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The seduction of cognitive enhancement: how “far” can we go?

The seduction of cognitive enhancement: how “far” can we go? Lights and ideas by Jaci XIII

Cognitive enhancement is the use of drugs and any other means aimed at enhancing performance in healthy individuals. How “far” can we go to enhance ourselves? Should there be any “limits” to what we could achieve?

In the past people have always tried to improve their own intellectual abilities through study, training and hard work. However, since a couple of decades, people are attempting to “shortcut” the mental effort required by using supplements (tyrosine),  drugs (Ritalin, Modafinil) or medical techniques (brain stimulation such as tVNS and tDCS). Indeed, there is evidence that some pharmaceutical products, or medical procedures developed to treat medical conditions may also enhance intellectual performance in healthy people. This of course raises ethical issues  about “mental” doping. These “cognitive enhancing” methods are already being used without any precautions by students to increase their academic performance. Do we want this? Do we really need to became “more than what we are”?  Are there legitimate reasons to limit individual choice in that respect, even if we don’t know the long term effects of such methods? After an exam should we screen students for the use of Ritalin?

Why would be OK to reform the education system in order to improve overall cognitive ability, but may not be OK the use of pharmaceutical, surgical or genetic methods of achieving exact the same aim? As Machiavelli would say, does not the end justify the means? Still in the eighties, plastic surgery to improve the physical appearance was considered questionable and “unethical” and nowadays it has become a socially accepted procedure. Why is a “facelift” OK but a “brain-lift” does not?    

Western societies are highly competitive, that means that we are judged based on how “productive” we are, how good we score on tests and examinations. Cognitive enhancement allow us to get what is called “positional benefit” that arises from improving one’s  position compared to others. However, different forms of cognitive enhancers come with different levels of medical risk: for example, brain stimulation is safer compared to the addictive potential of enhancing drugs. Further, once success is achieved, there may be increased pressure on the individual to continue using the drug to maintain that level of performance leading to a vicious circle of dependency and addiction.  That is, the use of cognitive enhancers could increase the pressure of always being “on the top”, to work harder, longer and more intensively and so it could, in fact, end up exacerbating one of the very problems it was intended to solve. On the other hand, cognitive enhancers could be used as a tool of “fair opportunities”, a way of reducing some of the “built-in” and innate inequalities within society. This would  give to “frail” people the best chance of achieving their full potential and of competing on equal terms with their peers.

In my role as researcher active in the field of cognitive enhancement I want to understand the mechanism of action by means of which we can get better. Personally, I believe that the use of any enhancing method should be “legal” as long as it is “safe” for the people to employ it. It is up to the people to decide, if they want to improve their cognition or not. It should not be prohibited, but it should not be mandatory either. As Walter Bishop observed: “There are no limits, except for those that we impose on ourselves”. 

24 Comments

Lisa-Marie Kraushaar
Posted by Lisa-Marie Kraushaar on November 9, 2016 at 13:49

First of all let us think about the vibes in our society with regard to “cognitive enhancement”. I suggest that cognitive enhancement has a predominantly negative connotation. Associations such as medicine students with 24 hours shifts or hard working manager who are addicted to this kind of enhancement are made. But these considerations imply that cognitive enhancement alludes to the high performing people who live over the limit. But I would like to dissociate this special target group from clients who are truly in need of cognitive enhancement. To a greater extent it is the minority of the society who are actual dependent. Children, men and women who live at the edge of the society are of significance.
These humans are often faced with cognitive enhancement below average. I think needy people deserve extra help to take part in our society both social and professional areas.  As a consequence, it can boost people so that they can sustain one´s position in the competitive world. No exclusions from average work, family living and healthy ambitions such as sport. But this step should be accompanied with regulatory guidelines for their use. Otherwise they can be victims of addiction, because of the not proven long-term consequences.
But where is the boundary for legality and illegality? People can be abusive in meaning of a world which is dominated by competition. A suggested scan cannot be the ultimate criterion for separation. Also there are on one hand the external medical advices. On the other hand every human can appeal to their own personality and individuality. Do I have to take special drugs so as to be part of the society? What about my nature given trades and my already demonstrated achievements? Is it all about performance and do I have to underlie the pressure to perform? What about my inner voice and capabilities. Is it worth it to overcome them to merge with an ideal person driven by media and distorted perception?
To put it in a nutshell, I believe that cognitive enhancement can be a chance for people who are sick and are in need of a special medication to make a living. But I disagree that it should become legal for everybody worldwide by means of individuality and the not proven long-term risks. From my point of view there is a reason for our existing body and its boundaries which are fixed in the laws of nature. I am outraged thinking of the possible consequences because of our society which is driven to the obsessive perfection and the increasing “me first” society.

