Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Mentally stimulating

We were having a debate in my Brain, Mind & Behavior discussion today. The resolution was "A legitimate use of pharmaceutical stimulants such as amphetamine and methylphenidate should be cognitive enhancement for 'normal' individuals." Basically, people without any diagnosed medical condition should be allowed to take Ritalin or Aderall or whatever other drugs to help improve cognition and focus and decrease fatigue.

Despite the affirmative's assertion that these drugs do no have negative side effects when used in the proper dosages (even though, logically speaking, artificially stimulating your brain to work when it wants to sleep can not be good for it, and while the damage may not be significant in the short term, there is no fucking way that it can be good for you in the long term), I still think it's a bad idea. Aren't we, as a society, already in a cut-throat competition with one another? Do we really need to encourage further drastic measures to make ourselves better than our competitors?

And sadly, I think we do.

When I say 'I think we do', I don't mean 'I think we should'. I mean that with the way our society operates, we have no choice in the matter.

I've read plenty of shallow, half-baked articles in teen magazines about how 'Ritalin abuse is on the rise among high school students; oh dear, it's dreadful, isn't it?'. All these articles love to espouse horrifying statistics about how many more girls admit to taking amphetamines or other stimulants to help them study because if they don't get good grades, their parents won't give them a car for their sixteenth birthday, or whatever. While these articles are probably good at scaring the shit out of parents, they never seem to even try to explain why this actually happens. And I should preface this by saying I'm no expert, and this is all speculation, but I feel like I'm on the right track: it's all Adam Smith's fault.

Okay, not capitalism, per se. I have no desire to see the One True Communist Revolution go down any time soon. But consumerist capitalism, specifically, seems to be the impetus behind this cut-throat competition.

Our current consumerist economic model is based on growth. Each quarter, companies are expected to hire more people, sell more products, and make more money. Once population growth wasn't enough to sustain these growth expectations, marketing companies invented planned and perceived obsolescence. Everyone bought more stuff they didn't need or didn't even want. And they needed more money to buy this stuff. And to get more money, you have to work harder and do better in school so you can get a better job, etc. It goes on and on.

But there are more and more people vying for a proportionally smaller pool of opportunities, so it's getting more competitive, and sooner. For example, when my mother was a high school senior in the early 1970s, she had only taken one Advanced Placement course in her entire high school career, and she took it because she was interested in the subject. I, on the other hand, took nine AP courses throughout high school, and most of them only because I was convinced I needed them to be a viable candidate for college admissions.

All the competition doesn't stop once you get the well-paying job: no, companies also want their workers to be more productive, get more done in less time so more shit that no one actually needs can be produced. So this is what the (Western, industrialised) world has become. Work harder and harder to get less and less.

The biggest problem with this system is that it relies on the assumption of infinite growth, which relies on the assumption of infinite resources, both of the physical and mental varieties. The fact is that even as we keep trying to get more for less, there is still only a finite amount. Each person only has a finite amount of mental faculties before they drop dead because they haven't slept in ten days.

We are so concerned with living up to this impossible standard of infinity that we've stopped listening to what our bodies know, because they've been perfecting it over the past 200,000 years: when to stop. When your body is tired, it's telling you it needs sleep, because it has things to repair and cells to regenerate. Drugs fucking with your neurotransmitters, flooding them with signals to give you an extra five hours of energy, is not going to change what your body really needs.

What's the point in living if we're just going to become automatons, working so hard to attain that idealised success if we have to sacrifice at best, the time we have to enjoy those things that make us happy or at worst, our health and humanity? Why should I put so much effort and hard work into trying to make myself as the most qualified when ten other people are doing the exact same thing, only they have a bottle of Ritalin, making it impossible for me to compete? Why should I do all that work to get the job I've been told I need so I can buy stuff I wouldn't have even thought about needing forty or fifty years ago? Am I going to be fitter? Happier? More productive? (Okay, actually, yes. I guess these Radiohead lyrics aren't the perfect allusion.)

Apologies for the Durden-esque digression. As nice as the idea of starting over and blowing up all the bank buildings so everything goes back to zero sounds, I have no illusions that it would make things magically better. I know practically anything and everything I say is going to sound like a wannabe-revolutionary cliché, and I hate that, but that's sometimes the very (not) difficult struggle that I, as a middle-class college student, have to contend with.

Regardless, at risk of sounding like an unoriginal asshole (which is, after all, in the URL), I do often wonder if we as a society need to take a moment to stop and look at our priorities, to see where things are headed. Because I don't like the fact that people who think encouraging people to take "mental stimulants" to get an edge is a good idea. (All three people on the affirmative side of the debate said they ended up agreeing with the resolution.) I don't want to feel (or ultimately cave into) the pressure to take drugs to perform better because I have no choice if I want to keep up. I just want to live my life in a reasonable way and to give to future generations the same opportunity to live comfortably. I just want to be happy.

And this is how I wasted two hours instead of doing my Spanish homework. Maybe I could use something to help me focus...

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree with you that industrial societies need to take a step back from their wealth-obsessed, production-driven, 24 hour lifestyles and realize that ENOUGH is just ENOUGH.

    The happy thing is, drugs get back at whoever uses them eventually - so you don't have to worry about not using them to stay ahead.