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05/20/2009

Have We Become Too Dependent On Our Medicine Cabinet?

Christian Science Monitor is asking an important question: “Have we become too dependent on our medicine cabinet?” Medical ethicists, physicians, and even patients and their advocates who are growing increasingly concerned about the reliance that Americans place upon their pharmaceuticals to make them well. My questions is: “What’s the real worry?”

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Debates about enhancement in genetics and sports and other fields have abounded for years, but when the enhancements are as convenient as popping one’s morning pills, the opportunity to better one’s self almost seems too easy. And with dramatic effects ranging from improved cognition and memory to enhancing sexual performance, it seems almost too good to pass up. However, when the pills we are popping dramatically effect our brains, deeper moral questions arise.

But for all the hoopla about should otherwise healthy adults or teenagers take brain enhancing drugs, it would seem to come down to a very straightforward issue: given the fast-paced, completely distracted, Twitter-filled, Facebook-crazed, Blackberry, iPhone, Cloud Computing world in which we live, doesn’t it only make sense that we might need a little cognitive assistance to keep all of these widely disparate, but crucial data streams straight in our heads? Why else, for example would 10% of college students report taking cognitive enhancing drugs? They arguably are the most “hooked in” of all in terms of technology, and once “real life” hits them–some cognitive enhancement is certainly to be on the menu.

Critics describe a “slide toward a more drugged society” where people are “more dependent on the pill bottle”. As opposed to what? A society with millions of neurologically fried, cognitively lagging individuals unable to keep up with the rapid advances in technology and information flowing at them daily, and incapable of dealing with the demands of an increasingly competitive marketplace in terms of employment and more hardly seems like a better option. (Yes, there are justice concerns associated with this view, but that is true for access to any new therapy or enhancement or technology in medicine.)

Given the choice, and given where society is headed and that it shows no signs of slowing or reversing, the morally responsible stance to take is actually to promote the use of cognitively enhancing drugs for a society that is outpacing what our brains can handle. If the only option is to fall behind or rely upon the medicine cabinet, I vote for cracking open a pill bottle.

Summer Johnson, PhD

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