Fabienne Reher
Posted by Fabienne Reher on November 9, 2016 at 10:34

In my opinion cognitive enhancement is a field of research which raises ethical issues in many ways: the personal health, the free will of human beings, the society and questions of the long-term impact of cognitive enhancement on these issues.

First of all I agree that in general everyone should be allowed to decide if he or she wants to improve his or her cognitive performance as long as the used technique is legal. But beside this free will there is society. There is the need for the decision to permit or prohibit cognitive enhancement in order to think about the consequences in society’s development. For me personally the development of the society contains the most questionable risks by allowing cognitive enhancement without any restrictions.

The natural borders for requirements to human beings are their cognitive possibilities. If we allow to stretch these by using pharmaceutical or other techniques, there is no border left to prevent the overload on employees for example. In my opinion there is a big threat that these techniques to improve the cognitive performance become as normal in society as plastic surgery described in the article. The pressure on everyone in high positions and challenging jobs will increase immensely. We can observe the beginning of this development because cognitive enhancement is a big issue for students in colleges and universities. I can’t see yet that it could help to increase fair chances for people. The accessibility to these methods of cognitive enhancements is very diverse which could increase the unfair inequalities of people in place of reducing them.

Maybe there are possibilities of restriction or indications for these techniques to help people achieving their full potential. In this case I would agree that cognitive enhancement is a chance to improve performance and therefore the lives of people. I think that by now the permission to use these like it is in the moment is a big risk for the well-being of individuals and the adequate competition in society.

Stefanie S.
Posted by Stefanie S. on November 7, 2016 at 10:25

In my opinion, the vagueness of what cognitive enhancement will look like in the future, under which circumstances it will (not) be applied and which (side) effects it could have, makes the discussion on ethical aspects of cognitive enhancement extremely complex and contributes to the danger of arising arguments that fall short. I could easily agree with the claim to allow a “safe” and not “mandatory” form of cognitive enhancement– but only if I apply my very own understanding of “safe” and “mandatory”. Explicit definitions seem to lack.
Can we call something safe when its long-term effects are not yet examined in detail? Do we even have appropriate methods to discover effects which are confounded by many other factors? I can make sense of accepting the remaining uncertainty when it is about treating illnesses (as it might be considered the lesser of the two evils) but I have some doubts, if it is okay to expose healthy human beings to that risk.
Of course, one could say that we should leave this decision up to the people themselves. If it is neither illegal nor mandatory, everyone could make his or her own choice. Well, could he or she? I think, the real problem is that there are not adequate forms to ensure that cognitive enhancement will not become mandatory in future. Certainly, laws can be adopted to prohibit any kind of enforcement to use methods of cognitive enhancement. However, I assume that an unrestricted allowance for individuals to decide on the use of cognitive enhancement would build up social pressure. In the worst case, this pressure could end up in making the use of cognitive enhancement mandatory in social terms. The blog entry raised the issue that someone who has once taken drugs to enhance his performance might easily feel forced to do it again to maintain performance. I also see the danger that those deciding to take enhancement drugs impose a restriction on everyone else’s opportunity to make an independent decision. People having doubts could be pushed towards using cognitive enhancers because they get the feeling that it is the only way to remain competitive. In that way, cognitive enhancement would contribute to the competitiveness of our society instead of being a tool for fair opportunities.
If sooner or later enhancers being effective for everyone will be available, an individual could no longer compensate deficits (for example resulting from a lower socioeconomic status) because their competitors could use drugs as well. Therefore, cognitive enhancement cannot be a long-term solution for fighting unfairness. Beyond that, there might also be a risk that introducing cognitive enhancement in daily life could undermine efforts to make a change about the root causes of unfairness in our society.
Despite all the social and societal effects mentioned, which suggest a strict regulation of cognitive enhancement, I can get something out of the idea that people with cognitive impairments get a chance to live a normal live through cognitive enhancement. In the end, people with cognitive impairments deserve a treatment of their illness just as people with other illnesses do. For that reason, I do not want to categorically speak against research on cognitive enhancement methods. On the other hand, this point of view leads to further basic issues: Where to draw the line? Which kind of impairment should be defined as an illness and which kind as “normal”? Who could decide who is allowed to use cognitive enhancers and who is not? Could it be fair at all to limit the use of cognitive enhancers to certain groups?
Raising these questions brings me back to my initial statement: It is extremely difficult to decide about the ethics of cognitive enhancement without knowing the exact form it will have. For example, I have less concern about the safety of cognitive enhancement methods based on dietary changes compared to those based on chemically synthesized drugs. All in all, I believe, that neither a total ban of cognitive enhancement nor leaving the decision up to the individuals themselves is the right way. Instead, I would like to speak for continuing research on cognitive enhancement, but only if it goes hand in hand with an ongoing ethical debate that considers the specific conditions associated with a certain method of cognitive enhancement. I think, crucial factors as the safety of cognitive enhancement or the danger of its abuse can be discussed more easily and precisely, if the discussion focuses on a single method. Therefore, every researcher is asked to take over the responsibility of fostering the ethical debate along with every new attempt to gain evidence on cognitive enhancement methods. In my opinion, an inseparable conjunction of research and ethical debate is the only way that could prevent us from either prematurely banning something that could have been beneficial for society or allowing something without considering the unwanted consequences.

