This is your brain on drugs: academic performance boosters

Image by Alex Dodd

I have a friend who recently got hired for a tenure-track position at a major American university, after two years of postdocs and sessional lecturing. This friend — who, like me, is under 30 — is an academic rock star: he has a long list of publications, manages to participate in 3-4 conferences a year, has won some of the most prestigious fellowships to be had, and now sits atop the pot of gold at the other end of the rainbow (i.e. a permanent, well-paid, prestigious job). Granted, he never had to work (even when he wasn’t riding out a fat fellowship) because he also had a very handy trust fund, he doesn’t have kids or anyone to look after but himself, and he is a master at the professional art of ass-kissing networking. The only reason he is my friend and not my mortal enemy is because he is always the first to admit that these lucky advantages were major players in helping him build his very successful academic career, with an endearing honesty that makes it very hard to hate him.

My friend also admitted to me the other day that throughout grad school and even today, he occasionally pops a neuroenhancing pill to help sharpen his mind if he’s feeling a bit tired or distracted and needs to push out an article or conference paper. In other words, he’ll readily take drugs like Ritalin or Adderall in order to give him an intellectual boost. A boost that might be considered by some as an unfair advantage akin to cheating.

Students who use stimulants as study aids are nothing new on campus, with the percentage of students who do so rising in correlation with the number of years of education. What this suggests is that we might more easily find “smart drugs” at Thomson House rather than in the Shatner building. We might want to ask, however: What eventually happens to these students who use neuro-enhancers to improve their academic performance? I always imagined they eventually went bonkers or burned themselves out, like that episode of Saved by the Bell when Jessie overdoses on caffeine pills.

If my very successful friend is any example, however, we know that this isn’t the case. In reality, many of these high performing students go on to become high performing academics at major research institutions. We also know that the pressure to perform doesn’t end once you have your degree in hand and that the first several years of tenure-track jobs can be some of the most stressful. We can only presume that such pills have now found their way into the Faculty Lounge, in the pockets of some of our generation’s brightest academics.

Personally, I’m less interested in the moral debate surrounding the use of neuroenhancers within the academic industry (if any readers are, then I suggest the often-cited Nature commentary published in 2008 by Greely et al., and the forum of debate that followed it) and more interested in the social pressures placed on young academics to perform at a pace and level that is unattainable without the occasional pharmaceutical assist. Because, if superhuman performers like my friend find themselves succumbing to these pressures, what hope is there for regular mortals like me?

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