How life imitates pranks: Issues and ethics of cognitive enhancement

In 2008 I was involved in an April Fool’s Day prank: a horde of science bloggers, under the sway of a charismatic yet psychotic leader, all conspired to publish the same fake story: that the NIH and European science funding bodies had decided to ban the use of grant funds by scientists who engage in “brain doping”, i.e., mental performance enhancement through the use of pharmaceuticals.

The prank was relatively successful — enough so that mastermind Jon Eisen got calls from reporters pursuing it as a legitimate story — but we can’t take all the credit. The fake story was believable in large part because it was so close to the truth: “brain doping” is actually very widespread, enough so that several entities in the mainstream media had already pondered its potential effects on the “level playing field” of academic science (see the list in the original prank post).

Margaret Talbot’s recent New Yorker piece is probably the longest and most comprehensive treatment of the subject I’ve seen so far. It starts with a discussion of brain doping by students but also considers their role in the workplace and the medical, ethical and sociological implications of cognitive enhancement (though, happily, it doesn’t spend very much energy hand-wringing over worst-case scenarios resulting from use and abuse of such approaches). There’s even a connection to lifespan extension (link):

BRAIN GAIN: The underground world of “neuroenhancing” drugs

And on Internet forums such as ImmInst, whose members share a nerdy passion for tweaking their cognitive function through drugs and supplements, people trade advice about dosages and “stacks”—improvised combinations—of neuroenhancers. …

Seltzer considers himself a “transhumanist,” in the mold of the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom and the futurist writer and inventor Ray Kurzweil. Transhumanists are interested in robots, cryogenics, and living a really, really long time; they consider biological limitations that the rest of us might accept, or even appreciate, as creaky obstacles to be aggressively surmounted. On the ImmInst forums—“ImmInst” stands for “Immortality Institute”—Seltzer and other members discuss life-extension strategies and the potential benefits of cognitive enhancers.

I’ve argued before that there are profound similarities between some of the ethical issues raised by cognitive enhancement and those raised by lifespan extension, especially in the structure of the arguments underlying opposition to these kinds of intervention. For those of us interested in expanding human longevity, it will be wise to keep abreast of the discussion.



  1. The regulation of the athletic “doping” field, and what is legal vs. illegal, is a complete mystery to me. It seems hard to believe that someone can legally buy what amounts to a glorified plastic bag with a gas tank attached to it, and sleep in it every night, in order to boost production of erythropoetin, but if that same person just buys EPO off the shelf and injects it, they’re breaking the law. In what possible way are these 2 things any different? I would even argue that sleeping in a hypoxic tent is easier than injections (if you’re scared of needles). Both are un-natural, and both bring about identical physiological responses. Why the fuss about one being illegal and the other not?

    I suspect there are similar parallels in the neuro-doping field, i.e. doing the daily crossword is a good surrogate for injections of domapine/serotonin/insert-neurotransmitter-of-choice-here. If people wanna go the “easy” (?) injection route, that’s fine, but personally I’d rather do the crossword as a neuro-enhancement technique. Hoepfully there will never be a ban on crosswords because they give some people a competitive intellectual edge.

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