. I love love love it. I just throw on a Sigur Ros or Aarktica album, gobble down a line or two, then lay back, close my eyes, and jettison straight into outer space. Chilled outer space. *sigh* I wish I knew a really cool veterinarian.
posted by Bageena at 4:56 PM on December 9, 2008


“If drugs could ever make hard book study secondary, then there would be no point in fetishizing burning the midnight oil for its own sake.”

Obviously then the edge is to take the drugs and then study harder as well. But my point isn’t technology, it’s sacrifice.
Where is the line drawn on sacrificing to get ahead or get an edge on someone else?
We’re speaking here as though there’s no possible downside for any drug - or indeed any technology (Neil Postman has some interesting things to say about that).
But everything is a trade off. Everything.
You don’t get something for nothing. Even healthy activities - my time in the gym - means less time for something else.
Well, I’m willing to do that.
But at what point does the sacrifice outweigh the benefit?

Your long-haul teamster likely gets his immaculate work ethic out of methamphetamine. So if my work ethic is to measure up - that is, if I want to keep my job - I have to take that as well.

But, as I didn’t like being put in the position of where I had to sacrifice my health in order to compete, so too, I don’t want to be put in a position where taking drugs are the norm and we don’t acknowlege the potential side effects.
Even if there aren’t chemical side effects the demand to perform to a certain arbitrary standard - driving over the amount of time allowed by safety regulations - is damaging.

So my question is - what’s being sacrificed here? What’s the expectation of conformity?
And to what standard?

And indeed - what is being valued?

Someone busting their ass might not achieve by certain measures to the degree someone naturally talented may be able to achieve.
But then - what’s being valued there?
Is the hard worker somehow less of a person?
Is there not some other job in which he might excel?
I don’t buy the talented kid blowing away someone less talented but hard working as a valid argument. It’s all work.
The talented kid just got hard work put into him by his parents or his grandparents who valued education and enrichment. The hard working kid, maybe not so much.
It’s this ‘self-made man’ bullshit that’s the myth. Invented fire yourself did ya?

I don’t have a beef with drug enhancement in and of itself. Hell, I’m pro-marijuana use even though I don’t use it myself. So from any personal choice perspective, it’s a moot point for me.

It’s just easy to forget what’s lost. As much as we forget the #1 thing that kills people in the U.S. is heart disease.

So why not cybernetic enhancement, if it were possible? If an efficient worker is one who slices out a chunk of his brain and replaces it with a processor - would you do it?
What happens when you stop being a worker? Or want to play with your kids? Or just relax on a beach?

A breakthrough in research fueled by brain enhancing drugs having a wide impact is a strong and valid argument.
I just like to think about the implications, and who’s paying the price and making the sacrifices. What do they lose while we all gain?

And what if, if they come back or come down, they refuse to willingly make it again?
Do we force them? Or subtly corner them, by law or social pressure or whatever other means?

It’s been my observation and my experience the answer is far too often - yes.
posted by Smedleyman at 6:44 PM on December 9, 2008


Smedleyman writes "A breakthrough in research fueled by brain enhancing drugs having a wide impact is a strong and valid argument.
"I just like to think about the implications, and who’s paying the price and making the sacrifices. What do they lose while we all gain?"


They lose the ability to use their brain normally. See, your brain is a remarkably adaptable machine. It makes these cool neurochemicals that help keep it running as efficiently as possible. You can tweak your brain by adding some synthetic chemicals that mimic the natural ones. The downside is that your brain is lazy. If you're supplying enough of chemical X, your brain stops making that chemical itself. (We're not talking STOPS stops, but production of the transmitter, or receptor, or reputake inhibitors, etc. are affected). In the end, you are left with a brain that doesn't function normally UNLESS you continue taking the chemical - and as the balance of receptors, etc. in your brain changes (concurrent with the potential for cell death due to overstimulation), you need more and more of the drug just to maintain the normal workings of your brain.

I worry about this. Tweaking your brain to make it run better? You've got a machine that has been tweaked by nature over the last million years or so to run at peak efficiency already, within the boundaries and limits set by the biology of the thing itself. Sure, you can make it run faster by throwing in some extra chemicals, but burning hotter means you'll burn it out faster. Anyone wants to take meth- or cocaine-like drugs as a regular part of their daily routine, go ahead, but don't say I didn't warn you when ten or twenty years from now you're smacked with Parkinsons-like syndromes or need a handful of pills daily just to feel normal at all. You have to ask yourself: Is the promotion / grade / etc. really worth it?
posted by caution live frogs at 6:27 AM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


You've got a machine that has been tweaked by nature over the last million years or so to run at peak efficiency already

See, I don't think this is how evolution works. You've been tweaked by nature to run at the bare minimum level to make it likely to live long enough to reproduce. That's not remotely the same thing as running at peak efficiency.

