Chemical mind hacking: legit, or corporate cheating?

There is an absolutely fantastic article by Margaret Talbot in this week's New Yorker about the use of "neuroenhancers" -- that is, neuroenhancing drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin and Provigil that are typically prescribed for ADHD and dementia -- to effectively "hack" the brain and coax more productivity from it.

There is an absolutely fantastic article by Margaret Talbot in this week's New Yorker about the use of "neuroenhancers" -- that is, neuroenhancing drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin and Provigil that are typically prescribed for ADHD and dementia -- to effectively "hack" the brain and coax more productivity from it.

The article begins with a vignette about this kind of brain dosing in universities in the Northeast, but eventually expands to include transatlantic executives and computer science geeks, to an aging population combating memory loss and overwrought parents intent on giving their children an edge, even to "anxious employees in an efficiency-obsessed, BlackBerry-equipped office culture, where work never really ends."

Not to mention the possibilities for executives with transatlantic and bi-coastal meetings.

Talbot writes of one scientist:

Sahakian...had just flown from England to Scottsdale, Arizona, to attend a conference, and she was tired ... "We may be healthy and high-functioning, and think of ourselves that way, but it’s very rare that we are actually functioning at our optimal level," Sahakian said. "Take me. I'm over here, and I've got jet lag and I've got to give a talk tonight and perform well, in what will be the middle of the night, U.K. time." She mentioned businessmen who have to fly back and forth across the Atlantic: "The difference between making a deal and not is huge and they sometimes only have one meeting to try and do it." She sympathized with them, but, she added, "we are a society that so wants a quick fix that many people are happy to take drugs."

Are "smart drugs" like this reasonable?

Here on The Toybox, we cover gadgets that are intended to make your life better: smartphones that allow you to check e-mail without dragging around the laptop; Bluetooth headsets that allow you to communicate hands-free; networking gear that allows you to have access to your files at all times.

But what of neuroenhancers? Are drugs such as these a legit tool to add to one's productivity arsenal?

One example in the article is a twentysomething tech guy who started off writing software, helped found an Internet portal called go2net, and cashed in at the right moment. Smart, typical Silicon Valley, right? The guy, named Paul Phillips and nicknamed "Dot Com," got into playing professional poker, started taking neuroenhancers, and won $1.6 million in six months.

"After a pill is consumed, tiny molecules are absorbed into the bloodstream, where they eventually cross the blood-brain barrier and influence the operation of the wetware up top."

With Provigil, he "could process all the information about what was going on at the table and do something about it."

The notable side-effect of all this productivity is an uptick in dopamine -- a similar kind of effect as heroin or smoking a cigarette.

University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martha Fahra notes in the piece that the productivity may come at the expense of creativity:

"More and more of our young people are using these drugs to help them work. They've got their laptop, their iPhone, and their Adderall. This rising generation of workers and leaders may have a subtly different style of thinking and working, because they're using these drugs or because they learned to work using these drugs, so that even if you take the drugs away they’ll still have a certain approach. I’m a little concerned that we could be raising a generation of very focussed accountants."

But the real problem is within the corporate world. Talbot quotes NeuroInsights' Zack Lynch on the business rationale for gaming your brain: outsourcing.

"If you're a fifty-five-year-old in Boston, you have to compete with a twenty-six-year-old from Mumbai now, and those kinds of pressures are only going to grow,” he began. Countries other than the U.S. might tend to be a little looser with their regulations, and offer approval of new cognitive enhancers first. “And if you’re a company that's got forty-seven offices worldwide, and all of a sudden your Singapore office is using cognitive enablers, and you're saying to Congress, 'I'm moving all my financial operations to Singapore and Taiwan, because it's legal to use those there,' you bet that Congress is going to say, 'Well, O.K.' It will be a moot question then. It would be like saying, 'No, you can't use a cell phone. It might increase productivity!' "

I insist that you read Talbot's entire article for the whole story, as it's quite captivating.

Still: is mind hacking legitimate, or cheating? Does it matter whether it's on company time? Take the poll below, and leave your thoughts in TalkBack.

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(Image: TeenMentalHealthBlog)