16 Jan, 12 | by Iain Brassington
Across at NewAPPS, Eric Schliesser wonders aloud about how common nootropic drug use is in professional philosophy. (Nootropics are are “drugs, supplements, nutraceuticals, and functional foods that improve mental functions such as cognition, memory, intelligence, motivation, attention, and concentration” – Wikipedia.) And, quite rightly, some of the commentators have pointed out that it’s fairly common.
Actually, it’s more than that: it’s pretty much ubiquitous. The definition of a nootropic drug just offered is pretty wide; we can allow it to cover any substance that improves intellectual capabilities. Once we take that on board, it’s clear that we’re talking about things like modafinil, beta-blockers… but also about things like caffeine, alcohol and nicotine. All these things have the capacity to improve our intellectual ability, at least temporarily. And the last three are all over the place in academia – and probably professional most-other-things too.
(Granted, alcohol also has the ability to impair our intellectual ability after a fairly short while. But (warning: anecdote posing as data ahead) it’s also the case that some of the best seminars have been those during which wine has flowed; and it’d be hard to imagine a conference that wasn’t at least paritially fuelled by booze. And while philosophers do seem to have a reputation for drink, I don’t think that the picture is too different in other fields. Plausibly, not the least of the reasons for this is that much intellectual labour is a shared enterprise – I’m not talking about co-authorship, as the knocking about of ideas – and something that makes you a bit more convivial makes that sharing more likely.)
So I’m going to take it as read that nootropics amplo sensu are common, and probably pervasive, throughout academia – and throughout all areas of life. Whether nootropic drugs more narrowly defined are common is a slightly different matter: while there are comments to Eric’s post that tell of some use of things like modafinil and beta-blockers, these stories are – obviously – self-selecting. (Incidentally: the question of nootropic use in academia was asked a few years ago in the THES.) Nevertheless, I’d imagine that there is a non-negligible number of people working in academia that makes use of such supplements to enhance performance.
But I’m wondering if there might be a more radical question: might there be situations in which we have a responsibility to use them? more…