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Finding Normal: Cognitive Enhancers and Hyper-Productivity

In the last two decades, the use of prescription stimulant drugs (such as methylphenidate, modafinil, amphetamine salts, among others) as cognitive enhancers to improve studying and/or working performance has raised significant interest around the globe. Researchers have largely focused on trying to establish the prevalence of such practices and debating their ethical implications. This is a tricky and nuanced challenge.

Although experts and the media have propagated the notion of brain doping as a widespread phenomenon, there is no conclusive evidence to support this claim. In 111 individual studies reviewed in 2020, estimates of the prevalence of nonmedical use of prescription stimulants ranged between 2.1% and 58.7%, due to methodological and conceptual differences between individual studies.

In turn, ethicists have raised questions such as: in which occasions do benefits outweigh risks? If these drugs really work with minimal risks, shouldn’t we enable access to whoever wants to use them? What if people are coerced into taking these substances in order to keep up with the competition? Such questions are relevant for individual and collective decision-making and have an enormous potential impact depending on the answers we come up with in the coming years.

Nevertheless, the picture remains incomplete if we do not discuss why these drugs have become an appealing option in the first place. Cognitive enhancers embody the expectations, frustrations, demands, and dreams of their consumers, which adds an irrational component to the decision to consume them. If we fail to acknowledge this aspect, not only will we not tackle problematic use, but we may also contribute to keeping it misunderstood. Therefore, delving into the work/study dynamics currently in place may help shed some light on the context of cognitive enhancement.


Romanticising long hours

From 2019 to 2021, I interviewed 15 people in Uruguay who had used stimulant prescription drugs as cognitive enhancers about their experiences, motivations, and opinions. My research suggested that the use of cognitive enhancers is invariably linked to a quest for productivity.

For some people, it may be about needing extra gas to stay awake the night before an important exam to study – indicating that sleep, a basic need, may sometimes be an obstacle to academic achievement. As posed by one interviewee:

“In my mind, studying came before everything. (…) I didn’t know what was going to happen to me, but if [modafinil] was going to keep me awake to pass the exam, fine. It was what I needed.”

For others, it is about keeping up with a demanding professional environment. In this sense, a medical student recalled that in his area “there’s a romanticisation of ‘well, I have one Sunday off in the month’ which ends up leading, as it does in the rest of the population, to substance abuse.”

Where does the need to work long hours stem from? The interviewees suggested that the classic pushy boss is no longer required. Instead, acknowledging a “romanticisation” of productivity, they indicate that long hours are being self-imposed in a subtle way, dressed in a neoliberal “personal choice” clothing that makes it look like it stems from “within.” As noted by Deleuze, disciplinary techniques have lost space to marketing and motivation. “Find a job you love, and you will never have to work a day,” as lifestyle gurus sum it up. It’s up to us to discover what we are being made to serve.


What it means to be human

The use of cognitive enhancers also brings up considerations about what it means to be human nowadays, and what drives up to surpass our natural limitations. What can be reasonably expected from oneself, and where do demands for superpowers begin? I believe this question can be further broken down into two.

First: where do demands for superpowers come from? I think the military is one reasonable place to look at. Not only did propaganda from the World Wars depict soldiers as superheroes, but soldiers (then and today) also widely use stimulants to enhance their capabilities. Our obsession with superheroes and surpassing human limitations is firmly entrenched worldwide – the global blockbuster success of Marvel films is testament to that.

The superhero imaginary survived well beyond the end of the war, while much of its jargon has “invaded” our lives; the movie Limitless presents a heroic epic using cognitive enhancers to “fight” the “battle” of our ordinary existences at work.

Second: is there such a thing as a “human essence”? Posthumanists have addressed “the human” as an open frame, acknowledging it as a cultural and historical notion constantly redefined by science and technology. In this sense, the use of cognitive enhancers as a way of coping with cultural demands may be reshaping our understanding of human capacities, transforming notions about what a “normal human” is. For example, an interviewee in my fieldwork claimed that the stimulant enabled him to work 12 hours, study and be able to go out with friends afterwards. Being able to do all this made him feel normal, he said.

Considering the human as an open frame moves us away from asking whether or not we should enhance. In fact, trying to enhance ourselves might be what we have all been doing all along. However, what this may inadvertently be doing is normalising unrealistic states of hyper-productivity, where using cognitive enhancers and other stimulants enables this reality. Is this a sustainable road that we are on? If it is not, are the drugs only to blame?


Re-finding normal

Assuming that not everyone would need to handle such a demanding workload in order to feel normal, then how does one come to feel normal? And how does the body become an instrument for that? I am reminded of the explorations of subjectivity by Biehl, Goodman and Kleinman, who argue that the body is always more and less than what it seems it should be. We can continually learn and relearn to live with, and as much as through, our body, in its various states of health and illness, youth and old age, boredom and trauma, routine and instability. Relearning how to live with our bodies in different states and capacities will help better understand our limits, when they need to be pushed, and how this is in a constant flux throughout time.

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