Lindsay Jordan
Senior lecturer in philosophy

‘Smart Drugs’: Psychedelics, Nootropics, and Cognitive Enhancement

Cognitive enhancement has been defined by ethicists as ‘the extension of core capacities of the mind through improvements of information processing systems’ (Bostrom & Sandberg 2009, p. 311). In this presentation, which summarises a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Educational Philosophy and Theory, I will theorise the developmental use of psychedelics as a form of educational enquiry with cognition-enhancing potential, and discuss what bearing this might have on how we conceive the use of psychotropic substances generally, including so-called 'smart drugs' such as Ritalin and Modafinil, in educational contexts.

A range of ethical questions have been raised around the common usage of ‘smart drugs’ (i.e. nootropic stimulants) for cognitive enhancement in educational contexts. One is the reduction of education to a technical problem, with a common view among educational philosophers being that the educational endeavour should be an end in itself, rather than a means to other ends (e.g. Hogan 2010). Another common concern is the shifting of performative norms, which may be problematic for reasons of fairness, or because raising the bar of expected performance poses a threat to wellbeing. Inon (2017) is concerned about the impact of nootropics on ‘social cognition’, i.e. the ability to understand, interpret and communicate social messages and situations. If a substance reduces our capacity to recognise when we are being manipulated, for example, then this would be undesirable.

In contrast to the common modes of smart drug use, the use of psychedelics is often reported to have effects on cognition that persist long after the substance itself has left the body. The psychedelic state is often described as an ‘experience’, and by several educationalists and philosophers as an educational event that has epistemic value in itself (Tupper 2002, Sjostedt-H 2015, Letheby 2016). The implications of such a description for a philosophical discussion on the use of mind-revealing substances in, for or as education, are worthy of exploration. It is proposed that a developing concept of ‘psychedelic enquiry’ might also include the use of nootropics, on the basis that an individual who takes a nootropic stimulant with the intention of learning from the experience is undertaking an educational endeavour.

Lindsay Jordan is a senior lecturer at the University of the Arts London, where she leads a postgraduate programme on the philosophy and practice of higher education. She co-leads the Psychedelic Society’s philosophy seminars, and publishes interviews with authors on psychedelic philosophy and related topics. Her research explores discourses of academic disillusionment through the lens of disenchantment, and considers the contribution of altered states of consciousness to human flourishing and fulfilment. Lindsay’s autoethnography of psychedelic experience and doctoral study won the 2017 Breaking Convention student essay competition. She also makes organic artisanal chocolate.