Modern life is exhausting, and as a result Modafinil use has soared (as witnessed by the sharp increase in checks for drug information by workers admitting casualties to Accident and Emergency wards).
While the smart drug bought from Bangalore-based internet pharmacies can keep you awake for 37 hours straight, the neuroenhancer of choice for exhausted astronauts and city traders is starting to look increasingly passé beside the extraordinary pharmaceuticals of the future.
Pause to consider pills which erase bad memories, or drugs that make you fall madly in love. Contemplate tablets that make you drink, gamble, or shop responsibly.
Reflect on the possibility of hangover-free drinking, or marvel at the scientific wrangling that might allow you to selectively improve your personality for the price of a second-hand car. Now pinch yourself, because all of these drugs are available as we speak; whether through head shops, internet pharmacies, or more subtly and legitimately, via private GPs.
Synthetic love may sound like a dated byword for Ecstasy, but it’s actually a genuine possibility. Memory change – which sounds like the stuff of Brave New World –– is easily within the grasp of anyone.
Psychopharmacology (the science of drugs) literally means “breath, life, soul” in Greek: and it’s a discipline with the power to beguile the senses and enrapture the mind. If drugs have brought us from caveman barbarity to all night concentration with lightening speed, then imagine what’s next – and what’s already at the chemists – for re-sculpting and redefining your mind.
When you take your next pre-flight Xanax, you might want to stop and ponder on its heritage. Its cousins delivered the seriously ill from trans-orbital lobotomies involving ice-picks, while others in its family brought blissful solace to the terminally sleepless. A very distant relative – Prozac – removed the stigma from depression and turned it into a genuine cultural concern.
Not long ago, mankind would have considered drugs like these – those which prevented the ‘mad’ from hearing voices – to be inconceivable (and actually miraculous). If William Blake, Vincent Van Gogh or Friedrich Nietzsche – all posthumously diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder – had been able to access antipsychotics, the literary, artistic and cultural landscape of the modern world would be unrecognisable.
Of course, you could say this about any medical condition: the world map would surely look different had Genghis Khan been able to access a blood transfusion; the same goes for royal portraits, had liposuction allowed Henry VIII to slim down. But the vivisection that cures your carpal tunnel problem has taken millennia to understand, whereas mass-market mind-medication has only been around for 50 years.
We don’t really know the possible implications of drugs already on offer, and the spectacular discoveries the next half a century could bring, though the annals of history are filled with discoveries far too good to be true.
A famous debate between the philosophers Kunz and Popper, concerned whether there was any such thing as the supernatural, and if all strange occurrences in the world were actually just the result of “unexplained science”. The drug Pervitin is a case-in-point. Once considered Adolf Hitler’s most feared asset, this “miracle pill”, or early smart-drug, was distributed so liberally amongst German soldiers that it became known as “tank chocolate”. The result was thousands died of exhaustion. It’s now better known as Crystal Meth.
“The principles are as old as mankind's use of psychotropic substances to alter his state of awareness, emotions and consciousness,” notes Professor Malcolm Lader, who is Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychopharmacology at King’s College, London.
“The newer substances that you mention could well be used to induce more persisting changes. They will have to be judged on the usual basis of risks and benefits.”
A lone voice during psychopharmacology’s “golden dawn”, Lader was also the bravest. He was one of the only doctors to posit (as early as 1950) that Valium might be a tad dangerous. And that’s the problem: human-beings are fundamentally incapable of behaving responsibly with prescription drugs, so while the medicine cabinet of tomorrow is a proverbial sweet factory for grown-ups, it’s also a dangerous place.
The history books brim with examples of our use of prescription medication for cosmetic or criminal purposes, and the results have usually been grisly. But by taking Nalmefene, a pill that halts your interest in alcohol, you’re tinkering with your impulsivity. The same goes for Naltrexone, a possible cure for compulsive shopping. This may explain why they also work so well for gambling addiction. The question remains: isn’t risk-taking key to success?
Likewise, your past has a role to play, so by rubbing it out with a memory wiper (or the protein PKM-zeta) will you really be a happier person, or a man lacking in motivation?
Then, there’s our head shop sleeping pill, and similar tranquilizers like Pyrazolam and Diclazepam. We don’t know if they’re addictive (yet) – but as they were discovered along with Valium, and are roughly ten times stronger, isn’t that a racing certainty?
There’s Lisdexamphetamine too, which Donald Singer, Professor of Clinical Psychopharmacology and Therapeutics at the University of Warwick Medical School, describes as “one of the smart drugs of the future: the daughter of Modafinil and Ritalin.” Like most of these drugs, it sounds wonderful but exercise caution before you guzzle pharmacopeia’s forbidden fruits.
The drugs of tomorrow are available as we write. Along with Lisdexamphetamine, the memory-wiping pill Propranolol – and the alcohol limiting treatment Nalmefene – can all be obtained via private prescription.
The sleeping pill Etizolam can be found in any head shop; the love tonic Oxytocin, is available online as a nasal spray (although in order to make a ‘love pill’ we would need to concentrate its strength significantly, using science which isn’t quite yet in sight).
Antipsychotics could have helped Blake, but they may have trampled his creativity. Sedatives might have brought Van Gogh relief, but he would almost certainly have complained that they curtailed his artistry. Antidepressants could have cured Nietzsche, but would have surely altered his writing.
Slowing your shopping with pharmaceuticals may seem the obvious option, but how will you feel, when you trundle into the office mid-bonus season (with no shopping bags) to discover that the side-effects of your new retail cure include an inability to take business risks?
Will a smart-drug that combines triathlete slimming with fighter pilot-like concentration really make you the admiration of women, and colleagues – or the robotic bore, who they don’t invite for dinner or drinks? Neither would interest you anyway: alcohol no longer appeals, because you’ve dosed for years with the sensible drinking drug. All this is worth thinking about carefully before you consider re-wiring your mind.
This article first appeared in Esquire Weekly, our new iPad-only edition. Containing 100 per cent new and original content, it’s published every Thursday on the Apple Newsstand.