Enhancement imaginaries: exploring public understandings of pharmaceutical cognitive enhancing drugs

The growing use of psychoactive substances in everyday life, the increasing experimentation among users and the potential of poly drug use for non-medical, lifestyle or enhancement purposes presents an evolving policy challenge. The paper aims to build on previous research to gain a more in-depth qualitative understanding of the imaginaries around pharmaceutical cognitive enhancement (PCE). It focuses in particular on how the so-called pharmaceutical cognitive enhancing drugs (PCEDs) might be used and the social acceptability of these uses across multiple social contexts and groups. Data come from 23 focus groups (99 participants), representing a wide range of social groups, recruited in the UK. We discuss four distinct ‘enhancement practices’ where PCE use was conceptualised as a way to (1) become the best version of oneself; (2) gain a competitive edge over others; (3) for personal achievement or well-being; and (4) promote personal/public safety. The findings problematise the term ‘enhancement’ by showing the different ways in which the use of pharmaceutical ‘enhancement’ drugs can be imagined and understood. We argue for the value of policy responses that acknowledge and respond to a wider range of enhancement practices including those of prospective user groups.