Over the last two decades, the number of scientific publications on cognitive enhancement has soared from a few per year to over a hundred per year. Scientists are looking for multiple ways to improve the brain’s biochemistry to increase academic performance. This trend is accompanied by a rise in stimulants’ use among teenagers and young adults.
The reality is that poor lifestyle choices are the cause of the problem that psychostimulants attempt to solve. Lack of sleep, poor diet, no exercise, etc. — all of these contribute to lower cognitive performance. Trying to correct lifestyle consequences chemically doesn’t seem to be a good idea, yet many people believe these can fundamentally solve their issues.
Why do we try cognitive enhancers? In many cases, we attempt to improve our performance to gain fame/money, which we believe will make us happy.
Do you see the irony? We sacrifice sleep to earn money. We pick Adderall or Ritalin to overcome the negative consequences of poor sleep, so we can work more, provide more, and produce more. All of that to earn more money.
In the end, we believe that earning more money can make us happy, that at some point, this struggle will end. We try so desperately to make ourselves more satisfied in the future, enduring the consequences of being miserable right now.
Schleim, the author of the article I’m linking above, points out Schopenhauer’s old thought:
We then recognize that the best, which the world has to offer, is a painless, calm, bearable existence, and we confine our claims to these in order to accomplish them better. Because not to become very unhappy, it is the best means that one may not demand to be very happy.
It could be that the whole cognitive enhancement industry will produce lots of unhappy people, lots of ambitious yet frustrated. Lots of people failing to understand that they attempt to solve the wrong problem.
Schleim points out that mood enhancement isn’t so well researched, even though the ultimate goal in life is happiness. He writes that clinical research related to psychological disorders, including anxiety, depression, and ADHD, should have priority over enhancement. That isn’t always the case.
Next time you pick a stimulant pill, nootropics, or any cognitive-enhancing device, ask yourself — what I’m trying to achieve? What is the ultimate goal? And why am I in this situation, that external stimuli are required for me to function at an optimal level?
It could be that being happy is easier than you think.