Better thinking through chemistry

Some of you may remember last year’s April Fool’s Day joke, in which we (along with other science bloggers) described a move by US and European funding agencies to ban “brain doping” among academics?

It was a fairly realistic prank, with contributions from around the scientific blogosphere — helped along by the sizable number of real articles we were able to cite debating the pros and cons of cognitive enhancement. Jon Eisen, the joke’s mastermind, even got called by local newspapers for comments on the story.

The conversation continues with this Commentary piece in a little journal called Nature:

Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy

Today, on university campuses around the world, students are striking deals to buy and sell prescription drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin — not to get high, but to get higher grades, to provide an edge over their fellow students or to increase in some measurable way their capacity for learning. These transactions are crimes in the United States, punishable by prison. …

In this article, we propose actions that will help society accept the benefits of enhancement, given appropriate research and evolved regulation. Prescription drugs are regulated as such not for their enhancing properties but primarily for considerations of safety and potential abuse. Still, cognitive enhancement has much to offer individuals and society, and a proper societal response will involve making enhancements available while managing their risks.

I am not linking to this article because of my involvement in that old prank. Instead, I’m sharing it with all of you because I suspect that the structure of arguments about cognitive enhancement will mirror those of future debates regarding lifespan extension.

Both fields involve treatments that promise to improve or increase a parameter of human performance — one that varies to some extent within the natural population, but that seems fixed for a given individual. In both cases, human beings are “fine” without the intervention — that is, we live comfortably (and, for the most part, happily) knowing that there is nothing much we can do to make ourselves smarter, and looking forward to our allotted threescore years and ten.

Beginning from the premise that what isn’t broken ought not be fixed, or that the “natural order” of things ought not be meddled with, critics of both cognitive enhancement and lifespan extension may argue that neither sort of intervention in Normal Human Lives™ is warranted, especially given the potential for various negative consequences:

  • inhomogeneous access to drugs, in particular when based on economic inequities that may have deep roots in racial or social injustice;
  • fraud, e.g., unethical practitioners cashing in with bogus treatments, once the benefits of real treatments have been clearly demonstrated;
  • unforeseen side effects at the level of the individual; or
  • foreseeable consequences to society at large, e.g. economic dislocations as the enhanced become more employable than the non-enhanced, or resource scarcities arising as a result of demographic transition.

(A quick digression: Let me underscore that I don’t dismiss any of these possibilities out of hand. I see merit in many of the potential criticisms of both sorts of human enhancement. I think that most of the negative outcomes listed above are likely to be made manifest in some form, particularly during transitional periods. After long reflection, however, I have come to believe that (a) the benefits outweigh the costs, especially over the long term, and (b) being honest with ourselves about the risks of major intervention in any basic parameter of human performance is the best way to intelligently prepare against adverse consequences. Let us always be suspicious of arguments in which everything lines up in favor of one side and no one has to make a complex decision. We now return you to the main line of the post.)

Thus, the argument will run, we should leave well enough alone and forego the potential benefits of cognitive enhancement (present) or lifespan extension (future) technologies.

The structural similarities between the opposition to these two classes of “meddling” are pronounced enough that I think those of us in the pro-lifespan extension camp would do well to carefully observe how the debate proceeds on the question of cognitive enhancement — and take notes — because, someday, we’re going to be having the same debate about lifespan.



  1. -inhomogeneous access
    -unforeseen side effects at the level of the individual
    -foreseeable consequences to society at large

    I think these objections could be applied to any technical advance whatsoever.

  2. I am SO f***ing glad I came across this. I am excetionally naive when it comes to the neuro-enhancement of our species. It would seem obvious that this is the way forward to me, and I am just a lay-person trying to understand it all.

    “the premise that what isn’t broken ought not be fixed”

    …is something I have been pondering for a while since reading a book called ‘Left in the Dark’, which argues a grand case IMO that our brains are not at the evolutionary peak we would like to think they are at. There may just be a glitch in how our brain is developing, particulary during gestation that is having a significant affect on things like aging and intellegence.

    If there is even a shred of truth in this hypothesis, that is gaining a tremendous amount of academic support, then to not intervene with the maintenance and developement of the neuro-chemistry would be a sign of insanity.

  3. I like your comparison of brain doping with life extension. The long term (and even short term) cognitive benefit of taking Ritalin is marginal at best. All these ADHD and narcolepsy medications are just snake oil for the brain. No perfectly healthy non-drug addicted person (which is most of us) would voluntarily take them on a daily basis.

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