Beggars in Spain

What does it say about me (or modern life) that when I read Judith Warner's column last week about the use of brain-enhancing drugs my first reaction was to wonder how one goes about getting some Provigil?  (It's an anti-narcolepsy drug, which apparently allows one to maintain brain functionality in spite of sleep deprivation.  And for the record, the only drug I'm actually taking is claritin.)

I'm not a scientist, and I don't know what the side effects of these drugs are.  But a few months ago, after being up most of the night with one of the boys, I went to work, and was pretty fuzzy around the edges.  And then I realized that I had spent a good two years or more in that kind of a fog every single day.  And if someone had offered me a drug to make it go away (other than caffeine), I'm pretty sure I'd have jumped for it.

If asprin were invented today, it would probably require a prescription — between its blood thinning action and the potential for Reye's syndrome, it's easy to make the case that it's too dangerous to be available without control.  Caffeine is ubiquitous, but I could argue that it's as much of a mind-altering substance as Provigil or Ritalin.  I think the editorial in Nature arguing for legalizing these drugs for people who aren't "ill" is pretty convincing.

*If you're wondering about the title, it's a reference to Nancy Kress' excellent sci-fi novel Beggars in Spain, where she explores what happens if some people are genetically engineered not to need sleep, and thus have an advantage over the rest of us.  Pills are certainly more egalitarian than genetic modification.

5 Responses to “Beggars in Spain”

  1. gayle greene Says:

    Well, I tried provigil and was really underwhelmed. Didn’t feel any less tired,but felt buzzy, heart raced, couldn’t sleep… mentally fuzzy.
    As an insomniac (author of INSOMNIAC), I found the fantasy of Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain very unappealing. Eternal wakefulness to get an edge over the rest of the human race–I don’t think so. I’d like to know how to get more and better sleep, not less. Sleep is a treasure…why throw it away?

  2. Laura Says:

    I thought the same thing about the Warner column. I was thinking–maybe there’s something for me, that will help me focus even when I’m tired and cranky.

  3. dave.s. Says:

    Claritin? In January? we’re not going to start our daughter on it til late Feb. But seriously folks – here we are, designed by nature with unknown precision to face very different conditions. There’s no reason to think that some drugs won’t make it better. My kid uses Concerta, and went from being sent to principal three times for fighting in a month to having gone a year and a half without incident. I’m for it.

  4. Andrea Says:

    I guess that depends on social codes and how they evolve with these new drugs.
    If you look at painkillers, in addition to the substantial upside there is now a downside taht people are expected to take painkillers in certain situations, even when it’s not good for them (i.e. athletes getting through injuries on aspirin and damaging themselves further). It’s not something anyone could have predicted with a study, that one day we would be *expected* to take drugs.
    So, something that would help people be alert when they had to be on little sleep? Great.
    Something that would help people live long-term without the sleep they need? Not so great.
    Something that people would be expected to take so that they wouldn’t need as much sleep and their employers could exploit them? (truck drivers, pilots, nurses, etc.) Really not so great.
    Because sleep–as much as I liked Beggers in Spain, and I did–isn’t frivolous. A lot of recent research shows that it is the key to memory and learning, allowing our brains to consolidate emotionally and cognitively important events of the day into long-term storage. Beggars in Spain posited that sleep was just a way of getting us out of the path of hunting predators during evolution, and maybe that’s how it started, but it does a whole lot more now.

  5. Zinemama Says:

    Beggars in Spain was good, but for really excellent Kress, check out her short story collection, The Aliens of Earth. There’s one in particular, about a project in which linchpin characters in history who are responsible for untold misery (directly or inadvertantly) are yanked out of time and taken to a sort of holding zone. The story is about what happens when they nab Ann Boleyn.

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