A panel at Shambala – Smart drugs: friend or foe?

Friday saw me at Shambala Fest, part of a panel on the topic of ‘smart drugs‘ with Dr. Hannah Critchlow and John Mann from Manchester Metropolitan to discuss how they’re used, who they’re used by, whether they should be used and even where the question of legislation might come into play.

Much of my background on the topic comes more from a ‘sociology of tech’ perspective. I’ve always been interested in Transhumanism, more particularly with respect to engaging AfroFuturist conceptions of ‘technology’ as a means of providing a more critical and intersectional take on topics such as human ‘enhancement’, as much in who is taking part in the movement, who are the leaders as what are the metaphysical assumptions that drive people’s engagement in it.

Regarding smart drugs, it’s fairly well known, to the point of almost being a stereotype, that some people ‘in tech’ (Silicon Valley gets flung out a lot but I’m sure it equally applies to the ‘Silicon Canal’ here in the UK) advocate microdosing as a method to improve productivity but in my research prior to the panel I was equally interested in who else uses ‘smart drugs’ and why.

This was something that came up in the panel in the first round of the discussion. There definitely is something to the idea that the use of smart drugs is on the rise, although in terms of literature from the UK, students came up far more than tech execs. It’s almost a point of concern – Hannah mentioned 1 in 5 students at Cambridge University admit to using smart drugs – that students are using smart drugs to improve their performance, mostly it seems to do better at exams, but occasionally I found mention of folks using smart drugs to help enhance their thinking processes for longer scale research projects. It was also pretty fascinating to read this article about mums talking about their microdosing, as much to manage their responsibilities as parents as to improve their interactions with their kids.

I think the great thing about the panel was that we did manage to go beyond just giving our opinions. Hannah gave a fantastic micro-lecture on the changes that are happening in the adolescent brain and how that feeds into concerns about the impact of taking drugs meant for dementia or ADHD, on developing brains that don’t have those particular conditions. That led to a discussion on the inadequacy of our national education system, and then how scientists are working with policy makers to make the schools work better for the developing brain. Even mentioning alternatives to smart drugs which are interestingly more long term approaches – exercise, hobbies, diet – brought up questions around regional disparities in educational resources to make these a part of people’s everyday life so they won’t have to get to the point of taking smart drugs at Uni, for example.

Personally, beyond the neurological aspect which is quite concerning, I am not too bothered by the question of ‘cheating’ (or indeed the use of smart drugs at all). In fairness, we don’t have all the data about the efficacy of various smart drugs and their objective impact (how much of it is a placebo effect at work?), but thus far it seems the effectiveness is not in turning a ‘B’ student into an ‘A’ student, but a B+/A- student into an ‘A’. It’s not going to get someone from a low 2:1 to a high 1:1 in a single exam, but rather to a mid or maybe even a high 2:1 if that was already in their potential. Much like in sport, no matter what drugs I take, I’m not going to beat Caster Semenya, but I am going to be more likely to be at my very best, maybe go a little beyond it.

As was raised on the panel, there is a concern about people permanently using smart drugs to enhance their productivity outside of academic competition, but that’s where we already are by all appearances and with ever increasing automation that is optimised for an ‘AI+Human’ paradigm as espoused by the likes of SAP, that’s an inevitability. How many of us already take large doses of caffeine to get through a day? John went into a lot of detail about how living in a neo-liberal society pushes us to see ourselves as products to be upgraded in order to ‘maximise’ our ‘productivity’. This very mode of existence could be seen as a tacit approval of the use of smart drugs which in many ways are just a step up on the things we consume on a daily basis. In questioning the use of smart drugs, are we just being incredibly hypocritical 21st century equivalent of snooty Venetians uncomfortable with new fangled concoctions from the ‘East’?

So that was the panel. It was a great and fun discussion, both in the warm up and during. Afterwards got to chat with some folks working in public health who also have similar concerns about impact of privatisation and unequal funding for public health education, and others who had some good thoughts on why we’re making the fuss about certain types of smart drugs – many of us who are either from or have parents from other countries all know the ‘smart drugs’ taken for e.g. WAYEK exams but the framing is interestingly somehow different.

A sign at the exit of the festival that says "'Never forget that a small group of people can change the world' - whatever inspired you, take it it home, make change, create the future"

I also got to experience Shambalafest for the first time which was definitely interesting. Plenty to observe and learn about (I’d stopped by the previous Space Yoga session at the Guerilla Science tent) for sure!



Productivity and the Crisis of Fordism – Oh boy I was going to go in on this angle but ultimately didn’t have to. Still, worth raising that the context in which people take ‘smart drugs’ needs to be appreciated lest we get into victim blaming or pseudo-scandalised posturing.

Perfectionism and attitudes toward cognitive enhancers – This was a particularly interesting article which made me question the framing of concerns about smart drugs amongst students. The first implication of this paper is that there are multiple ‘personas’ of students who might take smart drugs to enhance their performance in exams. One type of perfectionist is less likely to keep taking the drugs after those times of extreme competition because ‘real life’ (jobs, long term projects etc.) provides other means of demonstrating their skills and thus higher probability of being rewarded for their achievements. Exams are a one-shot thing, so it makes sense to take drugs to optimise your already pretty good self so you don’t mess it up.

Similarly, the other type of perfectionist isn’t going to continue ‘keeping up appearances’ – e.g. they do well in their degree thanks to smart drugs and carry on working in a field they don’t really have an aptitude for – again because they’re interested in living up to public expectations, not to improve themselves.

Personally, I’d add that the reality of work these days is you’re already not likely to get a job in something you did a degree in and plenty of people with aptitude find academia hard enough often due to institutionalised discrimination. What’s important these days is getting good grades and scores where it counts to make you stand out from the thousands of other applicants to, say, jobs or graduate training schemes.

Of course, as the author himself says, more research needs to be done to directly correlate perfectionism with use of smart drugs as opposed to their attitudes towards them so 🤷🏾‍♀️

Put down the smart drugs – cognitive enhancement is ethically risky business –  OK so this was a light but very helpful read in providing context of other areas where ‘smart drugs’ have become more normalised, in contrast to sports where the equivalent are banned. I wouldn’t be surprised if academia went the way of music and performance. Once you start legislating beyond better health warnings or forbidding pharmacists to sell without absolute proof of a condition (whatever that would be) the question of what counts as a smart drugs becomes more pertinent, a point raised by John. If coffee, or Pro plus can impact one brain and give it an edge the same way as nicotine or Ritalin, do we also have to test students for that too?

Smart Drugs?” – Found this paper good for context. It’s from 1996 so at least shows this is not a new fangled topic.



Image credit: Shamala Festival website, Guerilla science

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