A Society on Smart Drugs?

We discuss the ethical and social implications of 'Smart Drugs'
23 January 2013

Interview with 

Dr Iain Brassington, Manchester University


I asked somebody who studies medical ethics for his thoughts on Smart Drugs.

Iain -   I'm Dr. Iain Brassington and I'm a Biophysicist based in the School of Law at the University of Manchester.

One of the things that seem to concern them most (Nene Park Academy Students, previous interview), and given that they are GCSE and A' Level students is not entirely surprising, it is a question of whether they're useful for the sake of academic achievement and whether they undermine academic achievement. 

And that's the kind of debate that you get, not just in relation to cognitive enhancers, but you also get this in Athletes turning the first bend of the 200 mrelation to the use of enhancers in sporting performance. 

Using the athletics analogy for a moment - if I were to take all the performance enhancing drugs in the world, that still would not make me champion sprinter if I never got off the sofa, and the same kind of thing could be said in respect of cognitive enhancers.  If I take all the cognitive enhancing drugs in the world then that will make the blind bit of difference unless I spent some time sitting in front of a book.  All an enhancer will do is sharpen your performance.

Hannah -   I mean, it's a really important point to note, so these cognitive enhancers, these smarter drugs, it's not the case that you take them and they suddenly just make you smart.  They don't just download information into your brain like a memory stick. You still have to put the effort in, you still have to do the work. They just make that work, possibly at that learning phase, more efficient, and also help you to pay attention so that you can absorb information as you're learning.

BooksIain - Yes, there are also concerns about whether cognitive enhancers are necessarily what we want.  So, if you're talking about specific tasks, learning a list of new vocabulary or even being a surgeon who wants to concentrate on the patient in front of him, is that kind of thing where we might want to say that a drug that can help us concentrate and really focus down and not get distracted by shiny things is exactly what we want. 

But there are other times where that might be a very, very bad idea.  Suppose as a scientist you are not just going through the kind of everyday lab work, but you're trying to come up with a new solution to a particular problem where you'd like to find a new way to attack a particular form of cancer or something.  And it's a tricky problem and people have been working on this for years and they have not quite got it yet.  In that sort of situation, it's not always obvious that the drug to make you concentrate more is what you want. 

There is some evidence, there's a paper published in 2003, it suggested that there's a correlation between creativity and what we might loosely call 'ease of distraction.'  So the thought is here that the kind of person who doesn't filter out information but who doesn't concentrate on what is apparently the most salient thing, but whose mind occasionally wonders. 

That kind of person can be correlated to the kind of person who is creative and gets recognised for being creative, for example, publishing novels and that kind of stuff. 

Sometimes it's good that your mind be elsewhere.  There's another quick point that we could make.  It's obviously true that there are certain groups of the population that have problems with their memory and there's a very, very good reason to come up with drugs that would help them with if we're talking about the elderly people who might be isolated socially because their memory is failing. 

On the other hand, whether they're (the cognitive enhancers) particularly useful in a day to day level is again, not entirely obvious because what we're very, very good at already is outsourcing memory whether that be in terms of something as simple as keeping a pen and paper to hand on that electronic PDA.  So we could just look at those as cognitive enhancers in one sense.  In which case, do we need to worry about what's going on inside our head? Maybe what we need to say is, we need to make sure that people have access to libraries, to other people, to that kind of stuff so that they can engage in intellectual processes on a social level.  And then if that's true, we don't have to worry about manipulation or tweaking people's brains quite so much.

Hannah -   So, you're really saying that we could cognitively enhance people's brains by stimulating people, by masmart phoneking sure that they're surrounded by a rich environment so that they can learn new things and be stimulated all the time.

Iain -   Yes.  Why worry about people being able to memorise a list of mathematical formulae or how to perform particular mathematical functions or whatever when we could just give them an electronic calculator?  That just seems like a much more efficient way of going about things. 

The kind of pride, I guess, that people might have about being able to do all types of memories and regurgitations in their head, but there is a problem with that they are liable to make mistakes.

If you just concentrate on improving people's memory.  If the things that they've remembered in the first place is mistaken then you need some kind of external source to cohobate anyway because otherwise they just end up going on in circles.  And that being the case, why just don't put external stuff anyway?  Why worry about people's brains?

Hannah -   That was Dr. Iain Brassington, lecturer in Bioethics and Medical Law at Manchester University. 


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