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This Is Your Brain On Drugs

There was a provocative piece in the NYT's "Week in Review" Sunday about how brain doping--taking prescription drugs like Adderall or Provigil to enhance academic performance--could become to academia what steroid use is to sports. The piece contained various pro and con arguments, but the one that struck me as most questionable went like this:

"I think the analogy with sports doping is really misleading, because in sports it's all about competition, only about who's the best runner or home run hitter," said Martha Farah, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. "In academics, there is an element of competition, but it's secondary. The main purpose is to try to learn things, to get experience, to write papers, to do experiments. So in that case if you can do it better because you've got some drug on board, that would on the face of things seem like a plus."

So... As long as you're screwing around with your body and/or brain chemistry in order to learn something it's OK, whereas if you're just trying to be top of the heap in some mindless pursuit like baseball or cycling or whatever, it's not OK. And when we wind up with a generation of college freshmen who see Adderall as a necessary tool for keeping up with their chemically enhanced classmates, we can all cheer that development as part of the glorious pursuit of knowledge. 

Smart people on drugs = societal good. Athletic people on drugs = societal ill.

Just so we're all clear what we're arguing here.

--Michelle Cottle