Photo: Anders Sandberg
Photo: Anders Sandberg

By Alex Firth

Whether students should take ‘smart drugs’ or ‘cognitive enhancement’ drugs is a question of immense importance, not only to the educational institutions of today, but also of course to the thousands of people across the country who would be most affected: the students.

The debate held on the 9th January at The Watershed tackled this very issue. Headed by a panel of experts in a format resembling ‘Question Time’, the debate included Dr Chris Alford (Professor of Applied Psychology, UWE), Michael Hauskeller (Exeter University), Alex McKeown (Bioethics Graduate, UoB), Sylvie Allouche (Professor, UoB), Ruud ter Meulen (Professor of Ethics in Medicine, UoB) and Pete Moore (author and futurist).

One issue was that despite the clearly very competent minds present, the debate suffered from a distinct lack of current students, arguably the most prominent stake in the whole field. Beginning with a short introduction from Ben Johnson(Graphic Science Ltd.) who explained the basic outline of ‘smart drugs’ and what their potential was, there followed a quick poll amongst the audience of whether they personally would take ‘smart drugs’ if they were available right now.

Displaying mixed results, it was clear any potential shortcomings created by a non-diverse audience would fail to pose a serious issue, as a wide range of beliefs and viewpoints clearly existed amongst the audience, and of course the panel members too.

The debate featured three main arguments: the advocation of student use of smart drugs, the ideas against student use of smart drugs, and finally the argument that in their current state they fail to pose a real issue, meaning the argument is only hypothetical.

It was highlighted that a large ‘pro-enhancement’ community that supported the use of ‘smart drugs’ existed in the UK. With reference to Timothy Leary and his pioneering sale of ‘consciousness expansion’ in the 1960s, it was argued that the use of such drugs are viewed as part of evolution and the natural progression of humanity.

Audience members also raised ideas that if an anti-smart drug policy was fully enforced by the government in the UK, there would be a danger that in comparison to other countries advocating the use of them, our workforce and productivity would decline in the overall world standing.

This viewpoint of the argument ran throughout the debate but was, however, slightly overshadowed by a stronger case against the student use of ‘smart drugs’. The panel members against the idea sighted many studies in which they have proved to be harmful, notably the idea that they raise dopamine levels in the brain leading to serious addiction issues.

One particular study involving the increased friendly fire deaths amongst pilots in the army that took Modafinil and suffered severe cases of paranoia. This led on to a very interesting aspect of the debate, that it wasn’t smart drugs that should be tackled but our education system on the whole: the idea that a great shift was necessary from the essentially Victorian model of education Britain still exercises – a model which, in an increasingly distracting and information filled world, is becoming more and more obsolete.

Sylvie Allouche (Professor, UoB) made the very clever connection of questioning the link between smart drugs and smart phones, bringing to mindtheideathatasstudentsfindit increasingly harder to focus, anaesthetising them with ‘smart drugs’ just to make it through education is the wrong direction to be heading in.

Finally, it was decided that whatever the argument, the fact remains that UWE and UoB have been neglecting a clear policy regarding ‘smart drugs’ and their use, which needs to be rectified. Also despite the view held amongst some people present that ‘smart drugs’ don’t pose the same kind of threat as we imagine in their current state, it was agreed that even in a hypothetical sense the issue remained prominent.

It was also then decided that some form of government ban would simply be ineffective and instead, as the issue increases, the best form of prevention would be some form of political boycott backed by the students. It was then outlined that calling them ‘cognitive enhancement’ drugs is misleading, because far from enhancing your brain and making you smarter, you simply gain a higher capacity to focus. This means your imagination and creativity is often dulled, leaving you essentially as a simple task performer.

The debate ended with the argument thoroughly discussed, but of course not completely decided. The question still remains now whether ‘smart drugs’ for students are a good idea as part of the natural progression of humanity, or if they are leading to something potentially a little more sinister.

This sort of policy allowing the use of ‘smart drugs’ may only be advocating the notion of an anaesthetised population, one that would begin to almost rely on the drugs simply to be at the same cognitive level as everyone else in this brave new world we are entering.