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The Cognitive Olympics

by Louise Whiteley

Last summer in Beijing, Olympians achieved new feats of strength, loose-limbed speed, and remarkable precision, and inevitable questions were asked about performances that seemed too good to be true. The passion with which many people react to the idea of a pharmaceutical helping hand betrays a deep commitment to the concept of the
‘natural’, the unadorned human pushing at the limits of the flesh. But in the classroom and lecture hall, students are increasingly turning to drugs to enhance their cognitive performance.

Methylphenidate, often known as Ritalin, is a stimulant commonly prescribed for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), whose descriptive moniker reflects a constellation of problems with attention, organisation and impulsiveness. In recent years, diagnosis of ADHD has increased dramatically, with 3% of children and adolescents in the UK now thought to be affected. This has prompted familiar discussions about how and when to diagnose childhood disorders, and also raises fundamental questions about the boundary between disorder and diversity. For children with ADHD, drugs can be life-enhancing, but there are concerns that their increasing popularity reflects in part a rigid educational system overly focused on formal testing.

These worries come into focus with the prospect of widespread use by healthy students to boost exam success. In a recent American study, 8% of undergraduates reported taking methylphenidate; the most common reasons included a desire to improve concentration and alertness. The US National Institute on Drug Abuse reported illicit use amongst children as young as 13, and if this trend continues, the pull of a level-playing field may be hard to resist.

Although Ritalin has relatively few side effects, its long-term impact on the developing brain is unclear. Even less clear are the psychological consequences: interviews with university students taking ADHD medication found that many were uncomfortable about its role in their identity, and that they planned to stop taking it after leaving education. For children, whose personalities are still developing, it may be even harder to disentangle pharmacological interventions from questions of who they are, and what they want to be. In a recent study, Dr Ilina Singh found an interesting contradiction in many parents’ reasoning – they would argue that Ritalin freed their child from the inauthentic barriers of ADHD at school, but that at the weekend withholding tablets set them free to be their ‘authentic’ selves.

How we reconcile the desire to intervene in the genetic hand we’re dealt, with quicksilver intuitions about our true nature, is a dilemma. To allow widespread use of cognitive enhancers would provide a shortcut to a particular solution, defining flaws and talents relative to a narrow notion of success. This isn’t to deny that stimulants can enhance generally desirable qualities – there is much evidence, for example, that the ability to control impulsiveness is a boon. In a famous experiment, Prof. Walter Mischel offered four year-olds a single marshmallow, but promised them an extra one if they could wait just a few minutes. Those who managed to hold out for the greater reward tended to grow up to become happier, more successful and better able to cope with frustration and stress. It’s tempting to think we should enhance such traits in all children, but to do so pharmacologically would impact on qualities such as creativity, may disguise untreated depression, and would risk precluding the positive effects of working to overcome adversity.

Although stimulants allow for longer periods of concentration, they are often used to obtain short-term rewards – achieving a particular grade, or closing a lucrative deal. This seems to reflect a turning away from long-term goals, and a focus on outcome rather than process, which in education is evident in the prominence of league tables and a lack of emphasis on learning for learning’s sake. When watching an elite athlete, the desire is to see records broken, small steps for humankind’s potential. But although a medal can be won in a mere 9.69 seconds, it is the result of sustained work over many years. The danger of cognitive enhancers is that they encourage a yearning for academic gold, whilst downplaying the value of ‘training’ and its lasting effects.

Whether drugs have a role to play in the classroom of the future is part of a wider debate about regulating ‘human enhancement’, in which practical questions about side effects, distributive justice, and social coercion rub shoulders with fiercely held beliefs about the moral status of such interventions. In order to have a genuine conversation about whether we want to add drugs to social and psychological tools for enhancing a child’s success, we need to challenge hidden assumptions about what education is, and what it seeks to achieve.

Louise Whiteley is deputy editor of The Liberal.

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