A recent informal survey, conducted by Nature, suggests that large numbers of scientists are ‘doping’ with drugs that enhance their wakefulness and concentration. While the old joke holds that “a mathematician is a device for converting coffee into theorems,” drugs of choice have expanded to include Modafinil (Provigil) and Methylphenidate (Ritalin).
One in five respondents said they had used drugs for non-medical reasons to stimulate their focus, concentration or memory…
For those who choose to use, methylphenidate was the most popular: 62% of users reported taking it. 44% reported taking modafinil, and 15% said they had taken beta blockers such as propanolol, revealing an overlap between drugs. 80 respondents specified other drugs that they were taking. The most common of these was adderall, an amphetamine similar to methylphenidate.
I do not find this surprising. At a conference once, I met a young woman who pays her tuition by selling drugs usually prescribed for attention deficit disorder to fellow students at her Ivy League school.
It is not clear what kind of response is justified in the face of such anecdotal evidence. It is not obvious, prima facie, that the use of drugs is an inappropriate way to improve one’s mental function or academic output. People use all sorts of mechanisms – from physical activities to dietary modifications – to try to achieve the same end. Prescription drugs are thoroughly vetted for safety, though it is also fair to say that people self-prescribing are likely to make mistakes in terms of dosages and interactions with other substances. People make all kinds of sacrifices for success and it isn’t clear why it is obviously inappropriate for them to run the risks associated with altering their biochemistry. Given the degree to which success is related to self-esteem and contentedness, as well as the degree to which perceptions of failure associate with depression, it could arguably be better for one’s mental health to use whatever aids to success are available.
One legitimate concern is about a spiral effect. If honour roll students and leading researchers start becoming dependent on drugs to improve their focus, it might become difficult for anyone not doping to keep up. That could lead to situations in which people feel strongly pressured to do drugs as well. Of course, that strong pressure already exists in competitive academic environments. Still, there is reason to be especially wary when it is combined with psychoactive chemicals.
The questions suggested by the survey cannot be adequately addressed in a short blog post, but it does seem likely that they will be the subject of greater amounts of attention in the future. The competitive nature of the world, and the need to achieve things ever more rapidly, ensures that a market will exist for products that help people cope with both of those things. As with other unauthorized uses of drugs, the policies adopted by governments will affect things like price, availability, safety, and access to information and advice. Getting the balance right will be tricky.