Raphael Herbers
Posted by Raphael Herbers on November 7, 2016 at 02:26

For me personally one of the most important values in life is independence. That is why I tend to disagree with the legalization of any kind of drug that entails addictive effects. One can easily see how performance enhancers can lead to mental addictions, thus limiting the dependent’s independence. But there are more reasons why I lean towards rejecting the legalization of performance enhancers.

First of all, also referred to as a more negatively connoted “mind doping” cognitive enhancers lead to an unfair advantage for the ones using it over the ones not using it. This applies at least as long as there are people that do not have access to it, i. e. by price regulation, leading to another aspect supporting social inequality.
Secondly, when speaking about ways of enhancing performance we should also consider the already sickening effects (i. e. burnout) that the pressure to perform has lead to in our society.
Long-term effects obviously are another aspect that are to be taken into consideration. While there may be scientific research suggesting that some forms of cognitive enhancement are safe to be used, this is somethings that has applied to a number of pharmaceutical agents initially that have showed to mediate various diseases later on.

However, used in controlled environments I can also see beneficial impacts of cognitive enhancement such as in therapeutic contexts.

Whilst stating a strong opinion against cognitive enhancement I am very anxious to find out more about its pros and its scientific establishment in the seminar leading to a more differentiated view of the topic.

Arnulf S.
Posted by Arnulf S. on November 6, 2016 at 22:32

First of all one has to note that mankind has proven in its history that everything which is possible will be done, be it ever so reprehensible. One of the most prominent examples was using the atomic bomb against people at the end of WW II.
So it is illusive to believe that the use of treatments for cognitive enhancement could be stopped by prohibition. We learn from dealing with cocain and herion by justice that prohibition supports illegal businesses and elevates prices by placing incentives for lowering product quality, with enormous risks for the users. The only thing prohibition does not do is stopping the use of those drugs.

So a general prohibition of cognitive enhancement can´t be the means of choice.

In my opinion cognitive enhancement has many similiarities with body-building. In both cases a muscle is the base. We can achieve some effort with common training of our brain, as we can by train every muscle of our body. Those who want to achieve extraordinary characteristics can use some supplements or special treatments.
They can be classified for example by usefullness, simplicity, costs and side effects. It is the responsibility of the single human beeing which level of enhancement is acceptable, comfortable and worth the risk going along with the use.
But in order to be able to judge on this points it is important to have access on all relevant informations and to get products of controlled and standardised quality. So dealing with products for cognitive enhancement should not be prohibited but regulated like similar health concerning themes.

BUT one ever has to take in account that the human body is based on balance and that evolution has developed the performance of human beeings over millions of years.
So it may be called short-sighted to believe that artifical cognitive enhancement could do the job of evolution, which evolution didn´t do.

Last but not least we can stress the comparison between computer and brain once more. Modern Computer have a turbo overdrive mode for their CPU. For a short term they are able to run with extra performance. In case the CPU would run in this mode for longterm the computer would overheat and destroy itself. In the case of the computer we are aware of the consequences…

Anna-Karina Dittmann
Posted by Anna-Karina Dittmann on November 6, 2016 at 18:26

I have highly ambivalent associations concerning the topic cognitive enhancement. I personally think that there is a wide range of perspectives for and against the use of enhancing methods which all have to be considered and discussed. In the following I mention only a few considerations concerning the topic.
First of all I would like to make it clear that I understand healthy people who use cognitive enhancement to improve cognitive ability. In today’s society we are confronted with the pressure to conform and people want to go to their limits to be successful. Improve and develop themselves is very important and human, but in my opinion it gets critical if people use drugs or other means aimed at enhancing performance which are unexplored in all its effects on physical and psychological health and possibly harmful.
Besides the medical risks, social impacts of these supplements have to be considered. Is it fair that some people benefit from pharmaceutical products or medical procedures in our competitive society and others try to reach their aims in a natural way? In sports competitions the answer is no. It is illegal for athlets to use such supplements so why it should be legal in other competitions of life? This rules relate to fairness because everyone should be given the same chance and to the protection of physical health. Often athlets risk their healthiness due to the pressure to conform.
On the other hand the field of cognitive enhancement could offer a lot of possibilities how we can get better in an easy and harmless way. Why should it not be okay if supplements bring more benefits than harm and are available for everyone? All in all it is unavoidable to explore the benefits and disadvantages of cognitive enhancement, especially the adverse long term effects because people have always tried to improve their cognitive abilities and there will always be anybody who are willing to use all available possibilities to reach his or her aims. That is why there should be definitely more research in the field of cognitive enhancement to discovering methods that are safe and not addictive. In my opinion it is also important that the people have to be informed about possible consequences (i.e., addiction, long term effects or social impacts with regard of fairness) to promote a responsible handling. In summary I agree that the use of safe enhancing methods should be legal but only under strict conditions. 

