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Are Better Brains Better? By Trey Popp

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“What makes [cognitive enhancement] qualitatively different? I think as you keep going down the line, it becomes harder and harder to say.”



“We’ve been changing our consciousness ever since we realized we had consciousness,” says Jonathan Moreno, the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor of the history and sociology of science. “Peyote, sex, hyperventilating—there are all kinds of ways. We’re doing it all the time. That’s what humans do.”

Perhaps it is human nature to tinker with human nature. If so, the ways we choose to tinker have much to tell us about how far and quickly our priorities can drift. Any survivor or student of the 1960s knows that drug-induced mind expansion is nothing new. Still, you have to marvel at Moreno’s first off-the-cuff example. What does the long, strange trip from peyote to Provigil tell us about ourselves?

Julie Lyzinski, director of Penn’s Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Program Initiatives, says that the University has been gathering data on prescription-stimulant misuse on campus for three years. So far the results have more or less mirrored her personal observations. Part of her job is to conduct interventions with students. “Our numbers are fairly low for abuse outside of a prescription, but it’s pocketed within certain groups,” she says. They aren’t the same groups that tend to serve as hypothetical examples in the neuroethical debate. In Lyzinski’s experience, chronic users tend to have mediocre grades and poor time-management skills, and use stimulants to catch up.

They are also more likely than their peers to use other prescription drugs to counteract the effects of stimulants. “So we have the benzodiazepines—the anti-anxiety medications—which obviously are sedatives. And ironically, that helps deal with the stress of not having time-management skills.”

Lyzinski doesn’t worry very much about summa cum laude students popping Provigils to get a leg up on the magnas, because she thinks the real issue lies elsewhere.

“We’re all taught that we can reach for the moon and get the stars, you know,” she sighs. “So students are encouraged to be involved in so many different activities, when maybe the way they work best is to scale it back a little bit, spend more time focusing on what needs to happen, and then move forward from there. But we don’t set any limitations for ourselves, and we have to keep coping with that very fast, multitasking environment. And that’s not a healthy environment for the brain anyway.”

Yet it’s the one we live in, and reach for the moon we do. Given the expense—and for some, the challenge—of an elite education, it can seem hard to justify doing anything else. Chris Miner exemplifies this. Given the Wharton MBA program’s policy of grade non-disclosure, he has little to gain from besting his classmates. But that’s not the point. “I think what sets me apart from my peer group is that I find this school very difficult. First of all, because I don’t have much business background, unlike most people here. And second, because I actually take it really seriously, and a lot of business-school students don’t, at all. I really care about academics, and I want to master subjects, as opposed to just get a B,” he explains. “It’s not so I can go from a 3.7 to a 3.8. That’s immaterial. It’s more a strong belief that I’m paying a lot of money to be here, and to develop some useful skills.

“I fully understand that on balance, one is better off not doing it,” Miner concedes. “It’s just a necessary evil. And I’ve rationalized it for myself.”

Whatever the merits of that argument, it is probably the most common justification among users of cognitive-enhancing drugs. Modafinil and other pills basically enable people to meet expectations that otherwise seem impossible—whether it’s a professor staying tuned into an academic meeting after a long-haul plane trip, or a student who doesn’t want to choose between fulfilling course requirements and extracurricular ones. That this in turn reinforces those same expectations is a perverse result, but perhaps an inevitable one in a society that esteems achievement above all else.
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