Cognitive Enhancement is Going to be Increasingly Common in the Future, So What Do We Want to Use It For?

It’s socially acceptable to use drugs to correct deficits.  But it’s not acceptable to use drugs for enhancement.

Let’s use Adderall as an example. Adderall is most often prescribed to treat people who suffer from ADHD. And yet increasingly large numbers of students and professionals are using the drug purely to improve their productivity. The first case is legal and the second case is ostensibly illegal.  More importantly the first case is broadly socially acceptable, while the second case is not necessarily one you would want to discuss in mixed company, for fear more uptight people might infer you are some sort of amphetamine addict.

Why does this bias against enhancement exist?  I’m sure it has something to do with societal fears about addiction.  But my best guess is it has more to do with the general belief that: “There is no such thing as a free lunch in nature.”  Meaning, if you take a drug you might get benefits, but there are sure to be downsides as well, and so if you take a drug you had better really need that drug. Otherwise the risk is not merited.

This reasoning, while traditionally close to the truth, becomes questionable as drugs get better at producing genuine results, often with little side effects.  Recently, Paul Roote Wolpe, senior bioethicist at Nasa, had this to say:

“Up until now, it’s been a bit of a moot question because the drugs that we had had side effects that made them undesirable.  So if you take amphetamines to try to increase your attention, you’re going to have jitters, sleep disturbances and other things like that.  Now you have something like Modafinil, a much more benign drug that can, in many people, enhance attention without any of those systemic side effects.  And now we really have to begin to ask ourselves some interesting questions.

They did some studies, for example, with pilots.  Gave some of them, not Modafinil, but a similar type drug and some they didn’t and then they threw emergencies at them in flight simulators.  And what they discovered is that the pilots that were on attention enhancing drugs responded faster and more accurately to those emergencies.” (link)

We are continually going to be confronted with the prospect of better and better drugs that work. Drugs that don’t have long lists of side effects and don’t cause addiction. Drugs that don’t just cure sick people, they enhance healthy ones.

But enhance people towards what end?  Wolpe says:

Because here’s the truth about enhancement: every society will enhance itself – you will enhance yourself – to fulfill what you think are the proper goals for your life in your community and society.  So if we live in a country where the goal is to produce as rapidly as possible, to get ahead as quickly as possible, to achieve as much as possible, the enhancements you will choose in your life will be those that allow you to do that.  In a society where there’s more of a communal sense, in a society where achievement isn’t the be all and end all, you know, perhaps you’ll choose more social enhancements.

There’s quite a lot to think about here, but I think the main point is that when it comes to cognitive enhancement the future is very undetermined. As we start messing with our brain chemistry what comes out the other side of the tunnel depends a great deal on the set of assumptions we enter the tunnel with in the first place.

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