Sidney Wach
Posted by Sidney Wach on November 6, 2016 at 16:13

I totally agree with the opinion, that it should be the people‘s decision, if they want to improve their cognition or not. People could have great benefits from safe cognitive enhancement which is not harmful. If someone would invent a “brain lift”, that makes everyone smarter without any side effects, what could be bad about it?

On the other hand, I’m not sure if I agree with the argument, that cognitive enhancement should only be “legal” as long as it is 100 % “safe” for the people to employ it.

Generally, it’s important that social rules, laws and political decisions encourage the people to live safe and healthy. But on the other hand, personal liberty and the ability to decide and act according to your own will should not be underestimated.

To form my view on the topic of cognitive enhancement, I thought about the balance between liberty and government control in other health-related topics like medication and drugs as well as nutrition.
For special medical drugs you need a prescription, but you can also buy many medical drugs in a pharmacy without one. For example, Paracetamol is quite harmful for the liver, if you are taking too much of it. It is still not illegal. Why? Because it also has positive effects, if you use it in the right way.

Drugs are also a good example: In Germany, every adult person can smoke as many cigarettes and drink as much alcohol as she or he wants to. The same for nutrition: Should a cheeseburger, chocolate or coke be illegal? No, because people like it.

All those examples have one thing in common: It’s not prohibited or illegal, even if it’s not 100 % safe. Furthermore, smoking - for example - is 100 % harmful! So, why should cognitive enhancement be illegal?

To sum up: In my opinion, everyone should decide on his or her own, if he or she wants to live with possible negative effects for enhanced cognitive abilities. But to help people making a good decision, government should foster the cognitive enhancement research and educate the public about possible (side) effects.

Hannah Berg
Posted by Hannah Berg on November 6, 2016 at 16:00

Personally, I don’t think that methods of cognitive enhancement should be illegal. I do see why it is a subject of lots of heated discussions, I do see the difficulties, but I don’t think a prohibition would be an adequate solution for this complex problem.

Having lived with people with cognitive deficiencies, I could often see how frustrating and sometimes humiliating it can be to feel that you don’t have the same abilities as other people have. And even though it is most obvious in this case, these feelings don’t just come with a clear diagnosis of cognitive disability. Sometimes, people seem to forget that cognitive enhancement isn’t always about striving to be the best. Sometimes it’s just about trying to keep up.

Besides, I don’t think that the comparison to doping in professional sports competitions really applies here. Of course, professional athletes are not allowed to use doping methods to improve their physical capacities. In “real life” though, the situation is completely different: Working a long night shift, lots of workers use “doping” methods to stay awake and productive, starting with but not limited to caffeine. The same goes for other physically straining activities. So if it’s not in a proper competition, why shouldn’t people be allowed to use methods like these to similarly increase their cognitive capacities?

In Conclusion: Even though I would always encourage people to try less invasive or potentially “dangerous” methods of cognitive enhancement, I think that everybody who decides to use drugs or medical techniques should have the right to do so – as as long as they are properly educated about the methods and their possible consequences and long as it’s safe for them. (And again to ensure this safety, I believe that legality is crucial.)

Jasmin H.
Posted by Jasmin H. on November 5, 2016 at 19:37

Because most of the important aspects of the ethic discussion have already been mentioned by the well-structured and argumentative statements of my classmates, I try to keep it short and simple.
I would like to encourage the debate by proposing some basic premise and conclusions which present my opinion but are intendedly presented in a drastic way.

1. Fairness in society doesn’t mean equality.
2. Cognitive equality is not a circumstance which should be aimed.
Therefore, there shouldn’t be any government measures to regulate who is allowed to get access to enhancing methods.

3. Every scientist is totally responsible for knowledge he/she produces and for possible abuse of it as far as it is already predictable.
Therefore, the question is not how to handle the existing methods in an ethical way but where do scientists should stop research to meet their own moral requirements.

