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Culture, Reality

The Rise and Rise of Ritalin

by Kathryn Mitchell / 20.01.2014

“Academic contraband” may seem like an oxymoron. But as more intellectual students turn to Ritalin as a study tool, the term is not misplaced. Popping a pill means being able to do more valuable hours of work a day than just relying on sheer will power alone. Genuine ADHD sufferers turn into quasi-dealers during university exam periods as the black market in concentration enhancers booms. In addition, many doctors are conned into writing a script for the “secret to academic success”.

Ethically, this is a problem. Students using Ritalin are edging the non-users out through artificial stimulants, rather than through hard work, dedication and intellect. But is this really so bad?

As the world becomes increasingly competitive and complex, the demand for effective cognition enhancers will be met, legally or illegally. The question is how does our society respond?

Concentration enhancing drugs are not new: for hundreds of years nicotine and caffeine have been used across the world, and are both socially acceptable. So what then is our problem with newer and more effective drugs?

Ritalin is a variety of amphetamine that increases the brain’s ability to allocate attention during problem solving exercises. The drug bolsters whichever part of the brain is already being used, allowing that part to perform better. Scientists believe that better performance by an individual in various tasks lowers frustration and agitation, which, in turn, increases productivity.

Broadly speaking, the two main objections to the use of Ritalin (and nebulous future cognition enhancing drugs) seem to be, firstly, the belief that taking a pill to excel is cheating; and secondly, we appear to believe that intelligence and concentration levels are best as they already are and don’t need altering.

There are, however, convincing arguments to counter these objections.

The Old Testament taught us from early on that hard work and diligence are always preferable routes to success than taking a bite of the apple (as Eve so unwisely did). Our society seems preoccupied with the authenticity of achievement rather than the achievement itself. This perception also taps into the roots of liberal ideology. Modern democracies are founded on the idea that everyone is equal and the introduction of cognition enhancing drugs into this precarious balancing act seems to tip the scales unacceptably in the favour of the privileged. As it stands, only those healthy individuals with a dodgy doctor or an ADHD friend have access to the drug.

However, we no longer live in the Garden of Eden. This belief about Ritalin is based on a conviction that an achievement aided by pills is not a true achievement. These accomplishments are perceived as unearned and therefore are not worthy of reward. The “cheating” part of taking Ritalin to study is that by taking a pill, a student eliminates the need to employ will power and dedication.

The fallacy in this kind of thinking is that the value of achievement should be measured in its effect, instead of the number of hours it took. If a researcher develops a cure for cancer while using a cognition-enhancing drug, it would be stupid to suggest that we should not use that cure because he did not work hard enough alone to find it.

Another reason for discounting “cheating” is that it is ridiculous to suggest that this researcher did not expend time, energy and supreme mental effort in developing his cure. Ritalin can’t make you absorb information or develop cures by sitting around on your arse. Naturally, it still involves effort. These drugs are merely facilitators. They allow the brain to better allocate resources and therefore improve mental efficiency.

So, “cheating” as a reason for refusing Ritalin has to be ditched. In fact, by all good reasoning, Ritalin should be freely available. There are some issues in modern society that need to be resolved and if they are more likely to be through the use of drugs, these drugs must be accessible. Secondly, if we are concerned with only the privileged having access to these drugs, we need to make them available to everyone and level the playing fields.

Our reluctance to embrace cognition enhancing drugs seems to be based on the idea that the status quo is preferable: that current levels of cognitive development are sufficient. Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University suggests that this gut feeling is based on an irrational preference for the status quo rather than a truly rational belief that intellect levels are optimal.

In fact, there are convincing Darwinian arguments to be made in favour of enhancing our thought capability. Bostrom suggests that there has been an evolutionary trade-off between brain size and metabolic efficiency. In evolutionary terms, our brain size was limited by how much energy could be allocated to cognitive activities. However, we no longer occupy the same environment in which we evolved. We no longer need to conserve energy for the task of staying alive. And, in hunter-gatherer societies, cognitive abilities were not at the same premium at which they are in today’s world.

Ritalin is not yet a perfect cognition enhancer. The use of Ritalin in campuses across the globe is being fed through the black market. Posters appearing in university libraries advertising “Vitamin R” are testament to that. It is an epidemic which is only going to grow, because of increased pressure to perform; a difficult job market and (the dreaded) peer pressure.

The world is rapidly changing and developing. Already new and better drugs are coming onto the market. An example is Modafinil, a drug developed for treating narcolepsy but which is now being used by healthy individuals because of its ability to increase alertness.

Society needs to overcome its status quo bias and to confront the difficult ethical challenges that lie ahead. If using a pill results in a net social benefit, then why not?

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