Would you consider the knee joint something that operates at peak efficiency? How about lower backs? The fact that food and air both travel down the same passage which results in a large number of deaths from blockage?

Nah, our bodies don't run at anything like peak efficiency. We're a slapped together hodgepodge of kludges and barely good enough biological hacks. Bring on the brain tweaks, please.
posted by Justinian at 8:15 AM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


caution live frogs: They lose the ability to use their brain normally.

In all earnestness, what does this mean? Is 'normally' used here in some teleological sense? Because neurotypicality is as much a social construct as the "average person", and just seems to be code for the traditionalist's ideal human, itself a consolidation of the prejudices and epiphanies accreted over the preceding few centuries.

You've got a machine that has been tweaked by nature over the last million years or so to run at peak efficiency already, within the boundaries and limits set by the biology of the thing itself.

Evolution is ongoing and it is not an intelligent designer. It is not "seeking" to optimize function, only satisfice it.
posted by daksya at 8:32 AM on December 10, 2008 [2 favorites]


I worry about this. Tweaking your brain to make it run better? You've got a machine that has been tweaked by nature over the last million years or so to run at peak efficiency already, within the boundaries and limits set by the biology of the thing itself.

I think Justinian's response to this points to the fact that "peak efficiency" is not meaningfully defined in this context. Peak efficiency from the point of view of natural selection is by no means guaranteed to be efficient for our human purposes, or even good. Justinian's got a bunch of good examples.

Another problem with this argument: it proves way too much! There are two main problem areas: 1) existing psychiatric medicine, and 2) medical "tweaks" to other body functions.

1) existing psychiatric medicine. Your "peak efficiency" argument is an argument that works equally well against any medicine that affects the brain, from (some) pain medicine through anti-depressants all the way up through anti-psychotics. Do you tell the schizophrenic who can only build a satisfying life by means of drugs that he's wrong to be messing with evolution? His brain is a product of evolution just like yours or mine. That it's diseased (if you think of schizophrenia as a brain disease) is a social fact, a designation we've come up with to mark off brains that aren't working the way we deem right. (That this designation is correct in some sense doesn't matter; it's still substituting our own judgment for nature's.)

2) medical tweaks to other body functions: what's so special about the brain? For anything I can do to my body, you can respond, "Tweaking your _______ (e.g. liver) to make it run better? But it was tweaked by nature to perfect efficiency!" This argument doesn't work because we know from medical science that the ordinary, natural function of many body parts isn't optimal for our human purposes -- for example, the ordinary, natural breakdown of heart function in old age is something we've decided to tweak for our benefit, through a whole raft of drugs and devices (this is something nature doesn't much care about, because in the historical evolutionary environment it was usually post-reproductive). Similarly, when we discover that we can tweak our brain to better serve our human purposes, there's no reason to care that the optimal brain devised by evolution was crappier.
posted by grobstein at 8:33 AM on December 10, 2008


Well, I take caution live frogs' point on 'normal.' But I do have to go with some of the other arguments on - what is 'normal' anyway?

It does seem like the brain, and the body, has adapted to run on certain external chemicals from time to time.
I look at something like - say - some sort of futuretech like wrapping our spines in a bio equivalent of kevlar. No more lower back problems - neat!
On the other hand - if you don't have a lower back problem, do you need something like that?

I guess I'm focusing more on the goal we're looking at rather than the tweak for tweak sake. Not that there's anything wrong with just getting high (in whatever form - mine's adrenaline) but external reality often bends to internal forms. 'God' and the 'God' experience as an offhand example.
So what's the paradigm shift or new social order that follows acceptance of a certain kind of brain drug which imparts a different perspective of reality?
I mean, people do some pretty extreme things (for good or ill) based on certain kinds of experience (religious, sexual, etc)
Since I've somewhat 'modded' my own body in the gym (by definition my physique is not 'normal') I can hardly argue for conformity to a certain mean or norm. So yeah, bring on the tweaks, but definitely move cautiously and with a lot of safeguards.
Last thing we need is someone with another new world order who thinks they should rule the world because their thing makes them superior or chosen humans. Or the inverse where we demand sacrifice from a human minority. Countless examples of both throughout history.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:47 AM on December 10, 2008


wow! that is a truly brilliant article. i find myself wholeheartedly agreeing with all the points the authors make and wondering: why only focus on cognitive enhancing drugs?

bageena, myself and lots of other people, use other drugs to enhance creativity, insight and enjoyment of particular experiences (including, but not limited to, acid for making art, ecstasy for dancing in clubs, cannabis for appreciating art and music, alcohol to ease social interactions). The calls made by the authors could easily form the basis of policy on all perception-altering drugs - i.e.

