Friday, February 25, 2011

Analysis #7 - The Drug of the 21st Century: Neuroenhancements

In the hustle-bustle of everyday life surrounding academics, busy work schedules, and social interactions, we constantly find ourselves extremely overwhelmed, mentally stressed, and physically exhausted. For the majority of Americans, who are consistently reminded of the need to strive for optimal production and success, having the time and energy to stay focused is a strenuous and seemingly impossible challenge that must be encountered each day. Anxieties and pressures associated with performance in both school and work have created a demand for neuroenhancers that would give people the opportunity to boost their cognitive functions. Adderall and Ritalin, drugs that were initially created to help children and adults with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), are now being abused by undiagnosed and unprescribed individuals who take these stimulants for "nonmedical" purposes" (Talbot, 2). Advances in medicine and improvements in marketing strategies have combined with societal expectations and demands to create in us the attraction to the idea of consuming neuroenhancing drugs to keep up with society, our peers, and ultimately, ourselves.

The above image, taken from a blog on Adderall on the college campus (, is a poster-like visual that says (in large letters) "that twenty five thousand dollar ticket will look fabulous next to the A+ paper on your cell wall" and then asks (in much smaller font) "is it worth it?" The image depicts in the background a pair of lips about to intake an Adderall XR pill. This image and the message it sends are very powerful in the sense that they address two important aspects of neuroenhancing drugs - their ability to effectively improve cognitive function and their potentially dangerous side effects. What makes neuroenhancers like Adderall and Ritalin dangerous is not only their "high potential for abuse...and serious cardiac problems" (Talbot, 2), but also people's tendency to underestimate and ignore these potential hazards. In her article on "Brain Gain: The Underground World of Neuroenhancing Drugs", Margaret Talbot informs readers that "white male undergraduates at highly competitive schools...are the most frequent collegiate users of neuroenhancers" (Talbot, 2). Talbot also discusses the results of an online poll published in the scientific journal Nature, which stated that "a majority of the fourteen hundred readers who responded said that healthy adults should be permitted to take brain boosters for nonmedical reasons, and sixty-nine percent said that mild side effects were an acceptable risk" (Talbot, 3). Debates on using neuroenhancers as a sort of "cosmetic neurology" (Talbot, 3) as a way to increase performance are not something that should be taken lightly and they are definitely sending us on a slippery slope. Time is of the essence to all of us, yet the idea of allowing undiagnosed individuals to use medications that were "developed for recognized medical conditions" (Talbot, 3) seems like an unfair and crude insult to those that actually require the drugs to assist them in medically diagnosed cognitive deficiencies. For those that highly criticize the use of medicine and technology to serve nonmedical purposes, the popularity of nonmedical uses of neuroenhancers may appear to be a living nightmare and a failed attempt by society to do better for its people. Yet can we really blame the abusers of Adderall and Ritalin when societal pressures may be the source of their popularity to begin with? After all, as Talbot tells her readers, "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-obssessed, BlackBerry-equipped office culture, where work never really ends" (Talbot, 3). It is a sad, yet inevitable truth that we have allowed ourselves to become so enveloped by productivity and success that we are willing to do anything (even if that means taking drugs) in order to pull ourselves through and make it to the top.

The concept of neuroenhancers may seem straightforward enough (take the drugs, enhance cognitive function, focus better, become successful), yet that would be a vulgar oversimplification of the processes involved as it fails to define the term "enhancement'. As one of the cofounders of NeuroInsights states, "We're not talking about superhuman intelligence. No one's saying we're coming out with a pill that's going to make you smarter than Einstein!...What we're really talking about is enabling people" (Talbot, 4). By enabling, I believe he is referring to the possibility of giving people the opportunity to expand their abilities and perform better than they otherwise normally would without the assistance of the drugs. However, it seems many people who abuse the drugs believe the pills are some sort of magical "smart drugs" (Talbot, 2) that are completely benign without any potentially dangerous side effects. Although some people might be unaware of the potential hazards of taking neuroenhancers, perhaps the majority of them knowingly consume them in order to keep up with the "baseline competitive level [that] reorients around what these drugs make possible" (Talbot, 6). Social and academic anxieties are not the only pressures society places on us to work harder and perform better. As Talbot states, neuroenhancers "have a synergistic relationship with our multiplying digital technologies: the more gadgets we own, the more distracted we become, and the more we need help in order to focus" (Talbot, 11). As we become more scientifically equipped and medically knowledgeable, we strive to find "multiple opportunities for therapeutic interventions" through biomedicine (Rose, 206) to target neurological disorders.

Technological advances and interventions cannot be blamed to be the sole culprit causing our attraction to and reliance on neuroenhancers. In a society based on capitalism, marketing is an important aspect of a functioning economy. As Nikolas Rose suggest in his piece on "The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century", mental disorders today are "vital opportunities for the creation of private profit and national economic growth" (Rose, 209). The lay public are drawn into the idea of viewing diseases in a "clinical form" (Rose, 214) through direct-to-consumer advertisement and presentation of disorders and diseases alongside "advice on the [existence and] use of pharmaceutical treatments of the [conditions]" (Rose, 217). Marketing clothes, hair products, or electronic gizmos and gadgets is one thing, but marketing neuroenhancers and pyschostimulants is a whole different thing. It becomes a concern when drugs become "entangled with certain conceptions of what humans are or should be - that is to say specific norms, values, and judgments internalized in the very idea of these drugs" (Rose, 220). Neuroenhancers cannot be discussed in isolation of social, cultural, and political factors that have shaped its creation and demand in the first place. We wouldn't find ourselves depending so heaviliy on neuroenhancers if we weren't pressured to constantly perform beyond our physical and mental capabilities. As Talbot suggests, "every era has its defining drug" (Talbot, 1). It does not come to me as a big surprise that in our era, which places much value and emphasis on productivity and efficiency, neuroenhancers have become the predominant drug of the twenty-first century. In today's modern world, most of us would do anything to get that extra boost of energy or that extra half an hour to complete our duties in order to stand out among the rest (or just barely get through the day). The frequency and popularity of the abuse of neuroenhancing drugs today should serve as important indicators of where we may be going in terms of future dependency on medical science. We are becoming more and more obsessed and addicted to the "benefits" science may offer us, failing to see that these opportunities come with strings attached.

Works Cited:

Rose, Nikolas. 2007. Neurochemical Selves, in Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Pp. 187 – 223.

Talbot, Margaret.  “Brain Gain: The Underground World of ‘Neuroenhancing’ Drugs”. The New Yorker, April 27, 2009. 

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