Carolin N
Posted by Carolin N on November 5, 2016 at 18:00

Cognitive enhancement means that healthy people take a supplement to enhance their performance – a similiar phenomenon we are finding in the world of sports. Healthy athlets taking drugs to reach medals at the World Championships or at the Olympic Games. Gina W. said, that it is illegal to enhance our physical performance in any kind of official competition. It is unfair, said Jan R. Why is it unfair?
Because not all of us get the access to it? Because we don’t know the long-term effects? Because the country don’t support the doping? You can discuss the theme in many different topics. All in all it is a new product becoming more and more popular. My question is: What does it cost? – The price of cognitive enhancement.

On the one hand it is the easy way to just take something to perform better then others. On the other hand you have the suspense that you don’t know what will happen when you are taking it regularly and also when you will have no more access to it or will never get the access to it.
I agree with the author that enhancing methods should be „legal“ as long as it is “safe”. I see the problem in the access of the enhancing supplements. Everything has a price and I worry about that just the „rich“ population gets the access to the enhancing supplements.

Marvin Kühn
Posted by Marvin Kühn on November 2, 2016 at 21:52

Concerning the topic “cognitive enhancement” I consider my opinion to be highly ambivalent. The first thing that comes to my mind talking about this issue is the matter of medical risks. From my point of view physical health is the most important value in our human existence. Neither wealth nor success in work can offset physical intactness. When talking about supplements, drugs or medical interventions we always have to take into account the possible risks. Followingly further research is necessary here in order to identify the long term impact.

Another highly critical point is the matter of addiction and dependency. At first, it is only the difficult math exam where Ritalin is needed. A possible good result in the math exam could then be attributed to the intake of the medication (conditioning processes). Next, every single test is written under the influence of Ritalin. A vicious circle leading to severe addiction and physical or social neglect. Nevertheless it is important to state that the consumption (e.g. Ritalin) does not necessarily result in health impairment or addiction. Long term consequences of certain „brain-boosters“ remain unclear. However, cognitive enhancement also has its advantages.

We live in a competitve society. Competition is everywhere – kindergarten, school, work and even in free time activities like playing soccer. Therefore, a lack of personnel or social resources may lead to stress overload and psychological pressure. If one were to apply for their favorite job in a big company, one would have to strive to stand out. Using cognitive enhancement through medication or other means might give the applicant exactly the edge to surpass his peers. Enhanced cognitive or intellectual performance most likely results in better test results and therefore also in better chances to get the job.

In summary, it is difficult for me to give a definitive answer. Due to medical risks I would never consider the usage of perfomance enhancing tools. On the other hand I can easily understand people who use said tools as they promise greater results regarding social performance and success.

Julia U.
Posted by Julia U. on November 2, 2016 at 11:24

Cognitive enhancement through the use of drugs? For many people probably the easiest way to improve or “boost” their performance in the short run. Imagine a student who has to work hard to make a living and simply does not have the time to learn enough to keep up the pace of his/her studies. But does taking Ritalin or similar substances really solve the problem? Well, at least for that moment in which the performance is required.
On the other side of the coin I see the risk of becoming addicted which in the long run will destroy all the benefits you might have had. Many people ignore those negative side effects and hazard the consequences that can vary a lot depending on the substance and the dose.
Instead there are a lot of other options to stay mentally healthy and make the best of your god given opportunities. It’s basically about lifestyle choices and daily habits that you embrace. There are myriad natural ways of enhancing your cognitive abilities such as physical activity, cultivating social connections (having inspiring chats and discussions), mediation or brain-training games such as Sudoku. In addition, a wholesome nutrition covering a lot of unprocessed food like fruits and vegetables, a sufficient amount of proteins and good fats, can contribute to mental health and thus cognitive performance. It is referred to as “super food” for a good reason.
Should there be any limits to what we could achieve? Well, in my opinion limits should be imposed when drugs come into play. Anything which is not naturally processed should be reserved for those who really need it to maintain their mental functions, i.e. excluding healthy individuals. They should not be awarded for simply being too idle to work hard for their goals. Like in the past when intellectual improvement was due to study, training and hard work. These efforts should be complemented by embracing a healthy lifestyle, i.e. regular exercise and wholesome nutrition. That’s all it takes for cognitive enhancement. The argument that cognitive enhancers might also serve as a tool of “fair opportunities”, to “give frail people the best chance of achieving their full potential” – I agree up to a certain point. Disadvantaged individuals should get the chance to try different products and procedures to be able to compete with peers on equal terms. However, I see a problem with regards to fairness. Where to set the limit? Who decides if a person is “enough” handicapped so that he/ she is eligible to take drugs or other means? Such a decision would never reach full acceptance among the people (healthy or not).
Where would it take us? Even today a lot of people and in particular students are struggling to fulfill all their duties requiring intellectual performance all day long. Thus, it would further fuel the competitive thinking of our society setting the course for an increase of mental diseases such as burnout and depression. However, the “positional benefit” mentioned would be reserved for those who can afford these pharmaceutical products and medical procedures. And the others who don’t or simply deny this way of artificial cognitive enhancement as it contradicts their principles - they are left behind in the end? Is that fair?
At the bottom line, it is human nature to rather take the easy road and reach the most with the least effort. In terms of cognitive enhancement I think it should be sufficient to only stick to “natural boosters” instead of taking artificial stuff for which you cannot be sure about the long term effects. As an adult you should be able to decide for yourself whether you want to take the risk. And in the end it’s up to you what you do with your life and how you want to be successful or, in other words, how you define success.

