Students used to take drugs to get high. Now they take them to get higher grades
"The use of so-called ‘smart drugs’, bought on the internet, to boost mental performance is rife in British universities. So can we all benefit from ‘having an edge’, or is it just a form of cheating that should be banned?"
"Modafinil: a prescription-only medication for narcolepsy that the NHS’s website describes as “a central nervous system stimulant” that prevents “excessive sleepiness during daytime hours”. Or, used off-label, bought via some off-shore pharmaceutical retailer, it’s what’s known as a “smart drug”. I hadn’t even heard of it a week ago, but it turns out they’re all on it, the students. They’ve all taken it on at least a couple of occasions, all five of the female final-year students who live in this particular flat, and all five of the male final-year students they’ve invited over to dinner.
“It’s not that it makes you more intelligent,” says Phoebe, a history student. “It’s just that it helps you work. You can study for longer. You don’t get distracted. You’re actually happy to go to the library and you don’t even want to stop for lunch. And then it’s like 7pm, and you’re still, ‘Actually, you know what? I could do another hour.’”
"Anjan Chatterjee, a professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania, who has published several influential papers on the ethics of smart drugs, tells me that he sometimes makes jokes about it. “When I was young, students would use drugs to check out. Now they’re using them to check in.”
He’s witnessed the rise, in the last 10 years, of a generation of American students doping themselves up on various medications they believe will give them a competitive edge. “It’s even in high schools now, especially in the more affluent suburbs. Students call them ‘study aids’; they don’t even think of them as drugs. There’s an entire grey market on campuses. But then, the current estimate is that a third of all students have a prescription for some sort of psychoactive medication anyway: antidepressants, or medication for ADHD, or for anxiety, so the availability is quite high. Often, they’ll just sell on the medication in the library.”
He believes that cognitive enhancement – or cosmetic neurology, as he calls it – is likely to become viewed as normal over time, in much the same way as cosmetic surgery has been."