Students in the West are using drugs, such as Ritalin and modafinil available over the internet, to increase the brain’s alertness during exams. A behavioural neuro-scientist warns universities that they must investigate measures, including random dope testing, to tackle the increasing use of cognitive enhancment drugs by students for exams. Local educator Mok Wen Kwang shares his opinion on the usage of “cosmetic neurology”.
When the editor told me to explore this, I was curious. I have never heard of this term before. It was an early Sunday morning, and I decided to read up on it while I chugged down on my coffee. You see, I'm a bit of a Garfield. I don't function well, mood-wise or cognitively, without my daily dose of coffee.
Cosmetic neurology, or the use of drugs to cause the brain or the body, to function better by altering mental, cognitive and affective systems, is quickly becoming the whipping boy for ethicists. Is there really a cause for concern? Have they never drunk coffee?
The use of medicine to treat diseases has been around since time immemorial. Medicine has always been used to alleviate or eliminate symptoms and diseases, thus improving the quality of life of the afflicted. If drugs are able to improve the quality of life of the sick, why shouldn't it also be used increase the quality of life of those of us who are healthy? In certain cases, a person who is ill may actually enjoy a higher quality of life than a healthy person that is not performing at a level that he knows he should be. Quality of life is thus subjective and medicine should be a vehicle to assist anyone who wants to attain a higher quality of life.
Ethicists are in a furore over British university students who are increasingly buying drugs which enhance cognitive powers and mental alertness. These students are said to be able to now possess an unfair edge over those who are “clean”. The ensuing debate on implementing urine tests before allowing them to sit for exams is truly bizarre.
I see a person taking drugs to improve alertness and cognition no more differently than someone who is better prepared because he is able to garner more resources than the average student, be it with the help of an experienced tutor, the use of a better computer or simply being better nourished. There is an advantage, but it is nearly negligible. There is at the moment no drug that would drastically improve one's intelligence; therefore there is no leverage that is yet so substantial that it is unfair. The only issue here is who gets these benefits? It is the same in every other competition in the university or in the school of hard knocks: if you are rich, you would be a slight one up on everyone else. This disparity is as common as the disparity you see in every society in terms of education, housing or nourishment.
What should we all be concerned about then? It should be centred on safety and the character of the child.
While it is imperative to do well in scholastic tests, it is another thing to throw caution to the wind for that quest. We should be worried that our students might be consuming potentially harmful drugs masquerading as the real thing.
Secondly, we should be worried about the issue of character. Our forefathers always understood the value of good old hard work. They were willing to work hard and endure struggles to achieve their goals. Fast forward today, and “pain” and “struggle” are spoken in hushed tones. Those are dirty words. Having a headache? Don't waste time sleeping it off and resting, take a Panadol. Have an exam the next day and you only have one night to cram everything in? There is always modafinil. Pain and struggle builds character, and such drugs which allow us to reap all the benefits without the pain can only cause our degradation in character.
Mental alertness? Improved cognition? Caffeine is all that and more. It is the world's most common psychoactive substance, is cheap and most importantly, legal. So, coffee anyone?