I’ve just been listening to a programme on BBC Radio 4 (and that doesn’t happen very often) about the future use of mind-enhancing drugs, sparked by the recent decision by the Department of Health to ask the Academy of Medical Sciences to assess the impact and effects of these drugs, apparently already in widespread use in the US. If you wish to listen to the programme yourself, you can check it out online for the next 7 days on the Radio 4 website (it’s called The Defeat of Sleep).
Anyway, an interesting thought. The main thrust seemed to be, if these drugs really do work (and there is good evidence they do) then should people a) be allowed to use them and b) what are the legal and moral implications. There is also the issue of fairness. Just because these drugs are available, which may make us ‘smarter’ (actually they seem to help concentration and combat the effects of sleep deprivation rather than anything else, although they also claim that they help the brain knit together in different ways and so make you think differently), doesn’t mean we should all start using them. No one knows what the long term effects are, plus, we could end up in some sort of mental arms race, with everyone taking more and more and eventually going nuts, or worse, homicidal (cue the Hollywood blockbuster). Messing with your brain is not something you do lightly. As someone in the piece asks, will it mean the government itself puts more pressure on us to take them, to work longer, get smarter, will they force us to take them, maybe they’ll add it to the water supply.
I remember hearing about drugs that allowed you to operate for several days without sleep a while ago. I think they were being tested by the US military, and you could then have a normal night’s sleep and wake up fresh as a daisy, with no ill effects. It seems that we’re now looking to augment one of the few parts of the body we haven’t really dared mess with so far.
Regarding fairness, there’s the issue of price, will only rich people be able to afford them (or at least affluent people), if so, will it introduce a new social divide? Will kids for underprivileged backgrounds lose even more ground at school? If the drugs do work, and the government decides that using them in exams, giving them to kids, etc, is to be illegal, then will we start seeing drugs tests in schools around exam time? If everyone’s taking them will you suffer if you don’t take them, will society look down on you?
So, would I take mind-enhancing and sleep limiting drugs? You betcha. I like to think my mind is no slouch, although as I meet more people I am beginning to realise I’m actually not that smart, more average, either that or I happen to be surrounded by a lot of smart people at work and play. The mind-enhancing drugs appeal to me less, to be honest, but imagine how much more you could get done if you could get away with no sleep for two days, then have a normal night’s sleep, then two days without sleep again, all without going insane, certainly sounds good to me.