"Society must respond to the growing demand for perception alteration. That response must start by rejecting the idea that 'alteration' is a dirty word"

"Based on our considerations, we call for a presumption that mentally competent adults should be able to engage in perception alteration using drugs."

"We call for an evidence-based approach to the evaluation of the risks and benefits of perception alteration."

"We call for enforceable policies concerning the use of perception alterating drugs to support fairness, protect individuals from coercion and minimize alteration-related socioeconomic disparities"

"We call for a programme of research into the use and impacts of perception alterating drugs by healthy individuals"

"We call for physicians, educators, regulators and others to collaborate in developing policies that address the use of perception alterating drugs by healthy individuals."

"We call for information to be broadly disseminated concerning the risks, benefits and alternatives to pharmaceutical perception alteration"

"We call for careful and limited legislative action to channel perception alteration technologies into useful paths."

taking it a step further, how many of these points currently hold true for legal drugs such as alcohol or nicotine? certainly, there is a culture in some workplaces/societies/age-groups that coerces people into drinking and smoking. one point that isn't adressed here (and maybe it wasn't the intention to address it) is the reason why people should want to modify their perception of reality - quite often (but not always) it is because there is something about their existance that they are dissatisfied with, and taking drugs is a way to deal with the symptoms but not the cause.
posted by fay at 12:55 PM on December 10, 2008 [2 favorites]


To fully get behind that, Fay, one must first alter one's perception to the point that alterating begins to resemble a real word. (Otherwise, I concur re legalization of perception alteration.)

I think my main problem with "cognitive enhancement" is that it could very easily be used to exploit the, shall we say, less enhanced portion of society (that's me!), as well as the must-get-straight-A's-or-I'm-worthless crowd. It's just a matter of marketing to milk the desperate. It just seems altogether not cool. They're just rebranding diet pills.
posted by Sys Rq at 6:44 AM on December 12, 2008


Justinian writes "Would you consider the knee joint something that operates at peak efficiency? How about lower backs? The fact that food and air both travel down the same passage which results in a large number of deaths from blockage? "

I'll state it again in case you didn't catch it the first time: "within the boundaries and limits set by the biology of the thing itself". With any biological structure you're limited by the way in which it first developed. We're built from a quadruped precursor, so we are limited by the quadruped body plan. If we had evolved as bipeds to begin with, we wouldn't have screwy knee joints or lower backs. If we'd evolved from organisms with large resonance chambers for complex vocalizations instead of ancestors with gills, our airways wouldn't cross our ingestive structures. I think that I made a mistake here, as those of you outside of the field of evolutionary biology / ecology aren't going to see the word "optimal" in the same light I do. "Optimal" must be considered as part of a cost-benefit analysis: Cost of making the genetic changes necessary to produce the idealized, perfect system vs. the benefits of going through that much trouble. Almost all of the time, the necessary genetic changes are not biologically possible (no viable intermediate stages) so these changes can't be driven by selective pressure.

daksya writes "neurotypicality is as much a social construct as the 'average person', and just seems to be code for the traditionalist's ideal human, itself a consolidation of the prejudices and epiphanies accreted over the preceding few centuries."

No, you're not understanding me. What I mean by "normal" is not some idealized construct of mind. I mean cells in nucleus X produce Y amount of neurotransmitter Z, through a defined pathway, interacting with cell populations in Q and R to produce some effect. This is not philosophy or social constructs. This is chemistry and physics operating within the limitations of a biological system. I don't care who you are or what your IQ is, if you blow out your dopaminergic system you have lost control over fine motor function. That's not an abstract theory of mind, it's a known fact.

grobstein writes "There are two main problem areas: 1) existing psychiatric medicine, and 2) medical 'tweaks' to other body functions."

You cite as examples here 1) mental abnormalities, defined as such by DSMV criteria, and 2) decline due to aging. Correcting an imbalance in the inner workings isn't an argument for the use of the same drugs in persons without such an imbalance. In this instance, yes, we need to define what is meant as "normal", which the psychiatric and medical community have done. The key here is that normality is based on defined aspects of behavior. As to the second point, yes, I suppose you could argue that senescence and death are not optimal for human purposes, but aging is a part of development. We can slow it, but we can't stop it. Even things like statins that affect liver function in a perceived positive way have limitations - the biology is such that these stopgap measures eventually don't work: you can't take statins forever. We know this. As the original article points out, most of the time non-chemical interventions - lifestyle changes - can produce nearly the same physical benefits as many medical interventions. The benefit here is that such changes are built within the limitations of the system. You aren't going to do anything to the system that it can't handle. Adding things from outside? You really don't know what's going to happen.

