Winter is coming. Deadlines are mounting. Dissertations are due, and exams are just around the corner. Let’s not pretend – the next few weeks are going to be tough. For some, when the work piles up and procrastination hits, the idea of taking a pill to get down to it is very alluring. Cue: study drugs.
Although the rates of use in UK universities are hard to pin down, it’s fair to assume that, with the large number of students coming from countries known to over-prescribe, it would be reasonable to say that their use here could be comparatively high. But is it cheating to use them?
There are many arguments one could make against the case, but I’m here to say the picture isn’t so simple.
First, from personal observation, it would seem that these drugs aren’t used as a performance enhancer in the way that people might expect i.e. it’s not usually the top students who are taking them to gain a further edge. More likely, it’s someone who has left everything to the last minute and is panicking. These are people who will not study for most of the semester and then every so often throws themselves into an unhealthy forty-eight-hours-awake-work-fest. They’re not necessarily enhancing their performance from a standard baseline that they would have achieved if they did as they should. Instead, they’re scraping the barrel, pulling at everything to get that seven.
But aside from them, let’s say you’re doing just fine, and you want to increase your performance. You get your hands on a couple of pills and you think you’re ready to go. But the first issue (as with any illicit drug) is this: how do you know what you’re taking is what you asked for? Did you buy it online? Well, there’s a chance you paid a slice of cash for a sugar pill. Or worse, for a different, unknown drug.
You, however, won the pill lottery (or you got it from a friend of a friend who you think has a legitimate prescription). What happens when you take it?
Although there are a fairly wide range of study drugs available, some of the more common ones include Ritalin and Modafinil. Ritalin (generic name methylphenidate) is a stimulant of the central nervous system and is usually a first-line drug in the treatment of ADHD. Modafinil, used to promote wakefulness, is often prescribed to people with narcolepsy. Although these effects sound pretty useful when you’re down in a slump, when used off-label, it can be difficult to predict both response and side effects. These problems are amplified when you’re already taking medication, and unfortunately a lot of drug interactions are still poorly understood.
But could they alter your intrinsic intelligence? Although there are many issues with the glorification of IQ, some studies do pop up. For instance, one found a small but unexciting gain in IQ after taking Ritalin in children. And Modafinil? Well, relatively large gains were found for different cognitive tasks – but only if your IQ was in the lower end of the range of people being studied to begin with.
So what are the drawbacks? Reactions are my first thought. Although rare, these can be life-threatening, and should always be considered. Addiction is a second clear issue. For the relatively small gain these drugs give, the risk of dependency doesn’t seem worth it.
Our brains are still developing (shocking, I know), and playing with pills may have – even at this late stage – untold consequences. This is silly really, when a lot of other scientifically backed performance enhancers exist. These include getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating a good diet. Crazy, I know.
There are many ways we can have an advantage over somebody else. Whether that be monetary, a fast-thinking brain, or good habits, the playing field is non-existent, let alone even. And to me, study drugs appear to be just another artificial advantage (or disadvantage) thrown into the mix.
My opinion might be different if there were some magic super intelligence pill (which would be fascinating); but frankly right not it doesn’t exist. To me, using these drugs is nothing more than a poorly thought-out coping mechanism, usually at the expense of proper health.
Aside from cheating, a much better argument against these drugs is when you’re using them to cope with the work that you do. If you feel like you need a drug to complete it, then maybe the work you’re doing is not worth it. You don’t want to reach forty-five, only to realise you’ve spent the majority of that time doing something you fundamentally dislike, simply because a drug made you feel like you could. This is all just something to bear in mind the next time you reach for a pill.