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Culture of Productivity: Cognitive Enhancement

drichard's picture

The culture of academia is a demanding and often times unforgiving one. It reflects the general cultural fixation on productivity, efficiency, and competition. Members of academia, particularly students at top-level universities, feel immense pressure to keep on top of their studies. This proves to be no easy task when assignments pile up and time runs thin. As a solution, students are increasingly turning to "study drugs" like Adderall and Ritalin. These prescription pills were developed to counter the effects of ADHD, but are being used for cognitive enhancement among unaffected individuals. This has sparked nationwide debate. The following lines attempt to understand the medications and explore the ethical nature of cognitive enhancement.

In order to further discuss the matter, a working definition of "cognitive enhancement" should be established. Oxford professors Nick Bostrom and Anders Sandberg define it as "the amplification or extension of core capacities of the mind through improvement or augmentation of internal or external information processing systems" (1). This definition will suffice for the purpose of this paper. Let us now explore the exact methods by which Adderall and Ritalin focus the nervous system.

Adderall was developed in 1996 by Shire Pharmaceuticals for the purpose of alleviating the symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (which include general inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity (3)) (2). Adderall is a synthetic psychostimulant composed of four amphetamine salts (dextroamphetamine saccharate, dextroamphetamine sulfate, (racemic dextro/levo-amphetamine) aspartate monohydrate, and (racemic dextro/levo-amphetamine) sulfate) (2). These salts stimulate the nervous system in ways that allow the individual taking the drug to focus. Most basically, "amphetamines... increase the synaptic activity of the dopamine and norepinephrine neurotransmitter systems" (4) by inhibiting enzymes that break down these neurotransmitters (2). Amphetamines bind to the enzyme monoamine oxidase and prevent the re-uptake and storage of dopamine in neuronal vesicles (2). The drug also disallows for the re-uptake of the neurotransmitter serotonin, accounting for the euphoria many Adderall users describe (2).

The benefits of Adderall have been exhibited in both children and adults. Users are able to complete cognitive tasks efficiently whereas without the drug they may not be able to (5). As is the case with all prescription drugs, Adderall has the potential to induce dangerous side effects. These include "loss of appetite, weight loss, dry mouth, stomach upset/pain, nausea/vomiting, dizziness, headache, diarrhea, fever, nervousness, and trouble sleeping" (5). Serious cases include the death of 20 legal prescription holders and 12 strokes (6). As a result of these incidences Canadian officials removed the drug from the market on February 9, 2005 (6).

Another major cognitive-enhancing drug is Ritalin. First prescribed for ADHD in the 1960s, Ritalin is a methylphenidate that functions in the same way Adderall does (7). By increasing levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, it allows for the individual to focus on and complete a task efficiently (7). The benefits and side effects of Ritalin are nearly identical to those of Adderall, though the latter is generally considered more potent. For the purpose of this paper the fine differences between the drugs are unimportant.

Both Adderall and Ritalin have become hot commodities for university students looking for a way to boost their studying capacity. Reports from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University indicate that the number of university students who used the drugs without prescriptions increased 93% between 1993 and 2005 (8). This spike is both unprecedented and disconcerting. Why are students suddenly turning to drugs in order to complete their work? Why does cognitive enhancement seem like an attractive or necessary option? And is cognitive enhancement ethical?

Why are students risking their health for the sake of a grade? Is a 4.0 truly worth risking a heart attack? For the answer I believe we must turn to our culture. As a capitalist society interested in profit, undue emphasis is placed on productivity and competition. These general modes of thinking which define the corporate mindset trickle down to the culture of universities and colleges. I argue that the use of Adderall, Ritalin, and other study drugs is a function of a culture of productivity rather than a product of drug culture (as some may assert). Students feel a strong societal pressure to be academically competitive amongst their peers and thus turn to drugs as a means to get ahead.

The ethics of cognitive enhancement are much less clear. Those opposed to the use of study drugs certainly have many valid arguments. New York Times editorialist Benedict Carey notes that many compare Adderall and Ritalin in academia to steroids in the sports world in his article "Brain Enhancement is Wrong, Right?" (9), citing the use of study drugs as cheating mechanisms. Others worry about the philosophical implications of Adderall and Ritalin abuse. Francis Fukuyama (an American philosopher), for example, fears the erosion of "the relationship between struggle and the building of character" (9). Some people express concern over the idea of authenticity; is an idea conceived under the influence of drugs somehow less authentic and thus less favorable than one conceived while sober? Still others disagree with the use of study drugs on the basis that they are not natural (10).

There is, however, plenty of literature in support of the use of cognitive enhancers. A particularly important article in favor of the use of study drugs was recently published in the science journal Nature. The article was entitled "Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy." In it, Henry Greely and colleagues argue that a system should be developed through which healthy adults have access to cognitive enhancers. The scientists base their arguments on the basic principle that human innovation should be welcomed, not spurned because it is unnatural (10). Indeed, most of our world is unnatural as we have modified it to such a large degree. Greely essentially believes that cognitive enhancers are the natural progression from everyday enhancers (such as caffeine and the internet) and that society is presently (but not permanently) averse to study drugs because it is a vast departure from typical methods (i.e. not because the drugs are really bad) (10). In other words, as soon as society fully understands study drugs they will realize their use and incorporate them into everyday life (10).

On the whole, I generally align my views with the more progressive Henry Greely. I believe that study drugs focus and change the state of the mind rather than the mind itself. I believe this allows for an individual to realize his or her full potential, especially in academic settings. Though I am opposed to the idea that societal pressures coerce people to alter their brain chemistry, I think that study drugs are acceptable when discussed as an isolated concept. Certainly there is much more research to be conducted so as to ensure the safety of the drugs and much more debate to be heard in the months to come as we seek to "get it less wrong" with cognitive enhancers.

1. Bostrom, Nick, and Anders Sandberg. "Cognitive Enhancement: Methods, Ethics, Regulatory Challenges." Science and Engineering Ethics (2007): 1-33.

2. "Adderall." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 23 Feb. 2009. 23 Feb. 2009 <>.

3. "Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)." National Institute of Mental Health. 11 Feb. 2009. National Institute of Mental Health. 23 Feb. 2009 <>.

4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Adderall, Adderall DX." Massachusetts Institute of Technology. PowerPoint. <>

5. "Drugs and Medications: Adderall Oral." Web MD: Better information, better health. 2009. 23 Feb. 2009 <>.

6. "Adderall XR Linked to Sudden Death." Canada Regulators Order Top-Selling ADD Drug Withdrawn. 2006. 23 Feb. 2009 <>.

7. "Methylphenidate." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 23 Feb. 2009. 23 Feb. 2009 <>.

8. The Shield. 5 Dec. 2007. Adderall abuse on the rise. 23 Feb. 2009 <>.

9. Carey, Benedict. "Brain Enhancement is Wrong, Right?" The New York Times 9 Mar. 2008.

10. Greely, Henry. "Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy." Nature 456 (2008): 702+.


Paul Grobstein's picture

"cognitive enhancers" and culture

"the use of Adderall, Ritalin, and other study drugs is a function of a culture of productivity rather than a product of drug culture"

I suspect you're right, and right as well that there is relatively little difference between long accepted "cognitive enhancers" and new ones. I follow these though to a different conclusion than you do. Perhaps the strongest reason to avoid "cognitive enhancing" drugs is that using them contributes to a "culture of productivity." If one is concerned about "a capitalist society interested in profit, [where] undue emphasis is placed on productivity and competition," perhaps one should resist actions that further encourage/stabilize such a society?