The Cognitive Olympics
Last summer in Beijing, Olympians achieved new feats of strength, loose-limbed speed, and remarkable precision, and inevitable questions were asked about performances that seemed too good to be true. The passion with which many people react to the idea of a pharmaceutical helping hand betrays a deep commitment to the concept of the
‘natural’, the unadorned human pushing at the limits of the flesh. But in the classroom and lecture hall, students are increasingly turning to drugs to enhance their cognitive performance.
Methylphenidate, often known as Ritalin, is a stimulant commonly prescribed for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), whose descriptive moniker reflects a constellation of problems with attention, organisation and impulsiveness. In recent years, diagnosis of ADHD has increased dramatically, with 3% of children and adolescents in the UK now thought to be affected. This has prompted familiar discussions about how and when to diagnose childhood disorders, and also raises fundamental questions about the boundary between disorder and diversity. For children with ADHD, drugs can be life-enhancing, but there are concerns that their increasing popularity reflects in part a rigid educational system overly focused on formal testing.
These worries come into focus with the prospect of widespread use by healthy students to boost exam success. In a recent American study, 8% of undergraduates reported taking methylphenidate; the most common reasons included a desire to improve concentration and alertness. The US National Institute on Drug Abuse reported illicit use amongst children as young as 13, and if this trend continues, the pull of a level-playing field may be hard to resist.