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The Beauty of Limits: A Q&A with Dr. Nicole Vincent

The Importance of Being Bored, Tired, and Limited

January 21, 2016 • By Nicole Vincent The Importance of Being Bored, Tired, and Limited

Last November, I took part in an Intelligence Squared US debate about cognitive enhancement. We were discussing a controversial topic: Should college students be allowed to take smart drugs? Along with my colleague, Eric Racine from McGill University, I was arguing that they should not. Eric and I thought we had a pretty solid argument. Until we lost. And we did not just lose, we were decimated. Eric and I now have the distinction of recording the greatest ever loss in the history of Intelligence Squared US debates. Quite an achievement!

To understand what went wrong at the debate, we need to outline what’s at stake. In many ways, our loss underscores the difficulty of conveying our argument, which is that making ourselves into super-humans might be a very bad thing. Smart drugs, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, are medications—often repurposed from treatments for psychiatric conditions — like Adderall and Ritalin that boost our memory, increase our focus, and help us learn. The idea is that these drugs can have a wide range of effects, including clarity of thought and the ability to function well on little sleep, which are especially appealing for people like college students.

But there are many reasons to be cautious about their use. Some of these concerns are purely physiological: while the scientific literature is divided about whether and how well these drugs work, it’s clear that they have plenty of serious medical side effects and risks. The list includes weight loss, severe skin rashes, hypertension, seizures, depression, anxiety, aggression, and addiction. 

Apart from these all-too-obvious physiological dangers, smart drugs could also bring broader negative social consequences. For example, if a drug that allowed for less sleep became common, it’s easy to imagine a scenario where some people might use the drug to work longer hours, leaving others to decide whether they want to lose their competitive advantage, or start taking the drugs and lose more leisure time in an effort to simply keep up.

At the debate, the issue for us was not whether smart drugs should be outlawed—instead, we wanted the audience to think seriously about a more nuanced form of regulation, rather than simply allowing everyone to have unlimited access. After all, smart drugs are just another technology that could presumably, with the right regulation, have beneficial effects.

The broader question is how to maximize these beneficial effects while minimizing potential harms. For instance, we could use smart drugs to level the playing field if we decided that only some people (the poor and disadvantaged, or students who get low grades) would be allowed to use smart drugs, while others (maybe the wealthy and privileged, the high achievers) would not. Perhaps smart drugs should only be permitted on some occasions but not on others, like during natural or other disasters, when emergency crews work around the clock to save lives.

Our argument was, in essence, an invitation to think more creatively about what we would like smart drugs to do, and how this emerging technology should be regulated in order to enhance our lives. But we still lost. Some of it may have been a problem of framing. Rejecting the idea that college students should be allowed to use smart drugs may have seemed like saying that college students  should be prohibited from using smart drugs, and who wants to be prohibited to do stuff? Our argument for self-regulation may have seemed like an invitation to allow other people to tell us what to do.

Perhaps most importantly, this debate underscored the challenge of conveying why the so-called benefits of the ideal medications may not actually enhance our lives but make them worse. Is the ability to function well without sleep really something to be celebrated? Why should we think that our lives would be made better if we could spend even more of our time competing in a work environment with one another—and, if we take drugs that make our work seem more interesting, not even getting bored by the fact that this is all we ever do?

It would be hyperbole to characterize this point by saying that some of the effects of the apparently ideal cognitive enhancers might threaten to turn people into better work robots. But it captures some of my concern about why removing the capacity for boredom and tiredness from our lives is not necessarily an effect we should seek out. In some cases our limitations can help us—to keep us from spending all of our time just working, or to notice that perhaps what we are doing does not actually enhance our lives. The challenge, as we consider the risks and benefits of smart drugs, is to keep reminding ourselves that limitations can be good.

Read a Q&A with Nicole Vincent about her research here.

Photo courtesy of Lena Vasiljeva via Flickr (Creative Commons).