Should medications to enhance memory, improve learning, or heighten concentration be used to accelerate the cognitive functioning of otherwise healthy children? As policy discussions about so-called “smart drugs” percolate, the question of how parents view cognitive enhancement medications—and whether they would give them to their children—remains unexplored. In his Enhancing Life Project research, Sebastian Sattler, Research Assistant at the Institute of Sociology and Social Psychology at the University of Cologne in Germany and an Associate member at the Neuroethics Research Unit at the Institut de Recherches Cliniques de Montréal in Canada, is investigating parents’ roles, attitudes, and motives about the moral acceptability of pediatric CE. He will also explore these parents’ demographic and social contexts and their current decisions about enhancement for their children, with the goal of enriching the current debate with new empirical data.
Read Sebastian Sattler's blog post about cognitive enhancement medications and social inequality here.
What was the spark for the research you’re pursuing for the Enhancing Life Project? Are these new questions, or an extension of past research, or both?
I started researching enhancement more than eight years ago when my brother, who studied biochemistry, told me about experiments with substances that can extremely inhibit forgetfulness. It sounds quite fascinating: you take a substance and don’t forget anything again? But this comes with a severe downside. When this substance was tested on animals, they died very quickly. This caught my attention and I started looking into substances that were less strong—substances that help you concentrate and stay awake for longer. They are called cognitive enhancement medications.
In my earlier research, I focused on attitudes and behaviors among students, university teachers, and the general public regarding such medications. Later and especially now with the help of my Enhancing Life scholarship, I have also started thinking about children and parental decision-making because I often read about high numbers of ADHD prescriptions for children and wondered whether some of those children are just subject to their parents’ wish to make them better without any existing mental illnesses.
Diagnoses are quite subjective, and this leads to a danger that parents can be very influential in the process of diagnosis when it comes to something like ADHD. Given that all these medications can lead to mild to severe side effects—headache, insomnia, addiction, depression, or slowing of growth—medicating healthy children with such drugs is based on a risky decision and parents might accept these side effects with the aim of giving children an edge over others, while the children themselves have no say in the matter. That’s why I think it’s interesting and important to shed light on parents’ perspectives and rationales.
In your past research, what did you discover about cognitive enhancement technologies?
We did a big survey with several thousand students in Germany, and the lifetime prevalence for cognitive enhancement medications—meaning that at some point in their lives, these students took one of these drugs—was 4.6 percent. People who tried them once have a much higher risk to use them again, but we did not find that most users pop these pills all the time. In the German working population, we found that about three percent tried to enhance themselves with cognitive enhancement drugs, while more than ten percent were willing to do so in the future, indicating millions of prospective users. So even if the number of people who are taking the drugs now isn’t so high, a trend towards taking them can emerge if more effective versions were produced, if people had better access to them, or if risk factors such as work-stress increase. However, moral objection of using such drugs, for example, due to a violation of fairness norms, can also hinder such a trend.
What do you understand by “enhancing life”?
It’s a hard question to answer because enhancing life can mean different things to different people. In a broad sense, it’s about giving humans the capability to achieve their goals. When adding a normative flavor to the definition, enhancement should ideally not harm other humans or species or the environment. But of course enhancement for one person might mean diminishment for someone else—with my enhancement I can harm someone else or the life of another species or the environment. Given the problems we deal with on earth, like social inequality, there is a strong need for enhancement.
And what does enhancement mean in your project?
In the debate about cognitive enhancement, which is central for my project, enhancement has a more narrow meaning than is mentioned before. It’s about doing something—such as taking a pill—that allows you to go beyond your normal state. Some people and especially the media therefore call such medication “magic pills” or “super drugs.”
Beside the problem that drugs that confer super power do not exist, it is also difficult to define what normal means for one person and between persons. Moreover, perceptions of what is normal can change over time. Thus, it is not only difficult to define enhancing life in general, it’s especially difficult to define it in the context of cognitive enhancement.
What do you want to investigate in your project?
I’m looking at parents’ strategies to enhance the cognitive performance of their kids, mainly with pharmaceuticals. With these strategies parents intend to achieve specific goals for their children, such as better grades and perhaps thereby also goals for themselves, such as higher social approval.
In what way will your project contribute to the enhancement of life?
With my project, I hope to be able to contribute to a better understanding of what parents are willing and not willing to do with their kids in terms of pharmaceutical enhancement, what they find acceptable and what they find terrifying. With this knowledge, we might then try to reduce risky behaviors for children, which would hopefully enhance their lives. So enhancement strategies can have the desired effect of enhancing somebody, but not using them can also constitute enhancement.
You don’t spend all of your time doing research and teaching! What’s your favorite place to travel, or the next place you’d like to go?
I really like to be outdoors but I also like to meet people from different places on earth, so I try to combine these interests. One way is to use the couchsurfing-network, a group of people around the world, who offer their couch for travelers, with unimaginable hospitality. Thereby, I can meet local people in intriguing places. Last year, I was in the very privileged position to be able to travel to different places and visit friends or meet colleagues. This year, I would like to discover some local treasures and maybe go kayaking in northeastern Germany.
Photo courtesy of Simon Eyman