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Stephen  Bevan

Cognitive enhancement – the next leap forward in productivity?

Authors: Stephen Bevan Stephen Bevan

31 May 2013

The MD of one of the UK’s most successful retailers once told me that the supermarket trolley was a great leap forward in labour productivity in his industry and that everyone was looking out for the next one. In a knowledge-based economy, perhaps the next ‘great leap’ lies in the use of cognitive enhancers or ‘smart drugs’ to improve our concentration, allow us to work longer without sleep,  improve our memories,  reduce impulsivity or improve our ability to plan.

These are all enhancements which are claimed for some as smart drugs – and they mean going way beyond having an extra shot of coffee in the morning or a high caffeine energy drink before an exam. In general, these smart drugs are products already being used in clinical settings but whose effects are thought to enhance some aspect of cognitive function. For example, Modafinil (brand name Provigil) is normally prescribed for sleep disorders, Ritalin (given to people with ADHD) and Adderall (a mixture of amphetamine salts, not licensed in the UK) are all drugs which have been reported as being used by students hoping to get better results or by people in high pressure jobs. They are often available on the internet and - despite patchy evidence for their effectiveness and probably insufficient data on their side-effects – they have a growing reputation and a loyal following among those who claim they work for them.

The use of such smart drugs, of course, raises a number of ethical issues. Professor Barbara Sahakian and colleagues at the Unit of Brain and Mind Sciences at Cambridge University have been examining their use for over a decade. In her new book: Bad Moves: How decision making goes wrong and the ethics of smart drugs, co-authored with Jamie Nicole LaBuzetta, she expresses concern about the ‘lifestyle’ uses of these drugs and the fact that there is no long-term data on their unintended impact.

A BBC report on smart drugs found that, even among those who use them, there are concerns about the implications of their more widespread use:

"I want one as a student, but I don't want criminals on cognitive enhancers running around."

"The drugs would get stronger and stronger due to increased demand of performance. Addictions would ensue. People would not be able to live without them. Employers would demand their employees to be constantly using them."

So should employers start to take more notice of smart drugs? Many are already very interested in the concept of ‘Flow’ – put forward by Harvard Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This is akin to the ‘Zone’ which high-performance sportsmen and women attain when at their peak and refers to a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play and work. Perhaps the next step will be to encourage the use of smart drugs in jobs where cognitive enhancement can demonstrably improve the productivity of knowledge workers.

The Work Foundation 2013 Annual Debate will debate the issue: 'Will robots and enhanced humans steal our jobs?' on June 11th. If you have strong views about the issue of smart drugs or would like to engage with those thinking (in an enhanced way) about these issues, why not vote in our poll and follow the debate on Twitter with hashtag #stealingourjobs. It promises to be a lively debate.

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