“Neuroenhancing” Drugs

I was just reading Margaret Talbot’s article in this week’s New Yorker about so-called “neuroenhancing” drugs, titled “Brain Gain: The underground world of ‘neuroenhancing’ drugs.” I am struck by what seems to be an underlying assumption among many of those who find these drugs useful, that life in general works a lot like college. Anyone who’s been out of college for a couple of years quickly realizes that most of the real world doesn’t work like exams and papers that are due on certain dates and that you could pull all-nighters to complete.

When I was an undergraduate, I never pulled an all-nighter. I always felt that the facts that I might cram into my head during the extra time would be offset by the lowering of my level of functioning due to tiredness. It is true that I did sometimes stay up all night writing papers, but that’s because you got the thing onto paper and didn’t have to then perform the next day. It wasn’t until grad school until I stayed up all night writing a paper that I then had to read out loud in a seminar the next morning. Now that was gruelling!

I can’t help but think about recent activities with my viol consort, The Teares of the Muses. We just gave two concerts (last Saturday and just last night, on Tuesday), and the group is a nice mix of players ranging in age from 20 years old to mumble mumble mumble over 50. I’m 47, but I can say that I am able to absorb more in a rehearsal than the college kids in the group. This is not because I’m mentally more acute, but because I have a much greater store of musical experience to which I can connect new musical ideas that come up in rehearsal. When I first play a new piece, I already have a store of musical experiences playing other pieces that I can connect the new one to. The student players are much newer to this repertory, and are very often encountering the musical style for the first time. They don’t have any background of musical memory in which to contextualize what they are playing, and the result is that they are less reliable from rehearsal to rehearsal in terms of what they absorb and retain.

This is no criticism of them — they are very talented and work extremely hard. It’s just that experience really does count for something that couldn’t possibly be overcome by them by simply enhancing their native memorization or cognitive abilities — they lack the store of experience and knowledge to connect new musical experiences to, and thus are at a disadvantage in comparison to the oldsters (I’ve been playing viol for 20 years). They might be (and are) more technically adept, but that doesn’t make up for long experience of the musical style and the ability to play with others in an ensemble.

That’s why I’m not so worried about losing out to youngsters on these new drugs — they lack the foundation to truly be able to capitalize on the enhanced mental acuity.