Tobias Albrecht
Posted by Tobias Albrecht on October 30, 2016 at 12:47

In my view, the term “enhancement“ does not include a negative aspect at first sight. We all enhance our lives in many ways, even if we are not sure about the long-term effects of these enhancements. The usage of smartphones or computers, for example, is a huge enhancement in our daily life and I think that there is also a benefit to those who cannot afford technical gear like this. Would it therefore be best not to buy a smartphone or a computer, only because it could cause an imbalance in productivity or education between me and somebody else? I think it would not do so!
We also have to ask ourselves the following question: When does enhancement start? Let us imagine there are two people with exactly the same basic mental and/or physical condition who compete with each other with regard to different aspects. Maybe one of them has a better knowledge when it comes to living a healthy life by eating and drinking well, sleeping enough etc. than the other. As a result, this could lead to a competitive edge on his part. Can this be wrong? Can we call this unrighteous? I do not think so. Where is the limit?
Our lives are full of competitive advantages that can be (and are) used in many ways. When it is accepted to drink water instead of a coca-cola to achieve better results in sports for example, why should it be indecent to enhance our mental performances, as long as such methods are legal?
Apart from the question about legality I cannot find any serious aspects with regard to defining limits for mental enhancement. In my opinion, basic preconditions between individuals in any way cannot be a reason as has already been mentioned in my example of the two people, because I could not decide how to set a lower limit on what enhancement is. Postconditions either lead to prohibition as do drugs, or they seem to be negligible, especially when the consequences are unknown. In many cases we do not know much about long-term effects on our health for example.
I think that adult people should be able to decide for themselves and are responsible for consequences regarding their health as long as the action is legal.
Finally, my opinion with regard to the question whether we really need to become “more than we are“ is that we do not know what we are. Maybe we do not become what we are until we enhance our performance to a perfect state.

Maja L.
Posted by Maja L. on October 24, 2016 at 13:55

There are reasons why supplements and drugs are made for people who really need it. They should help them to live a life with a NORMAL cognitive ability. I can’t understand people who misuse the effects for cognitive enhancement just to be better than the comparatively high cognitive level they are fitted with. This is a point of fairness: People who suffer from limited cognitive performance will never be at the same level as “doped” healthy people. And even people who consciously decide not to enhance their intellectual performance (for any reason) are disadvantaged in comparison to people who accept possible physical long-term consequences just to improve themselves. Imagine a competitive test at the university with a student ranking or even a recruitment test. Doesn’t it completely distort the outcomes? I think I would not want to staff someone who seemed to be a high performer but actually is just “normal” in his everyday working life. In order to prevent unpleasant surprises I would prefer someone who is “good” and stays at this level.
But let me talk about another aspect: The mentioned screening after exams. Apart from the general disadvantages like costs and temporal expenditure, screening is not the solution, it just postpones the problem to another sector. In case of introducing screenings, it will be necessary to ask for medical certificates if someone has to take means such as Ritalin on health grounds. We know this problem from simple sick leaves: People will always find doctors who certificate illnesses and diseases. Why shouldn’t it be the same with enhancing drugs? If you think further, it could at a last resort lead to threats against or briberies of doctors…You see, screening involves problems and difficulties which have to be taken into account.
While writing this comment, another thought comes to my mind: A few years ago study fees were abolished to enable everyone to study under the same initial conditions. Isn’t the use of enhancing drugs completely against this principle? Students with wealthy parents can afford a higher amount of enhancing means to push their intellectual performance than others. Why should we make this huge step back? Why is it so important to become better and better and better? Is this worth giving up the principle of equality? I don’t think so. Wealthy people have enough benefits in their life, it should not spillover to the performance sector. Money and status is no indicator for high intelligence and performance. So, in my opinion, good and HONEST performance should be rewarded, brain doping should be punished.

