Cognitive Enhancers are Not "Cheating"

By Kyle Munkittrick | March 3, 2011 2:18 pm

Matt Lamkin argues that universities shouldn’t ban cognitive-enhancing drugs like Ritalin and Adderall. Lamkin is a lawyer and, like myself, a master’s candidate in bioethics. He rightly believes that a ban would do little to promote fairness or safety among students. The rule followers would be at a disadvantage while the rule-breakers would be at a greater safety risk. But Lamkin doesn’t believe we, as a society, should be ok with cognitive enhancement usage. Instead, he argues:

The word “cheating” has another meaning, one that has nothing to do with competition. When someone has achieved an end through improper means, we might say that person has “cheated herself” out of whatever rewards are inherent in the proper means. The use of study drugs by healthy students could corrode valuable practices that education has traditionally fostered. If, for example, students use such drugs to mitigate the consequences of procrastination, they may fail to develop mental discipline and time-management skills.

On the other hand, Ritalin might enable a student to engage more deeply in college and to more fully experience its internal goods—goods she might be denied without that assistance. The distinction suggests that a blanket policy, whether of prohibition or universal access, is unlikely to be effective.

Instead, colleges need to encourage students to engage in the practice of education rather than to seek shortcuts. Instead of ferreting out and punishing students, universities should focus on restoring a culture of deep engagement in education, rather than just competition for credentials.

Lamkin’s argument is that cog-enhancers are an easy way out for those in school. Struggling to study builds character and good habits. Though he disapproves of cog-enhancers, I appreciate his hesitancy to involve the law. Lamkin doesn’t believe policing cog-enhancing drug usage is necessary, but would prefer honor codes opposing cog-enhancing drugs. He believes honor codes cause one to “internalize” the value of not using the drug. What is curious is that Lamkin doesn’t actually address what Ritalin and Adderall do for a student. As a person who has a legit prescription for Ritalin, and who knows his fair share of folks who’ve taken Adderall off-label, I believe I can speak to how cog-enhancers work in at least an anecdotal sense.

Simply put: cog-enhancers let you focus on one task very intensely, whether that task is organizing your music library or doing the dishes or (ahem) writing a master’s thesis in bioethics. To help clarify this, imagine the parts of a brain actively thinking as bright areas, and those areas not thinking as dim areas. A normal brain might look like the center brain pictured. The hot colors indicate active thought, the cool colors indicate calm parts of the brain. The above images are not scientific, but are a visual analogy for the felt effects of cog-enhancers.

Basic stimulants, like caffeine and the stuff found in energy drinks, cause the whole brain to get brighter – inactive and active areas brighten to the same degree. That is why you feel energized but unfocused after one too many cups of coffee. A rough simulation of what that might look like is the picture to the left. Everything is lit up. The brain is more awake but over-stimulated.

Alternatively, cog-enhancers like Ritalin and Adderall work by making bright areas much brighter while causing dim areas to go very dark. The result is one is able to focus on whatever task is at hand. As I can attest, it is just as easy to lose an hour studying xenomorphs on Wikipedia as it is to actually writing an essay for class. The image on the right is an approximation of what that might look like. Notice the areas of thought are not only brighter but more intense (indicated by darker red).

The key point is that whatever drugs you do or don’t take, a sense of discipline is still necessary to make the drugs useful. If a person takes Ritalin and then plays Call of Duty for hours, they won’t do any better in class. Furthermore, no matter how many pills you take, you aren’t going to know the facts and ideas necessary to write your paper or pass a test. Cog-enhancers enable those who might have trouble focusing or staying awake to do so on demand, but the drugs don’t put an iota of knowledge or a single original thought into a person’s mind. If Lamkin wants a culture that encourages in depth commitment to education, then cognitive enhancers are the way to go. Cog-enhancers allow a person to efficiently utilize the time they have to get the most studying/homework done. A ban on enhancers, as Lamkin notes, won’t do anything positive, but neither will an attitude of disapproval. Cog-enhancers allow a person who wants to study or write to be able to do so in a better, more productive fashion.

Follow Kyle on his personal blog and on twitter.

Image of delicious looking pills by RambergMediaImages via Flickr Creative Commons; Original image of brain scan by via Flickr Creative commons; edits to brain by Kyle Munkittrick.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Chemistry, Mind & Brain

Comments (15)

  1. Wesley

    As a person who has been taking Concerta for half my life, I have to agree with you. It makes it easier to block out distractions, but does not provide any motivation. That part I have to take care of myself.

