Exercise is also important, says Lebowitz. Studies have shown it sharpens focus, elevates your mood and improves concentration. Likewise, maintaining a healthy social life and getting enough sleep are vital, too. Studies have consistently shown that regularly skipping out on the recommended eight hours can drastically impair critical thinking skills and attention.
Farah questions the idea that neuroenhancers will expand inequality. Citing the "pretty clear trend across the studies that say neuroenhancers will be less helpful for people who score above average", she said that cognitive-enhancing pills could actually become levellers if they are dispensed cheaply. A 2007 discussion paper published by the British Medical Association (BMA) also makes this point: "Selective use of neuroenhancers among those with lower intellectual capacity, or those from deprived backgrounds who do not have the benefit of additional tuition, could enhance the educational opportunities for those groups." If the idea of giving a pill as a substitute for better teaching seems repellent - like substituting an IV drip of synthetic nutrition for actual food - it may be preferable to a scenario in which only wealthy kids receive a frequent mental boost.
According to Dr. Cohen, there’s no incentive for these companies to conduct trials to determine if their products actually do anything, so few of them do. In fact, he says he isn’t aware of any studies on nootropics that meet the research gold standard: double-blind, placebo-controlled, comparing meaningful numbers of healthy adults (not laboratory mice or rats) in terms of relevant measures of cognitive enhancement.
One thing to notice is that the default case matters a lot. This asymmetry is because you switch decisions in different possible worlds - when you would take Adderall but stop you’re in the world where Adderall doesn’t work, and when you wouldn’t take Adderall but do you’re in the world where Adderall does work (in the perfect information case, at least). One of the ways you can visualize this is that you don’t penalize tests for giving you true negative information, and you reward them for giving you true positive information. (This might be worth a post by itself, and is very Litany of Gendlin.)
Not long ago I met Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania, in his office at the labyrinthine Penn hospital complex. Chatterjee's main research interests are in subjects like the neurological basis of spatial understanding, but in the past few years, as he has heard more about students taking cognitive enhancers, he has begun writing about the ethical implications of such behaviour. In 2004 he coined the term "cosmetic neurology" to describe the practice of using drugs developed for recognised medical conditions to strengthen ordinary cognition. Chatterjee worries about cosmetic neurology, but he thinks that it will eventually become as acceptable as cosmetic surgery; in fact with neuroenhancement it's harder to argue that it's frivolous. As he notes in a 2007 paper: "Many sectors of society have winner-take-all conditions in which small advantages produce disproportionate rewards." At school and at work, the usefulness of being "smarter", needing less sleep and learning more quickly is "abundantly clear". In the near future, he predicts, some neurologists will refashion themselves as "quality-of-life consultants" whose role will be "to provide information while abrogating final responsibility for these decisions to patients". The demand is certainly there: from an ageing population that won't put up with memory loss; from overwrought parents bent on giving their children every possible edge; from anxious employees in an efficiency-obsessed, BlackBerry-equipped office culture where work never really ends.
Forums including reddit.com/r/Nootropics/ have more than 140,000 subscribers discussing products with names like Orange Brainwash and GodMode. Nootropics are blends of ingredients touted as a low-risk way to enhance learning, memory, motivation, and even serenity. These ingredients range from herbs such as water hyssop (Bacopa monnieri) and arctic root to chemicals such as vinpocetine.
A young man I'll call Alex recently graduated from Harvard. As a history major, Alex wrote about a dozen papers a term. He also ran a student organisation, for which he often worked more than 40 hours a week; when he wasn't working, he had classes. Weeknights were devoted to all the schoolwork he couldn't finish during the day, and weekend nights were spent drinking with friends and going to parties. "Trite as it sounds," he told me, it seemed important to "maybe appreciate my own youth". Since, in essence, this life was impossible, Alex began taking Adderall to make it possible.
The use of prescription stimulants is especially prevalent among students. Surveys suggest that 0.7–4.5% of German students have used cognitive enhancers in their lifetime. Stimulants such as dimethylamylamine and methylphenidate are used on college campuses and by younger groups. Based upon studies of self-reported illicit stimulant use, 5–35% of college students use diverted ADHD stimulants, which are primarily intended for performance enhancement rather than as recreational drugs. Several factors positively and negatively influence an individual's willingness to use a drug for the purpose of enhancing cognitive performance. Among them are personal characteristics, drug characteristics, and characteristics of the social context.