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 a taking a pill to get down and working 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 assume that their use could be comparatively high. But, is it cheating to use them illegally?
There are many arguments one could make against them, 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. But what if it’s someone who has left everything to the last minute and is panicking? These are people who will not work for the majority of the semester and then every so often throw 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 do 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 sort of 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.
But you 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. This problem is amplified when you’re already taking medication and unfortunately a lot of drug interactions are still poorly understood.
But what about your intrinsic intelligence? Although there are many issues with the glorification of IQ, some interesting 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.
So what are the drawbacks? Reactions are my first thought. Although rare, these can be life-threatening, and should always be taken into account. 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.
Consider getting enough sleep, exercising and eating a good diet. Crazy, I know.
Now, there are many different 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 there isn’t. To me, using these drugs illegally is nothing more than a poorly thought-out coping mechanism, usually at the expense of proper health.
Aside from cheating, the clearest argument against these drugs is when you use them to get through the work that you do. This is incredibly sad when you think about it. If you feel like you need a drug to be doing the work that you are, 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 pill made you feel like you could. Just something to bear in mind.
And, as ever, stay healthy, folks.