In Scorn Of Chemical “Enhancements”

Drugs have never had a better rap in this country than they have today. If some drugs are illegal, what bother, there are prescription drugs, too, and you can always get some of those if you think yourself “needy”. A very Brave New World type of idea is that of using drugs as “performance enhancers”. On the big think website, it is the month of going mental (I have known of people who would object to that description), and for this “going mental” month, we get a blog post bearing the heading ADHD and Stimulants: Brain Boost or Drug Abuse?

I think, uh, right. You go up into the stratosphere, and you come down with a kaboom. Ever wonder why they call it crashing? Some people, let it be pointed out, aren’t even able to limp away.

The narrative of personal improvement is as American as baseball—almost as American as a fondness for illegal and prescription drugs. From steroids and human growth hormones on the baseball diamond to amphetamines in college libraries and quadrangles, performance enhancing drugs combine a desire for productivity and success with drug abuse in a way that is uniquely American. And the statistics confirm their growing demand: the journal Addiction reports that on certain college campuses, especially competitive Northeastern colleges, up to 25 percent of students admitted to having misused ADHD medication in the past year. Yet despite their prevalence, these drugs, and the disorder they treat, are highly misunderstood.

Due to the fact that the percentage of people taking antidepressants is approaching 10% in the USA, and that the USA is a world leader in the taking of such substances, with the entire world following suit, at its varying paces, as new markets open up for drug companies to exploit, I think it may help to look into this Brave New World scenario a little further.

In Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World, Soma is a popular dream-inducing, hallucinogenic drug. It provides an easy escape from the hassles of daily life and is employed by the government as a method of control through pleasure. It is ubiquitous and ordinary among the culture of the novel and everyone is shown to use it at some point, in various situations: sex, relaxation, concentration, confidence. It is seemingly a single-chemical combination of many of today’s drugs’ effects, giving its users the full hedonistic spectrum depending on dosage.

~from Soma – Wikipedia

As I said, very Brave New World. Consider the following, and if that doesn’t sound like an antidepressant (or maybe cannabis) to you, maybe you have found some other kind of fascinating diversion to keep yourself permanently preoccupied.

“I don’t understand anything,” she said with decision, determined to preserve her incomprehension intact. “Nothing. Least of all,” she continued in another tone “why you don’t take soma when you have these dreadful ideas of yours. You’d forget all about them. And instead of feeling miserable, you’d be jolly. So jolly.”

~from Soma In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World

This big mind post even drags in a psychiatrist to make the highly dubious argument (just think about it) that the stimulants kids take for ADHD affect those kids differently than they would affect any kid who hadn’t been slapped with an ADHD tag. How so? Why, of course, through the magic of shrink-speak. Dr. Simon, in other words, says ‘take your meds’, and therefore it must be true, otherwise, of course, Dr. Simon wouldn’t have demanded you do so. You only get a turn to play drug company exe Simon for the doctor when it’s a game, and it isn’t a game. No, it’s the very serious business of receiving psychiatric “help”. The scary aspect of all this is that some people believe that hokum.

At the heart of this debate lies a much larger question, one that will become even more relevant in the future: Is all human enhancement ethically wrong? Transhumanists like Ray Kurzweil and Julian Savulescu are squarely in favor of enhancement but there is still a sense among many that there is something morally dubious about improving something with chemicals that isn’t broken.

I think you are much more likely to enhance performance through selective breeding than you are ever likely to do through the ingesting of chemical compounds. When, and if, performance is enhanced through the use of a pill, it would usually be of a short duration, and we don’t know what the long term consequence of the persistant taking of any performance changing drugs would be. It might ultimately result in a deterioration of that performance quality it had initially enhanced.

There are of course ethical concerns that must be addressed, including the the fairness of access to these drugs and the long-term safety of their non-pharmaceutical use, something about which many remain skeptical. In fact, recent studies claim that these drugs stunt growth and causes hallucinations; others link them to suicide and sudden death. Greely urges more long-term, evidence-based studies on the effects of ADHD drugs, but pharmaceutical industries have proven resistant to this idea. A report from pharmaceutical giant Novartis, on behalf of a consortium of drugmakers, nixed the idea of further long-term studies in 2009. The reason, they cited: comorbidity. “It is well established that ADHD co-occurs with other psychiatric disorders, including disruptive behavioral disorders such as oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder; and mood disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders,” the report states. In other words, negative effects measured in the study might result from co-existing mental disorders which would require other forms of treatment.

Somebody has to do a little reading between the lines here. Notice where it says recent studies claim these drugs stunt grown and cause hallucinations, not to mention, suicide and early death. Drug companies are pleading “comorbidity” as a reason as to why long-term studies shouldn’t be conducted. Hallucinations are symptoms of a disorder beyond ADHD for which another drug would be given. A botched suicide attempt means a certain “mental illness” diagnosis, and that certain diagnosis would probably be something besides ADHD. If we pretend these conditions were always there, no hassle, right. If we think that maybe the ADHD caused a problem, then we have to think detox, and the drug companies lose dough. “Comorbidity” is the best possible answer for these drug companies as it means nothing to them but increased profit. Let me tell you, the same companies that make drugs to treat ADHD make drugs to treat psychosis, mania, and depression, too.

There is a solution, yes, and it’s a solution that was pointed to in the novel Brave New World, but it’s a solution that I expect will remain more personal than popular.

“Don’t you want to be free and men? Don’t you even understand what manhood and freedom are?” Rage was making him fluent; the words came easily, in a rush. “Don’t you?” he repeated, but got no answer to his question. “Very well then,” he went on grimly. “I’ll teach you; I’ll make you be free whether you want to or not.” And pushing open a window that looked on to the inner court of the Hospital, he began to throw the little pill-boxes of soma tablets in handfuls out into the area.”

For a moment the khaki mob was silent, petrified, at the spectacle of this wanton sacrilege, with amazement and horror.”

~from Soma In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World

“Good” doesn’t always mean good. Freedom is under threat, and people are not cognizant of that threat. There is always the “drug” defense, and it works much like the “mental illness” defense (we’ve got courts for both), “drugs made me do it”. Another person may say, “my ‘mental illness’ made me do it.” What there isn’t here is any acceptance of the responsibility for one’s own actions that freedom entails and requires. Instead we have an excuse. I don’t need to practice self-control if I’ve got the control that comes from a pill bottle. I don’t have to be good if a mind-altering substance can do my performing for me. I tend to think of adulthood as a matter of getting over such excuses.