Pills to Make You Smarter

“Modafinil is a mood-brightening and memory-enhancing psychostimulant which enhances wakefulness and vigilance.” This comes from the modafinil.com website, which doesn’t appear to be connected in any way to Cephalon, its manufacturer. The description is appropriate to many of the “off prescription” uses of the drug. Modafinil (Provigil, Alertec, Modavigil, Modiodal) is a drug designed to help people with severe sleep disorders like narcolepsy. It has been used in the military to help soldiers stay alert for extended periods without sleep. It is becoming increasingly popular among students, business owners, and academics as a “smart pill.” Modafinil helps your brain work better: increased attention and memory. So far, it has no documented long term side effects. Imagine being able to stay awake for two or three days with no adverse side effects? No sleep deprivation. No slap-happiness. Just clear, sharp focus on the task at hand. In the end, a regular night’s sleep and all is as it was. I’m ready to try it out!

That’s the problem. This is the brain equivalent of steroids. Should using a drug like this be illegal? Unethical? Or is it no worse than the guys who choose to pound coffee all day. Caffeine has many of the same effects, after all. Most of the time when technology bumps into ethics and morals it’s easy for me to take a side. This one is tough for me. I see huge benefits of a drug like this, but I worry that if one of us starts to use it to gain an advantage, we’ll all be forced to do the same. I know, that sounds like the excuse we hear from the many professional athletes who have been busted for doping. I guess the difference is that I didn’t really care so much about athletic doping because it doesn’t really apply to anything in my life. I enjoy sporting events at all levels of skill. As long as the two sides are fairly well matched, I get good entertainment. My solution to athletic doping is to create a drug enhanced league separate from the drug free one. Keep separate records and everything. Then each athlete can decide which way he wants to go.

A smart pill seems so different. Perhaps it isn’t. After all, keeping an idiot sharp won’t move you toward a Nobel Prize. If some drug enhanced businessman creates a new or better way to do something, it won’t take long for the rest of us to wake up and improve on that. We won’t need separate leagues because the best minds will continue to be the best minds, drug enhanced or not.


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