  2. Msafwan

    If student can be given the choice to choose either a drug-enhanced brain or mentally enhanced brain: then was that choice a fair choice?

    Because: drug-enhancement seems to be an easy choice (because drug is an obvious solution to this hard problem of the mind), while the mental discipline path seem to be consisting of some undefined solution that is (perhaps) only obtainable by wisdom or age (and may be subjective).

    If students are given the choice to take drug-enhancement (or to perform (an obscure) mental discipline) to allow them to pass exam; then EVERYONE will definitely take drug-enhancement… (except the one who is already has the solution).

    I think the choice is not a fair choice.

  3. “but the drugs don’t but an iota … ” You mean “put”?

  4. BenkyouBurito

    There is a stigmat attached to drug therepy, that it is only appropriate when treating pathology. Surgury to treat a hideous but non-malignant mole or a hairy birthmark or countless vanities is perfectly acceptable. But I exibit a moral defect for wanting better con centration than I was born with. Perhaps athletes should compete with the feet they were born with instead of ‘cheating’ by wearing shoes.

  5. Cathy

    I don’t need to be on cognitive enhancers to waste an hour or three wikisurfing! That said, my drug of choice is phosphodatylserine, which can be purchased in its unpurified form as soy lecithin. I don’t think it allows me to concentrate any better so much as it just calms me down. And it might be a placebo effect, but whatever works, right?

  6. Jillinthebox

    Is it common for college students to take Ritalin or Adderall for focus, even if they are not prescribed?

  7. I totally agree with much of what is written. I can relate. However, I’m personally not for “drugs”. Simply put, there is too much going on in each capsule that presents side effects potentially greater than any short term gains. I do believe in better nutrition and a way to use nutrients as brain or body supplements to help boost our brain performance. After all, there are studies that show our brains begin to slow as early as when we are in our 20s. I don’t ever take medications such as Adderall but because I’ve had comprehension and focus challenges since I was young, I decided to find a solution. [SPAM portion of comment redacted]

    LOL. I love Benkyouburito’s comment. I agree.. it’s not about taking something to help you out… it’s about what you opt to ingest… I suppose?

  8. Mark

    Well we used technology to enhance our natural abilities for millenia, why draw the line at cog-enhancers?

    Pretty simple actually, side-effects and risks! You find many examples in various categories that show the same ethical boundaries. As long as the enhancement is without adding unnecessary risk for health and life it’s fair game.

    As soon as the technological progress starts to endanger people regulatory action is taken.

  9. Marie

    I take Dexedrine to help combat my narcolepsy, and I wish I did not have to! There are terrible side effects caused by psycho-stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall. My doctor is always warning me about hallucinations, anorexia, obsessive-complulsive behavior, ect. And even at a rather low dosage, I am constantly dehydrated. The withdrawal symptoms are worse, including severe depression… I’m not sure that allowing these drugs on college campuses is the right thing to do.

  10. to the poster above (Marie): people will not take the drugs if they get those side effects and have any sort of sense. you can also “get anorexia” from tv right?

    // in general yeah it’d be ridiculous to ban these things … i’ve been prescribed before and no longer take it, because i drink too much coffee for it to be a good idea haha (your analogy was great). //i’m sure it won’t get banned the companies that make the shit are big money anyways

  11. Flo

    I’m a middle aged woman, whose gray matter is as dry as my hair. I have 2 amazing children in college pushing the boundaries of cognitive science and astrophysics. I think I want the advantage to focus and keep up w/ the amazing ideas that are coming our way. Jeez, I’m having a hard time figuring out my retirement account. would prefer nutrition supps and mental exercises, but what the hell. ”mothers little helper”.

  12. theres really no point because water is meant to take out ash and other irratants . since there is no tar there is no point it would only make the vapor more cool plus condensing it? into liqiud thus you would get less high

  13. Nor Ipjes

    I tried “cheating” in school by getting a prescription for adderall that I didn’t need (told a new doctor that I had been on it for years, which was a lie, and she filled out a prescription for me).

    My brain has felt dried up ever since. I used to have a great study ethic. And I’m not quite sure what’s happened. But I’ve lacked mental energy and clarity ever since. My grades actually went down (or, more accurately, I would get one really good grade and several other mediocre grades, mostly because of what the author notes: I would focus too much on one individual task, to the detriment of everything else–meaning most of my other papers, etc., ended up being turned in late)…

    I heard there’s a difference in the way these drugs affect ppl who have ADD or ADHD and those who don’t. I imagine they help those who do. Unfortunately, I did not. And I’ve been suffering noticeable consequences ever since abusing these substances many years ago…

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