Look, I may not be publishing in Nature (not yet anyway) but I do have a neuroscience / evolutionary biology background, and I make my living doing biomedical research. I really don't have any problem with medical intervention where such intervention is necessary. But I am not comfortable with the idea of redefining what is normal by making it OK to treat our brains like they were computers that we can overclock whenever we want, without consequences. All I'm saying is this: You do what you want with your brain. I'm not taking any drugs to enhance my cognitive function.
posted by caution live frogs at 7:17 AM on December 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Frogs,

The DSM encodes judgments about what is good and bad. That's not all it does, for sure. But faced with the essentially scientific information about what is typical and what is unusual, the compilers of the DSM have to decide which deviations from the norm are undesirable. In: alcoholism (first appeared in DSM-IV?); out: homosexuality (last appeared in DSM-II, though echoes remained for a while). What I am saying is, there is no reason to take these essentially moral or political judgments as authoritative. The fact that the APA took homosexuality out of the DSM does not change its moral character, whether we think it's a sin or just another way to be a person. The DSM is useful, for example to have a systematic way of analyzing patients' mental health in large studies, but it's not a moral compass.

On the other hand, whether people should be allowed to dope themselves is essentially a question of political morality. Historically, we've only sanctioned the use of drugs when a consensus of doctors agreed that the drugs were working to solve something affirmatively bad rather than to do something affirmatively good. But that's entirely arbitrary.

Really, the whole distribution of human traits is "natural" and the product of evolution and so on. An "imbalance in the inner workings" like heart disease is "optimal" in your sense -- not worth the cost of correcting over our evolutionary history. By distinguishing between good function and an imbalance, you're importing a telos into evolution that's not really there and using it to obscure the present-day judgment about what should be allowed and why. Remove the lens of human values, and you can no longer say whether heart disease or blond hair is more of an imbalance -- we know that heart disease is bad and blond hair is awesome, but we don't know that because we studied evolutionary history, we know that because we interpret biological facts in the context of our values. This debate is really about our values.

Your practical points about the limits we often hit in trying to improve ourselves are well taken. We should be careful. I agree. But I think you're leaning too heavily on your scientific credentials to answer a question that is largely about political and moral concerns that are beyond the reach of science.

All I'm saying is this: You do what you want with your brain. I'm not taking any drugs to enhance my cognitive function.

If you really mean this, then we agree. Live and let live.
posted by grobstein at 3:57 PM on December 12, 2008


caution live frogs: What I mean by "normal" is not some idealized construct of mind. I mean cells in nucleus X produce Y amount of neurotransmitter Z, through a defined pathway, interacting with cell populations in Q and R to produce some effect.

But Y may vary across individuals and even within them, so for "normal" you are going to have to posit some ideal, whether abstract or from within the current empirically-observed range. That action, as grobstein points out, is a value judgement.

But we are wading away from your contention viz. that the brain is working at peak efficiency given its biology. This is tautologically true if framed a certain way i.e. by referring to biology as the real-time finely-grained localized structural setup of the brain. So, at time T, if a suitable ligand has engaged an ion channel receptor, then it is optimal for the gates to 'open', given the application of physics. But it's not clear that the state of the whole brain 5 minutes post receptor engagement is the optimal outcome, given a set of values. As far as I'm aware, even in schizophrenic brains, the individual neurons seem to fire and rest OK, hence optimal function as per biology. It's only when structure/activity of many regions of the brain is considered across time scales relevant to humans and against a backdrop of certain value judgments that these brains are considered to not function optimally. So the "limits of biology" is an empty and malleable term barring specific qualification.

You also posit a dichotomy between chemicals and lifestyle changes. I think that's false. Barring internal perturbations, all stimuli come from outside. They just interface differently with the body. Reading simply relies on sensory transduction near the ocular surface. Weight training, at the skin. Diet, like chemicals, needs internal passage. And the body isn't accommodating to all lifestyle changes. You can injure yourself if you overtrain, or choose an inappropriate diet, or read the wrong things (like an IRS notice:-) ). Like chemicals, some natural stimuli are acceptable, some not, given a context. This specter of chemicals infiltrating your body and doing "who knows what" stems from heuristic application of evolutionary-accumulated to a modern but reverential conception of human biology. But the dichotomy is metaphysically vacuous. Ultimately we are a soup of chemicals all externally sourced at various stages of evolution.
posted by daksya at 11:42 PM on December 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


Correction: ..heuristic application of evolutionary-accumulated prejudices to a..
posted by daksya at 11:45 PM on December 13, 2008


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