October 10, 2003
Will Neuroceutical Usage Widen Ability Gaps Within And Across Societies?

Zack Lynch argues that drugs that will boost intelligence will improve the productivity of those who opt to use them.

As different aspects of mental health are better understood, more parts of the innovative process will be impacted such as accelerating learning via cogniceuticals to enhancing interpersonal communication with emoticeuticals. As neuroceutical usage spreads across industries it will create a new economic “playing field” wherein individuals who use neuroceuticals will achieve a higher level of productivity than those who don’t.

Many such drugs are already under development. In the future drugs will be available that raise intelligence and that increase the length of time that intense concentration can be maintained. Permanent memory formation will be enhanced. Short term memory will be enhanced as well. Improving the mental capabilities of workers is certain to boost economic productivity and output. Engineers will be able to hold more aspects of designs in their minds and combine design elements in different ways more rapidly. Writers will be able to remember more facts and ideas and formulate sentences more quickly. Managers will be able to think thru problems more thoroughly and do so for longer periods of time. Okay, great. Can't wait. But there are still major questions about how this will all play out. What follows are speculations on the likely distribution of usage of brain-boosting drugs within populations and whether such drugs will make us more or less alike in our mental abilities.

First of all, we start with the fact that people differ in their intelligence. We are not all equally capable to start with. There is general intelligence and then there also are various components of mental functioning (e.g. spatial perception, short term memory, ability to form long term memories) that tend to vary with general intelligence but not perfectly so. For instance, a person can suffer brain damage that prevents the formation of long term memories and still retain the ability to hold short term memories. But the important point here is that people differ in their innate mental abilities.

Given that people start with different innate abilities what will the effect be of the use of brain-boosting drugs. If everyone used brain-boosting drugs would we become more or less equal in mental abilities? Well, it depends in part on why people differ in ability in the first place and the mechanisms by which the brain-boosters will work. By analogy, suppose two engine were identical except one had cleaner spark plugs than the other and hence ran at higher horsespower. If you added something that cleaned the spark plugs then only the lower horsepower engine would benefit and the effect would be to bring the two engines closer together in measured horsepower. But if you took two engines that were of different size and therefore different horsepower (say 100 and 200 hp) and you gave them better fuel that boosted them both in horsepower, by, say 10% the effect would probably be to widen the gap in absolute horsepower since they'd go to being 110 and 220 horsepower. A 100 hp difference would be replaced with a 110 hp difference. Also, imagine some enhancement to an engine's ignition system or fuel system that could only be added to engines that have camshafts that are strong enough to withstand greater force applied to them. Not all engines have the ability to get boosted in horsepower by use of a better fuel system because some other part would break if that happened. Or it could be that only if one has valves of a certain shape that an improved fuel mix could be properly utilized.

My guess is that different brain-boosting drugs will be discovered that operate in ways analogous to each of the engine scenarios outlined above. Some brain-boosting drugs will be discovered that will basically give less smart brains some improvement that smarter brains already have. So those brain-boosting drugs will narrow the differences in intellectual abilities. But it is also likely that other brain-boosting drugs will be discovered that boost by some percentage across all minds and therefore will have the effect analogous to that of the better fuel that makes the performance gap between engines even wider. Still other brain-boosting drugs may turn out to only benefit the smartest because, for instance, it could be that certain genetic variations that boost intelligence can be enhanced by drugs but you would have to have the intelligence-boosting variation that a drug operates on in order to benefit from the drug.

So will brain-boosting drugs overall narrow or increase the spread of intelligence in human populations? My guess is that they will tend overall to widen the spread. Drugs do not seem like effective agents for improving inefficiencies in enzymes that may lower intelligence. Gene therapies will probably be able to do that eventually. But simple classical chemical compound drugs are probably not going to be able to fix most protein shape variations that cause some to be not as smart. Also, to the extent that intelligence is caused by having a larger number of neurons and a generally larger brain, well, short of making the brain case bigger with surgery it is going to be hard to give a smaller brained person more volume for growing new neurons. Plus, trying to expand a fully differentiated brain is going to be difficult. Though there are much better prospects for feeding drugs to babies to make their brains to grow larger. Still, if we restrict our analysis to fully grown adults my guess is that brain-boosting drugs will tend to widen the range of intelligence in a population if the drugs are used equally by all.

