Tom Sutcliffe: So it's yes to some drugs, no to others

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The Independent Online

Historically speaking any encounter between students and drugs has always resulted in a diminution of intelligence. At least it always did when I was at university when the two main drugs of choice - alcohol and marijuana - were widely regarded as antithetical to brainwork. They could be a reward for intellectual endeavour, or an escape from it. But very few people believed that either made you cleverer. And it wasn't difficult to see the truth of this even when you were under the influence.

Sitting around in someone's room, giggling helplessly at the saxophone break in "Baker Street", for reasons nobody present could explain, it was pretty obvious why it was called dope. But now, it seems, this ancient truth has been overturned. Students are taking drugs not to get out of their heads – but to get more stuff into them.

Barbara Sahakian, a professor of neuropsychology at Cambridge, has warned that the use of cognitive- enhancement drugs is expanding so much that university authorities (not to mention governments) will soon have to decide what to do about them. Sahakian knows, because she's actually done research on them, that these drugs really work.

Originally intended as a therapy for ADHD and other neurological deficits, they have the effect – on ordinary brains – of making them less ordinary in a highly desirable way. Alertness, rapidity of thought and recall can all improve. If these drugs confer a genuine advantage then the advantage will be taken. In a world where competitive students mutilate textbooks to handicap their peers that's a no-brainer.

This is a classic zero-sum game – particularly when it comes to competitive exams. How hard will it be to suppress the suspicion that your disappointing 2.2 represents not a deficiency in your own intelligence or effort but an unscrupulous short cut on the part of others? And, if the drug is legal, would it even count as unscrupulous?

How could you even begin to calibrate the edge taking such drugs might give you – as opposed to other perfectly legitimate ways of ensuring that you perform at your best, such as eating well or hiring extra tuition? In there too would be the worming justification that this isn't cheating at all – because it isn't altering your brain, it's only maximising an existing potential.

That it is a genuine dilemma highlights one interesting fact though. And that is that a kind of Cartesian dualism still operates in even the most materialistic of us. Nobody would think twice if a student took a prescription drug to counter a hormone deficiency which might otherwise have an impact on their ability to study – because such deficiencies of the system are seen as safely separate from psychology and character. It would be regarded as a kind of restoration to a norm. But since there is no human equivalent of the Prototype Metre – a universal measure --it's hard to say logically why another person's natural advantage in brainpower shouldn't equally count as my disability – and one that I should be entitled to efface pharmaceutically if a means became available.

The hesitation arises, I think, because we don't believe that the essential us lies in any other organ. To puff on an asthma inhaler is not to become a counterfeit version of yourself. To take a cognitive enhancing drug still feels as if it might be. One thing I would suggest – and that's that anyone trying to work out the social implications of these developments should be given a handful of cognitive enhancers, because they'll need every synapse they've got.

Madcap sport – and all the better for it

Imagine, for a moment, that the 800 metres final at the Olympics was run in the following fashion. Instead of starting simultaneously, every athlete would come out of the blocks on their own, with the final medal allocation only becoming clear after a string of solo runs, distinguishable from each other only by an official timer clock or – very rarely – because a contestant had fallen over.

Aching stretches of television coverage would necessarily consist of watching the also-rans add their times to the record books. How long would it take, I wonder, before someone suggested that it might be preferable for everyone to set off together – so that it would actually look, and feel, like a race?

Something like that has happened at the Winter Olympics with the admission of the snowboard cross and ski cross events – in which four racers burst out of the gates simultaneously, jostling for position on a course landscaped for extra hazard. Traditional downhillers are apparently a bit sniffy about this newcomer and I can quite understand why – because it conspicuously underlines the groundhog day tedium of their own discipline.

The effect on the commentators is particularly comic. Familiar with whipping up interest for events that possess very little intrinsically (at least as a spectator experience), they tend to wildly overshoot on one that can get even the most torpid armchair viewer joggling around as if they're on an out-of-control luge. I suppose the purists will hope it is a passing fad – but it passes so thrillingly that I suspect they hope in vain.

Our actors need lessons in reading their lines

I think it may be time for Bafta to do something about the lamentable level of autocue skills in the British film industry. I didn't watch all of the awards ceremony on Sunday night, having something of an allergy to these events, but I saw enough to be appalled by the podium skills of several of the actors involved in introducing categories.

They weren't all terrible. Peter Capaldi, for one, seems to understand that your eyeballs shouldn't cling to that glossy screen like a drowning man clutching at a life-raft, but only dab at it lightly in passing from one side of the hall to the other. But he was a notable exception.

Some of them stammered as if reading was a skill they had only recently mastered. Others stared fixedly forward as if paralysed by an oncoming train. Still others jerked and jolted like learner drivers, as yet unpractised with the connection between accelerator pedal and engine. The effect – in what is supposed to be a celebration of poise and pretending – was distinctly amateurish.

Why haven't our drama schools addressed themselves to this essential component of the modern thespian career? And, given their delinquency in this matter, shouldn't the Bafta producers do some media training themselves? We need a school for Pretending To Say Words Written By Someone Else As If You Really Mean Them. I propose Capaldi as Visiting Professor.

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