July 13th, 2009

Addled at every age

adhdIn April, Margaret Talbot published a piece in The New Yorker called “Brain Gain,” about “neuro-enhancing” drugs and the somewhat comfortable place they seem to be taking up in the lives of modern students and workers.  Talbot’s primary concern is the “easy out” drugs like Adderall provide students and adults:  instead of increasing cognitive function by doing crossword puzzles or acing tests after weeks of studying with flash cards, they can (and do, with increasing nonchalance) just pop a pill.

Talbot focuses a lot of attention on the proliferation of drugs like Adderall and Ritalin on college campuses, where the ability to stay awake and focus for extended periods of time allows students to lead fulfilling social and academic lives.  She writes:

…college students tend to consider Adderall and Ritalin benign, in part because they are likely to know peers who have taken the drugs since childhood for A.D.H.D. Indeed, McCabe reports, most students who use stimulants for cognitive enhancement obtain them from an acquaintance with a prescription.

Herein lies the intriguing part of all this speculation about the use of neuro-enhancers by adults:  they were first used by children with A.D.H.D., whose erratic behavior in school and inability to focus seemed to merit drug prescriptions.  Talbot suggests that in the near future parents will be eager for their children to take drugs like Adderall, whether they’re diagnosed with a disorder or not:

Though a majority [of parents surveyed] said that such drugs should not be made available to children who had no diagnosed medical condition, a third admitted that they would feel pressure to give “smart drugs” to their kids if they learned that other parents were doing so.

The line between medicinal or therapeutic use of these drugs and their use “for competitive advantage” seems tenuous.  Our increasing use, as a society, of drugs that enhance our “performance” in all areas of our lives, speaks to our competitiveness and also, potentially, to our laziness.

A Reporter at Large:  Brain Gain [The New Yorker]

Related Program: ADD: A Dubious Diagnosis?

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