Should You Take "Smart Drugs" to Boost Brain Functions?

The increased use of smart drugs to boost brain performance is raising many ethical and practical questions.

Should You Take "Smart Drugs" to Boost Brain Functions?

The 2016 Olympics were generally a positive event, free of major controversies or disasters (#Lochtegate aside). The bigger scandals happened beforehand, with the worst being the exposure of Russia’s state-run athlete doping operation. 118 Russians ended up being banned from participating in the Olympics, many of them the best in their sports. The international community took a stand that it doesn’t want athletes to use certain chemicals that enhance performance. 


As many regular non-Olympian people turn to chemicals to help their everyday performance, especially those that help brain functions, questions about such “smart drugs” (also known as nootropics) abound.

We are talking about current drugs like Ritalin, Adderall and Modafinil, but also about drugs that have not yet been created. Surely, they will be even stronger and more precise in their effects. 

What's more, while additional studies need to be done, some recent research suggests Modafinil, in particular, is pretty safe to use. It was shown to boost a number of mental skills, including attention, creativity and memory without side effects or potential for addiction. 

Are they fair?

Is it fair that someone can take a drug and suddenly be able to concentrate and remember better and, ultimately, do a superior job compared to a person who didn’t or can’t take the drug? What if the drugs are only available to a select few who can afford them? What if the drugs can permanently enhance thinking? Will there be a moral imperative to take them, because if you can be a better human, why wouldn't you?

Can you use them at work?

Say you are an office manager. If your ultimate goal is productivity, do you care if your employees are taking these drugs? Maybe you’d even encourage them?

Let’s not forget a brain-enhancing drug that’s already present in most US offices - coffee. Why is coffee ok, but a stronger, more specifically helpful drug ethically unacceptable? 

People are already taking them

The fact is, no matter how we answer such questions, people are already using the drugs to improve their work performances.

A recent article by Professor Carl Cederström, who specializes in Organization Theory at Stockholm University, points out examples of spreading smart drug use.

There have been reports of Modafinil (aka Provigil) being popular in Silicon Valley, with techies using it to work twenty-hour days.

As investigated by Nature magazine, smart drugs are also popular among gamers in gaming competitions, with organizers now instituting anti-doping measures.

Not to be outdone, the US Army is trying to create super-soldiers who don’t sleep via its own research involving Modafinil.

Also, up to 20% of Ivy League college students have tried “smart drugs” to improve their academic performance. Most of them used the drugs to write essays and prep for tests. Interestingly, 33% of the students didn’t think it was cheating to use such drugs. Perhaps that number points to how many more students could be taking the drugs.

How many are using nootropics in total? That’s hard to tell. Another report by Nature talks of a study where one in five respondents admitted to using brain-boosting drugs. While there are currently no accurate statistics on the use of smart drugs, anecdotal evidence suggests a significant percentage of professionals use them already and many more could in the future, when the drugs are improved. 

For more on how some people use nootropics, check out this video from Sky News:

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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