Thursday, September 06, 2007

Feeding the Brain

After the Btech game on Sunday, I had my other regular vice: soccer at Bishan Park.

It had been raining quite heavily for the past few days, so the ground was some sickening brown-black concoction of tar-like soup. Even the grass looked miserable. Yikes. Since both the mud and water have a distressing tendency to splatter every time a kick or tackle was attempted, I think I ended up putting on 3 kilograms from the additional weight on my socks and boots alone.

It didn't help I ran 21 klicks the week before, or that I donated blood barely 5 days ago. I was feeling dead by the 20th minute of action. Suffice to say, my side got slaughtered. And plenty of new bruises from being crashed into by a guy at least 30 kilos heavier. I ended up with mud in my face at least 3 times from overly late tackles, also caused by the muddy conditions.

The next few days, my left knee joint hurt whenever I sat down or during cycling, so I recalled what I had heard about knee injuries and a substance called glucosimide, or something like that. A quick check turned up glucosamine, which I'm now taking daily. Not scientifically proven to help with knee/joint ailments, unfortunately, but I'll take it for now.

In the course of my search for glucosamine, I also decided to see if I could find any information on drugs that are purported to enhance intelligence and short term memory, which I vaguely remembered reading about somewhere. Turns out there are such drugs in existence, though their effectiveness has also yet to be completely verified. There's even a collective name for these drugs, nootropics.

Actually, many people already take such drugs, though their effects are a great deal milder. Caffeine, for one, is a stimulant, and does increase the alertness of the user. However, the more advanced(for lack of a better word) drugs, like Vasopressin and Modafinil, are supposedly more effective. And there's been some studies that do suggest they work.

So what happens when a drug comes up that does work very well? Suppose it allows a student to be able to memorise the contents of a whole book in a single pass? And then offers the student enhanced clarity and calm to do the papers? Don't dismiss the importance of composure in exams. I have students who know their stuff very well during consultations who just cannot perform under pressure(you know who you are, if you're reading this).

Would we have to have mandatory drug testing for exam takers in the future? We might simply accept it as a fact of life, since odds are that if it's available to students, working professionals, and yes, even teachers, would probably be using them as well.

My own take is that exams should be a level playing field. Students with access to more money and resources would likely have such performance enhancing drugs, while students from humbler families would not. While it's said that richer students have access to more tuition and books anyway, that's before the exam, and they can't bring into the exam hall those advantages. In the exam venue, every student is equal. You, your pen, your calculator, and your brain against the paper. If nootropics are to be allowed, then every student should have access to them, if only to make things fair. And why should exams be fair? Well, the answer to that is too long and complex to write here...

Anyway, Jerry Pournelle had very interesting article on this topic, titled, "Overclocking the Brain". The scientific jargon in the article should be comprehensible to the average chemistry/biology JC student. BTW, one of the books mentioned in the article, Flowers for Algernon, is a must read for any junior college student.


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