Exam tomorrow? don’t forget the Ritalin…




Coming on the heels of exams, this seems particularly relevant. 

As a biochem student, I think it’s very interesting to consider the various ways in which we’re beginning to use the knowledge we have about our physiology and genetics to manipulate ourselves. Ways that often give rise to some pretty heated ethical debates. Like steroids, for instance, which is a topic that seems to provoke strong reactions in people. 

I’m really interested in other people’s opinions on this one. Would you consider taking Ritalin or other drugs to enhance your mental performance? Why or why not? Comment below!

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Sarah Andersen is both a wave and a particle.

3 Responses to “Exam tomorrow? don’t forget the Ritalin…”

  1. Timon

    I’ve used espresso to facilitate all night studying. I’ve used running (and the ensuing endorphins) to relieve my stress. I have to admit that I’ve been intrigued by the reported upside to modafinil use (not sure about ritalin). If compounds work as they’re alleged to, are not habit forming, and don’t have brain-punching side effects – and if the goal use is only at “crunch time” – it’s hard for me to see their use as a bad idea. So I guess I’m not opposed to “performance-enhancing” drugs to help studying. Thing is, the drugs probably don’t work that great and there usually are side effects. I tried small amounts of things like valerian root and melatonin to deal with sleep issues a few years ago and my reward was sleep without rest and a wicked hangover. I had been told that these wouldn’t have side effects, etc. but that’s not how things played out. Assuming that a given compound isn’t an insane risk and that it might help improve performance, an individual’s first goal should be to figure out how that drug affects them. The best advice then would just be this: don’t take Drug X for the first time the night before your exam!

  2. Nicholas FitzGerald

    How is that we draw the line between which advantages are allowed and what are not? Steroids have a bad rap in sports, but what about the case where a team hires a dedicated nutritionist to council the team? Is that an unfair advantage? What about the use of better equipment – it was interesting to me during the Olympics this year when they were discussing the advantages conferred to swimmers by the new low-drag body suits; it is strange that people are willing to accept this but not the use of steroids. Likewise for academics – no one thinks paying for extra tutelage outside of class is “unfair”, although it would seem to confer an advantage similar to what could be obtained by these drugs.

    The repulsion seems to be rooted in our belief that accomplishment should be based on hard work and discipline. Proper nutrition, sleep, and exercise and extra tutelage can confer benefits on studying, but they still require personal sacrifice and mental toughness to maintain. The advantage gained from performance enhancing drugs, on the other hand, are as simple as popping a pill or receiving an injection. People seem to be getting something for nothing, which violates our intuitions about what it takes to be successful. “No pain, no gain” is more than just a platitude to help people get through those last five minutes on the proverbial Stair-Master. It seems to denote something close to a moral principle. I know I’d be upset if I knew that my hours of studying and mental discipline had been trumped by the someone taking a pill. (As an aside, imagine how inspirational the famous montage from Rocky would be if it consisted solely of a clip of him injecting himself with HGH…)

    The other important aspect seems to be the competitive nature of academics and science. The point was made in the article that these drugs could be a good thing, since they would lead to better, more focused research and therefore more scientific discovery and advancement. How many more discoveries would result, how much more progress could be made if these drugs were used systematically in the scientific community? This would indeed be the case if academia really was driven solely by the drive to better humanity. Unfortunately, competition and scarcity are as real problems in science as anywhere else; labs have to compete for grants, students have to compete for placements. As long as that is the case, people will have problems with perceived injustices. Imagine losing a grant to lab which was requiring all its employees to take cognitive enhancers…

    It brings up a lot of other ethical issues, for instance availability. I imagine these drugs are rather expensive to obtain, especially if doing so is border-line illegal. What if I cannot afford to purchase “cognitive enhancers”? Are universities going to start offering grants for students who cannot afford to medicate themselves? Will it eventually be the case that you will HAVE to take these drugs in order to be on a level playing field with your classmates? This would seem like something terrible, but it is already the case for a lot of other things – take laptops for instance. Once an optional benefit, it is hard to imagine a student being very successful nowadays without access to their own PC. Caffeine is likewise ubiquitous – I’m fully convinced my marks would suffer if I couldn’t drink coffee, and how many people give second thought to that? On the other hand is there really any way to stop these drugs from proliferating? Will we all be made to pee in a cup after taking a Calculus exam? Unlikely.

    For myself, I would be very hesitant to use any drugs this way. My concerns would primarily be dependence and side-effects- I’d worry that it would decrease my ability to concentrate WITHOUT the drug. But these are temporary problems, there will likely come a time when drugs like this can be used safely and effectively. That time might already be here if you believe the reports. It does however violate my intuition that personal achievement should be the result of hard work and self-discipline. Will such naive ideals survive the new possibilities of physiology, genetics and neuroscience? I don’t have the answer… maybe if I popped a few Ritalin I could think of a better response?

  3. George Dubyah

    drugs dont magically make people smart. using ritalin/adderrall/modafinil or whatever will boost your grade only if you’ve already been doing the work, paying attention, and dedicating the time.

    forget for a second that their is such a thing as caffeine in coffee. Instead, caffeine is a newly discovered “drug” that is not readily sold on every street corner, but comes in pill form and takes effort to get. Now, do people still have ethical issues with people popping caffeine pills before studying? People don’t realize the extent to their socially acceptable use of drugs everyday…

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