December 09, 2008
Scientists See Brain Enhancement As Making Better World

While most rhetoric about making the world a better place speaks in terms of less hunger, less disease, less war, less injustice, and less environmental damage a group of scientists see the boosting of cognitive abilities as a path toward a better world.

A commentary appearing today online in the journal Nature advocates for broad access to brain-boosting drugs. According to the piece, written by a group of ethicists, psychologists, and cognitive neuroscientists, "cognitive enhancement, unlike enhancement for sports competitions, could lead to substantive improvements in the world." While opponents have argued that the use of performance-enhancing drugs is unfair and could undermine the value of hard work, the authors say that these drugs fall into the same category as more common efforts to increase brain function, such as drinking a cup of coffee, or getting a good night's sleep, and thus should be regulated accordingly.

I like the "unlike enhancement for sports competitions". Why should we see enhancements for sports competitions as unethical? Biotechnology used to enhance sports performance prevents us from discovering each person's natural genetic potential. But why do so many object to this? Could it be a deep innate desire to evaluate the reproductive potential of others is threatened if others can run faster, throw farther, or dodge more adeptly with the help of biotech? If people can use gene therapy to athletically outperform their natural potential then we can't see what sorts of babies they'd make naturally.

But what about the brain? Way more important obviously. We've got machines that'll do much of the brawn work and brawn worker status is way down and still declining - with rare exceptions in sports. But we still need lots of people with lots of brain power, the more the merrier. So the advantages of cognitive enhancement are not just for the people who get the enhancements. A cognitively enhanced scientist discovers more. A brain boosted inventor comes up with more inventions. A doctor with a better memory and faster reasoning figures out diagnostic puzzles sooner and more accurately.

Of course, there are problematic facets to brain tinkering. Biotech will come along that'll allow people to suppress their consciences or make them get more pleasure out of making others suffer. Our emotions and desires will become more manipulable with biotechnology. As that happens humanity runs the chance of developing deeper cognitive incompatibilities that make the maintenance of peace and civilization problematic.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 December 09 10:41 PM  Bioethics Brain Reordering

malcolm said at December 9, 2008 11:07 PM:

The most effective (I assume) sports enhancing drugs are steroids. These frequently cause long term damage to the individuals taking them. The scientists in this case are being pretty bold in assuming the brain enhancers will not also result in long term damage. This is why I hold a seemingly unpopular opinion that a country's results in the olympics are inversly correlated with a healthy soceity. i.e a soceity that encourages young healthy people to do whatever it takes to win fame and fortune will probably encourage all sorts of nasty behaviour for the same goal. Hence the tech bubble, the enron type accounting scandals, insider trading and the current massive banking fraud to name a few.

Mthson said at December 10, 2008 1:11 AM:

Creatine is a legal athletic enhancer that is widely used and isn't known to have any downsides. I think steroids are regarded as cheating, where creatine is not, because steroids are regarded as carrying costs that make them not smart in the long run.

auntulna said at December 10, 2008 6:46 AM:

Phil Knight (smart guy) + waffle iron = sports enhancement. If only we had stopped there instead of going down the slippery slope!

James Bowery said at December 10, 2008 7:10 AM:

Phase I of The Oil Prize is focused on childhood neurological development by making DHA/EPA production scalable and economical. There is evidence that agriculture -- a rather pervasive source of human nutrition nowadays -- differs from the environment of evolutionary adaptation in one macronutrient most needed in brain development and function: it is deficient in DHA/EPA.

kurt9 said at December 10, 2008 11:13 AM:

The problem with the current neuro-enhancers is that their long-term effect is unknown. I hear talk about drugs that will reduce the need for sleep, for example. The problem with this is that sleep is when neuro-genesis and dendritic connections (long-term memory formation) occurs. This is a very fundamental process. So, I do not think sleeep is going away anytime soon. Some of the other neuro-enhancement stuff strikes me as being in the same category as sleep reduction. I don't buy into it at this time.

I take things that I believe offer anti-aging properties. For example, I take CoQ10, Resveratrol, and several other compounds. I view aging as a condition of dysfunctionality. So, I consider measures to counteract it to be restorative in nature. Neuro-enhancement, on the other hand, is pushing yourself beyond current optimal functionality. It is enhancement rather than restoration. We will most certainly be able to do this in the coming decades. But none of the stuff I hear talked about right now is anything I would consider using myself.

JosefB said at December 10, 2008 1:51 PM:

@Malcolm - Steroids frequently cause long term damage when used, incorrectly. Check out the movie "Bigger, Stronger, Faster". You might be surprised.

@Mthson - I think that might be one reason steroids are regarded as cheating. Additionally, Steroids are like a 20 Foot Ladder, while creatine is a more of a step stool.

I wonder about the unforeseen side-effects on society, as well as the individual. We would be artificially be skewing intelligence. We artificially skewed to corn production, that doesn't seem to be getting us anywhere. I think brain enhancers would also make us a more fragile society. Thinking about things is great, to a point. Smarter ideas in politics would be great. But it would probably just make the debates even less clear.

scottynx said at December 10, 2008 8:47 PM:

"I think brain enhancers would also make us a more fragile society. Thinking about things is great, to a point. Smarter ideas in politics would be great. But it would probably just make the debates even less clear."

I don't agree with that point, but let's assume it's true. Well, currently, the most important debates are about how to solve problems caused by low-IQ, low self-control people such as crime, illegitimacy, accidents, STD spreading sexual behavior, welfare use, being net tax eaters as opposed to net payers and so on and so on. Forms of brain enhancement that would raise IQ would mitigate these problems, and thus mitigate a whole lot of the need for "clear" debates.

Randall Parker said at December 10, 2008 9:23 PM:


You make a great point. A higher IQ society would have far less social pathology and less debate about what welfare policies, housing policies, and criminal justice system policies we need to deal with the messed up people.


Lower IQ people cause much bigger problems for a society as that table shows. It is from psychometrician Linda Gottfredson.

JosefB said at December 11, 2008 9:10 PM:

I realized I was taking a negative angle on this. I think both sides should be considered before anything occurred. I am all for a higher average IQ. But shouldn't we reach that naturally?

You're right when you look to eliminate those problems first. I was thinking of different issues.

Interesting Chart. Thanks.

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