Of course, the "if the drugs are used equally by all" assumption is not likely to hold up in practice. Look at the whole world. Certainly when brain-boosting drugs first become available they will not be used by everyone all at once. The drugs will not be approved in all countries at the same time. Some people will be afraid to try them. Some won't be able to afford them. The most affluent in the most industrialized countries are likely to try them at a faster rate. Also, people who do mentally difficult work already will have the biggest short-term incentive to try brain-boosting drugs. Someone who is just digging ditches, is worried about the risk, doesn't see any immediate economic benefit, and who sees the cost as substantial will probably decide to wait. But someone who is a trader on Wall Street tracking huge numbers of bond contracts and pulling down a few hundred thousand dollars a year is going to jump on a drug that boost intelligence or memory before other traders get a leg up by jumping on it first. People in especially competitive and highly paying occupations will have the biggest incentive and means to be first users.

This all leads me to believe that brain-boosting drugs will tend to widen the distribution of the level of mental functioning in any one society and in the world as a whole. This will provoke a variety of political responses. For instance, expect to see demands from the political Left for government subsidies and price controls on drugs that boost intelligence. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Government subsidies to fund the purchase of brain-boosting drugs will probably turn out to be a net benefit for society as a whole if the drugs help unemployed people to learn skills that turn them into taxpayers.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 October 10 02:59 PM  Biotech Society

Nancy Lebovitz said at October 11, 2003 8:41 AM:

There could be surprises, too--people of average default intelligence who get so much out of the drugs that they surpass many people who default to smarter.

The other wild card, and not nearly as cheering, is that some of the drugs might turn out to have good short term effects but bad longterm effects and/or damage one's judgement about one's state. If the drugs are preferentially used by people who are making important decisions and, as seems reasonable, can't be controlled by the government, the outcome could be ugly.

Fly said at October 12, 2003 10:53 AM:

Even without wide usage mental enhancement could have a major impact on society. A small increase in the intelligence or creativity of top scientists and inventors could accelerate scientific progress. Many discoveries and inventions may be just beyond the present mental reach of the brightest. A small enhancement could produce big results.

Dick Thompson said at October 13, 2003 2:04 PM:

Another good effect would be to have extremely smart people who don't have the personality problems of the biologically smart ones who have been to some degree warped by growing up in a society dominated by people with lower IQs.

michael vassar said at October 14, 2003 7:41 AM:

We already have LOTS of drugs that make some people smarter in some respects but fuck other people up. These are callued psychedelics. New drugs with the same curve widening effect will likewise be illegal under any regime resembling our current one. In general, it's much easier to fix something that's broken than to invent something new, and it's easier to make something by copying nature and reproducing the mental abilities of the smartest people than by inventing new intelligence enhancing drugs.
Also, marginal benefits to intelligence matter a lot more for people in the lower 95% of the bell curve than for those at the top, for whom specificic cognitive strengths, knowledge, culture, and personality traits are a far larger part of success. OTOH, there may be lots of people who could be made more functional by drugs which boosted specific cognitive traits such as short term or long term memory or language ability (or possibly by drugs which suppressed such abilities or suppressed certain enzyme functions in a manner which allowed better use of other abilities). A ditch-digger will probably actually get far more functionality from 20 points of IQ than a wall-street trader, but the trader might get far more benefit from specifically boosting his ability to recognize mathematical patterns.

RB said at October 14, 2003 9:25 AM:

Men and women have differently shaped IQ curves, with a higher variance for males. There are more subjects on both ends of the curve for males, whereas females snuggly occupy the middle. So there are more male morons and more male geniuses.

An IQ enhancing drug may increase the number of female geniuses, and reduce the number of male morons. One can only imagine how society would be changed as a result.

scott clark said at May 2, 2004 7:28 AM:

i have purchased many diff. supplements through time to enhance my mental state.(phosphatidyl serine , ginko biloba etc. )is there and does anyone know of any other supplements or pharmaceutacals that do enhance. please e-mail me

ron tracy said at June 19, 2005 6:48 PM:

There already are a number of cognitive enhancing products on the market. These are generally referred to as "nootropics" or "smart drugs". They include substances like Piracetam, Lucidril,
Vinpocetine, DMAE, Deprenyl and Selegiline as well as more common ones like choline, ginkgo,
phospatidyl choline, phospatidyl serine and lecithin to name a few. Their effects are well documented and they are relatively easy to obtain. And yes, they do give you an edge.

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