The dangers of smart drugs

1_8mMH4FLDgUAwrZFNFcGNuwPhoto by Sara Bakhshi on Unsplash

If you’re an athlete with a performance-enhancing chemical coursing through your veins, you’re considered a cheat. The entire country of Russia was banned from the Olympics back in 2015 for repeated doping scandals, and have only recently been allowed to re-enter under strict conditions. It simply isn’t deemed fair for athletes to infuse themselves with ability-boosting chemicals – what would be the point of having a competition in the first place? Unless there’s a baseline – in this case the undisturbed human body – a tournament cannot be fair from the outset.

Widen the scope from a sports competition, to the competition between humans as a whole. Our species is hierarchical in nature, there’s no doubt about that. Unfortunate circumstances and repeated awful decisions might position us at the lowest rungs of the hierarchy – drug-dependent, chaotically-minded, and living on the streets. Auspicious circumstances could place us at the other end of the scale, highly-successful with a fulfilling job and family life. If the bum discovers a fortuitous chemical that will improve his dire position, is that still considered cheating? Would doping our way to the summit of our economic hierarchy turn us into swindling tricksters, just like the Russian athletes?

“Smart” drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin, Modafinil, and many others are alleged to give you such an advantage. Droves of students are using them in order to excel in their studies, leaving their peers in the dust. How this affects the self-esteem of those left behind is difficult to measure, not to mention the pressure it puts on them to take the drugs themselves in order to keep up. Classical musicians, highly-respectable and almost regal in their image, are taking beta-blockers in an attempt to control their nerves, creating a dependence in the process. There’s clear similarities in the idea of instilling yourself with Dutch Courage by downing a pint of beer before a nerve-wracking event. The French Foreign Legion, the UK’s Ministry of Defence, and the Indian Air Force are all dabbling in the narcolepsy-treatment Modafinil in order to enhance their troops’ performance. The next world war might bear witness to soldiers popping a few smart pills before clambering over the top into no man’s land. In the prosperous Silicon Valley, tech employees are taking small amounts of psychedelics in order to enhance their creativity; everyone wants to be the next Steve Jobs. Idiotic parents are even hooking up their children to “brain stimulation kits” – literally electrocuting their offspring in an effort to improve them. The tyrannical Nurse Ratchett would be proud.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to be the best possible version of yourself, but are smart drugs really a safe way to do so? Though not physiologically addictive like alcohol or cocaine, there’s a clear risk of psychological dependence. When you’ve had a taste of higher-level functioning and reaped the rewards – a job promotion; a better grade on an exam – the incentive to return a lowly, loser-like baseline might be lacking. A bowl of clumpy gruel isn’t quite so appealing after eating Kobe beef. Through consistent use of smart drugs, we’re raising our expectation of what our baseline performance should be. It’s hazardous territory to navigate.

There’s also obvious health concerns to consider. While the traditional smart drugs are FDA-approved, there’s a plethora of other chemicals being sold online which aren’t. Who knows how the impressionable and ambitious souls who take these substances are polluting their bodies? Even the drugs that are approved by the FDA have unclear consequences of long-term use – they simply haven’t been around long enough to know. Are you willing to risk your own health on these chemicals in order to run the rat race a little bit faster? Whatever happened to slowing down and savouring each moment? Life isn’t just about getting ahead of the competition.

It’s easy for drug companies to determine the medical side effects of a product without giving a single thought to the social implications. One only has to look at the opioid epidemic in America as an example, a chemical-compound so effective at numbing pain that it’s become a medical disaster. Could smart drugs be on the same path? Nietzsche’s Will To Power – the idea that the main driving force in humans is to reach the highest possible position in life – supports the idea. Our innate desire to climb the economic hierarchy might be made easier through the use of smart drugs, but at a health cost that nobody really understands. Until we do, it might be wise to continue living your life down in the ditches, unenhanced, as nature intended.

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