Elena B.
Posted by Elena B. on October 22, 2016 at 11:47

In my opinion there should definitely be more research in the field of cognitive enhancement to explore its side and long term effects aiming at discovering methods that are safe and not addictive.

As already written in some other comments, there is always pressure on people to perform better because we live in a highly competitive society. So, even if enhancing methods are prohibited, there will always be people who use those to improve their performance. As you can see in the field of sport, there is great attraction arising from the use of enhancing drugs, even if the athletes know that they might get excluded from the competition. Since it is almost impossible to screen every student, applicant and employee after a test or a workday, wouldn´t it be more fair to legalize enhancing methods and give the same chance to everybody? In order to do so and to protect the people who already use enhancing methods, we need more information about their effects and the underlying mechanisms on the one hand and about the side and long term effects on the other hand. People need to be informed about the new possibilities and their consequences in order to decide how to handle them.

One problem is that some people are not able to handle new possibilities, especially if they have a giant impact, as you can see in the plastic surgery. They do not stop to put themselves under the knife until nothing of their body is natural anymore. There is the same risk in cognitive enhancement. Some people won´t stop, even if the method is not addictive. Therefore it is not just about discovering the effects and their mechanisms, but before such methods get legalized we also have to think about ways to promote an adequate and safe way of using them and how to handle abuse.

Another problem is that there will barely be any other option for the people than using enhancing methods as soon as their competitors use them. The author said that „frail“ people get the chance to compete on equal terms with their peers. Some methods, like the application of choline, might have more effects on low cognitive task performers than on high performers. But other methods also allow high performers to perform even better, so that we get the same inequalities only on a higher level. Back to the point that we live in a highly competitive society, people won´t stop searching for ways to improve their performance and it is almost impossible to stop this progress. As an example, you can have a look at the industrialization: Many people died because of the continuous load but that did not stop others from trying to perform better in order to fulfill the tasks and achieve steadily growing targets. What researchers can do right now is to steer people in a direction that implies a safe and controlled way of using such methods, so that it does not come to any fatalities.

Torben Ruhr
Posted by Torben Ruhr on October 21, 2016 at 19:26

To answer the question if it should be illegal, legal or even supported to use supplements or drugs to improve the intellectual abilities of human beings it is essential to first look at the goals that should be achieved with those methods of cognitive enhancement. One of those goals that is also described in the text is the reducing of the inequalities within society: People should be “more equal”. The main reason in these inequalities is deeply rooted in the circumstances of the parental home – when someone is born in a family that is well situated in terms of money and education he has much better chances in achieving whatever he wants to in life, for example an educational achievement. Research has shown that the environment a person is raised in is nearly as much important for the intelligence than the genetic factors are (Asendorpf & Neyer, 2012), for instance the access to literature and (expensive) good schools.
So now we have to answer the question if cognitive enhancement has the potential to reduce these inequalities within society. Personally I do not believe that. When we picture a world, where the low-performer use supplements or drugs to reduce the performance gap to others, what is stopping the high-performer to also do so to achieve even bigger aims? In this case the inequality would remain unchanged – everybody would just perform better.
In this context the monetary aspect of buying and using medication to improve the intellectual abilities should not be ignored: Drugs are expensive. Those, who should use the performance-enhancing supplements to counterbalance the inequalities due to their social background, are more likely to have struggles over money than those who are already privileged. The use of methods of cognitive enhancement to achieve greater social equality is therefore only achievable with governmental regulation in issues like who is allowed to use the medication. Those regulations would be a fundamental cut into the freedom of every citizen – what actually is quite unthinkable.

One other main objective of cognitive enhancement could be the facilitation of particularly excellent achievements that the mankind otherwise would not be able to achieve or would need much longer to achieve, for example the development of drugs against cancer. This usage of methods of cognitive enhancement obviously has advantages for the humankind. However, one must not forget that we are already living in a highly competitive society with all its advantages and disadvantages. The promotion of the collective pursuit of high-performance might increase the rates of mental diseases like Burnout that are already getting higher and higher every year.

Personally, I am in favor of not releasing any drug on the market that has not been tested in long-term studies to ensure the safety of the medicine or to be able to name the definite risks. Furthermore, I have some reluctance in insisting on a ban of drugs that improve the cognitive abilities of human beings even though I have serious concern about the consequences for the society and for any user of those drugs. In my opinion every person shall have the right to take their own decisions affecting their own lives. Apart from this I am categorically opposed to any governmental mandatory regulation that everybody has to use those treatments. In conclusion I agree with your statement that “It should not be prohibited, but it should not be mandatory either“.
So I would like to conclude with the words of Elbert Hubbard: „Responsibility is the price of freedom“.

