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Of baseball and a cognitively-enhanced editor
I'm not ashamed to say that in the last hour I pumped roughly 200 mg of my favorite drug into my body in an attempt to be ready, focused and able to produce an editorial that is, if not entertaining, at least cogent.
This drug blocks the binding of adenosine to receptors in my brain, preventing me from feeling drowsy and it has raised my levels of dopamine, which must be why I'm feeling so good. I've gotten so used to being able to jump-start my brain this way—to enhance my cognitive performance—that I do it every day.
By now you've probably figured out I'm talking about drinking two cups of coffee.
But think of the two different ways this information can be presented. Saying I'm a coffee drinker barely registers, whereas saying I take a cognitive-enhancing drug makes your ear perk up—pun entirely intended.
Some of this, undoubtedly, arises from the tankers of ink spilled over the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports. As a baseball fan, I understand this. After all, it is all too easy to look down my nose at a Barry Bonds home run, while rejoicing when David "Big Papi" Ortiz hits one of his trademark moon shots.
For better or worse (and setting aside the long-term health issues of taking steroids or HGH), those baseball players we have labeled "cheaters" were really trying to do one thing: be better at their jobs in an environment that covets performance.
This same desire, it seems, has also taken root in academia.
Spurred by the response to an article which asked readers if they would consider taking drugs to enhance focus and attention, Nature recently surveyed 1,400 people in 60 countries to determine the usage of three drugs currently in vogue for cognitive-enhancement: methylphenidate (Ritalin), modafinil (Provigil) and beta blockers.
Roughly one in five respondents reported non-medical use of drugs with the aim of aiding or enhancing cognition. The big surprise from the survey was that usage rates did not vary significantly across age groups. Are you shocked?
Well I was, but then realized it is all a matter of perception.
Wanting to do better at your job is considered good. Taking drugs (as opposed to medication), bad. Taking drugs in order to concentrate, stay alert and do a better job? Heck, that makes one sound like some avaricious, pill-popping addict.
It's an easy leap and one that is for all but the most wholesome among us, disingenuous. Take a look at what you put in your body over the course of a week or a month and I can almost guarantee there are some things that have purported beneficial affect on our mood, our happiness, our health—many of them on purpose.
So before you get all bent out of shape that there might be a growing problem of off-label use for these drugs among your colleagues, take a hard look at yourself before passing judgment.
Me? I think I'll have another cup of coffee.