This Is Your Brain On Drugs

As noted in gnxp, cognitive doping is not uncommon:

Poll results: look who’s doping : Nature News
One in five respondents said they had used drugs for non-medical reasons to stimulate their focus, concentration or memory. Use did not differ greatly across age-groups (see line graph, right), which will surprise some. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in Bethesda, Maryland, says that household surveys suggest that stimulant use is highest in people aged 18–25 years, and in students.

For those who choose to use, methylphenidate was the most popular: 62% of users reported taking it. 44% reported taking modafinil, and 15% said they had taken beta blockers such as propanolol, revealing an overlap between drugs. 80 respondents specified other drugs that they were taking. The most common of these was adderall, an amphetamine similar to methylphenidate. But there were also reports of centrophenoxine, piractem, dexedrine and various alternative medicines such as ginkgo and omega-3 fatty acids.

As a group, pharmaceuticals are the greatest invention of the 20th century. They join earlier blockbuster molecules in deeply affecting the human condition. From extending life, fighting allergies, deepening concentration, and heightening enjoyment, biologically-targeted chemicals are quite the trick.

Of course, some come with risks of dependence. These can range from the debilitating (methamphetimines), through the physically addicting (nicotine), to those that come with risk of lifestyle dependence (cannabis, ritalin). Just as skin tanners and whiteners help one overcome sub-optimal DNA from parents, compounds like nicotine can lower stress (which is biologically heritable), as ritalin can heighten concentration (ditto).

There’s a good argument to be made that the state has an interest in discouraging use of those drugs that drag down economic productivity. If someone is able to achieve the same sense of contentment consuming an economically small amount of marijuana, say, as in some other higher stress (but more financially renumerative) life, the size of the national economy may suffer. The solution, of course, is a consumption tax. This is true not only of drugs generously, but of all non-capital-improving economic activities (buying a television, going on a vacation, etc.).

The question then becomes what should government policy be to “cognitive doping.” Is cognitive doping a form of human capital improvement? Should it be taxed, let alone, or subsidized?

And what about the children?

8 thoughts on “This Is Your Brain On Drugs”

  1. Subsidized no, but taxed yes. Based on the productivity argument, one could also make the argument that there must be limits to what can be legalized and considered an acceptable form of cognitive doping. Marijuana can easily fit into this, but less so for pharmaceutical drugs. How do you know someone is only casually using a cognitive enhancer like adderol? How do you prevent the dependency you mentioned?

    As for the children, the law doesn’t stop them now, and it probably never will. Underage use of drugs is more cultural than legal/political. To some degree, it’s hard to find any congruency between youth/young adult drug culture and the law. They seem to me to be two completely disconnected phenomenon. Marijuana is illegal, but Snoop Dogg (and others) are famous precisely because they flaunt drug laws.

  2. First, I’m not at all concerned about the “alternative medicines,” since they’re essentially just vitamins and don’t really work. Second, government policies on drugs like nicotine and marijuana have more to do with who’s ‘paying the bills,’ so to speak: the nicotine companies simply have more money and more involvement in government, which is likely why marijuana’s illegal but nicotine isn’t. (That said, I don’t think nicotine should be made illegal; I am frustrated by the ethical contradictions of those who would argue for liberalism but vehemently call for a ban on cigarettes and severe restrictions on where they can be smoked.)

    Finally, the drugs you name about really aren’t there to “help one overcome sub-optimal DNA” (a concept, which, incidentally, is in my view a whitewash of economic and social factors that need to be examined further). These are amphetamines and beta blockers. The risks incurred by taking diet pills and heart-arrhythmia medication while not under a doctor’s supervision are not worth a few hours of improved concentration.

    I wonder how much of this has to do with the fact that kids in public schools are no longer taught to “sit still” (the ol’ “educational psychology says it’s wrong but it makes us feel warm and fuzzy” argument) and then diagnosed with ADD, a real condition that is unfortunately so overdiagnosed that children who actually have it may not be getting the attention they need. With legitimately prescribed ADD/ADHD pills everywhere, no wonder students are “cognitive doping” without concern for the strain they will put on their heart and lungs.

  3. Deichmans,

    We will all defend Caffeine. To the last drop!

    Stephen Pampinella,

    Under what circumstances is dependency a bad thing?

    Mostly greed with your second paragraph.

    fl,

    Agreed on your first paragraph.

    DNA’s not a whitewash of social factors, but merely a complement to them. Indeed, it’s clearly the outcome of social and environment factor, as something’s doing the selection we see all around us [1]!

    My take on ADD an ADHD is that those behaviors clearly exist, and have in part of biological basis. Whether we call it a disorder, being rowdy, or being adapted to a more enthusiastic form of education is a social and political call, not a medical one.

    [1] http://www.gnxp.com/blog/2008/04/snps-dont-lie.php

  4. Dan,

    Dependency is a bad thing when it becomes pathological, debilitating, and addictive. Albany happens to be something of a party school. Every so often I ask myself how many people would have graduated earlier (or at all) if they didn’t sit around getting high or playing beer pong. Again it’s a cultural thing. Maybe this culture of self-destruction through drugs (instead of casual enjoyment) would change if legalization occured, but I’m not sure.

  5. Stephen,

    Dependency is a bad thing when it becomes pathological, debilitating, and addictive.

    I like this.

    Albany happens to be something of a party school. Every so often I ask myself how many people would have graduated earlier (or at all) if they didn’t sit around getting high or playing beer pong. Again it’s a cultural thing. Maybe this culture of self-destruction through drugs (instead of casual enjoyment) would change if legalization occured, but I’m not sure.

    This is a very important point. One advantage of laws is that they protect stupid people from themselves, by making it harder for contract for goods and services that they would (foolishly) consume.

    Would multiple classes of citizenships be a good solution, at least as it goes for the ability to enter into these buyer/supplier relationships?

  6. Dan,

    It’s hard seeing how such a system would work. Would you base restrictions on age, or educational achievement? Wouldn’t this create a sort of underclass of people that are not trusted to give these substances a shot? This would seem to be to violate the core tenets of individualism and equality of opportunity.

  7. Referring only to limits on adults behavior, we presently have:

    * an age-based system with regards to alcohol
    * a skill-based system with regards to driving
    * a life-history based system with regards to guns and voting

    Equality under the laws refers to equal treatment for those in meaningfully similar situations. With respect to drugs, at least, many people are in very dissimilar situations.

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