Asendorpf, J. B. & Neyer, F. J. (2012). Psychologie der Persönlichkeit. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Anna Schlune
Posted by Anna Schlune on October 21, 2016 at 17:52

From my point of view, one can not clearly decide about whether cognitive enhancement methods should be legalized or not as long as not all of the side effects or consequences in the long run are fully investigated.

At first glance, methods to enhance cognitive abilities might seem like an easy possibility to boost one’s own performance and to achieve better results especially in important situations like tests or examinations. Therefore, I can understand that this possibility seems appealing to many individuals when in need of a little ‘performance booster’. But then again, many people probably underestimate the side effects potentially being caused by drugs or supplements or the possible threat of becoming addicted to cognitive enhancers. Every person and every body is different and there is no guarantee that only healthy people would want to make use of cognitive enhancers. It could be the case that some people with certain medical conditions do not tolerate for example Ritalin or Modafilin or even potential interactions between cognitive enhancers and other drugs are conceivable.

This particular issue should highlight the necessity of providing sufficient and comprehensive information about the cognitive enhancers themselves, their underlying mechanisms of action, their potential side effects and interaction, and about when it is not advisable or even dangerous to take them. Of course, as we can see with other medications, many people will maybe not add importance to possible dangers or not even read a package leaflet because the promising benefits seem too tempting. But that is exactly where health education needs to take action in order to ensure an extensive elucidation not only about the benefits of cognitive enhancers but also about their threats. Like Nick S. already suggested, preventive health education in schools and professional sources on the Internet could contribute to that topic. Moreover, I believe that doctors should also be very sensitive about the issue of cognitive enhancers and should maintain an open dialogue with their patients regarding the use of cognitive enhancers, as well as contributing to detailed information.

Additionally, the long term effects of cognitive enhancers have not been fully examined yet for which reason I find it rather ambiguous to state that enhancing methods should be legal as long as they’re “safe”. Because even if they might seem “safe” to use and serve their purpose to improve intellectual abilities for NOW, we don’t completely know yet what will happen in the long run if healthy individuals keep using cognitive enhancers constantly for a longer period of time.

So, all in all, I believe that prohibiting cognitive enhancers is not the solution since people will take them anyway, irrespective of what is written in the law as the illegal drug consumption shows. But in order to strive for a safe use of cognitive enhancers, it is essential to fully inform the population about what cognitive enhancers do to your body – not only now, but also in the long run. Therefore, as a first step, reliable evidence is crucial for a sophisticated opinion on the hazards and profits of cognitive enhancers and to set out clear regulatory guidelines for their use.

Miriam R.
Posted by Miriam R. on October 21, 2016 at 12:45

In my opinion it is definitely hard decide where to set the boundaries.
In a time and society with no limits and a culture of pressure, stress and “being the best” it is comprehensible to look for new methods to increase one’s abilities and to simplify the effort to do this. That is the reason, why I believe that all of this is a primary societal problem we have to deal with. If you go to school (and maye afterwards to university) everbody tries to tell you to achieve not just good results rather than the best results. Without those, it is nearly impossible to get a good job with the realistic possibility of improvement and advancements in career. So this is why I have to ask myself: Is it really fair to critise those one’s, who just try to improve their own chance of fulfillment, especially related to performance?
Unfortunately, I have no answer for this. I’m indecisive if I would like to support cognitive enhancement and its legalisation or if it should be totally prohibited. On the one hand we live in free society and everyone should have the decision for his or her own, to use such “drugs” oder “medicine” or not. On the other hand I would like to emphasise the risk of an emerging unequality. As some of my colleagues already have mentioned: It is still prohibited to enhance your physical performance by using drugs, why should we allow the cognitive enhancement by using pharmaceutical products or medical procedures?! Furthermore, if a legalisation would be implemented, how can you ensure that everybody - and I mean everbody, whatever his or her (social) background is - has the possibility to buy and use these aids?

Another critical point is the uncertainty of long term risks. It is hard for me to support supplements, without being convinced that there are no health risks. We already do enough things to endager our health, like drinking alcohol or eat fast food. Reluctantly, I would like to support another new way to (possibly) destroy our healthiness. Despite the fact, that cognitive enhancement would improve our performance and power of endurance, there can accrue negative consequence such as burn out as a result of too much work and too much ambition.

Considering all these aspects - and I’m sure there are countless more - I can just hope that there will be lots of professional discussions, research and testings before cognitive enhancement actually is lawfully and socially legalised.

Victoria S.
Posted by Victoria S. on October 20, 2016 at 22:14

My precaution regarding cognitive enhancement of healthy people, especially the mental doping at young ages, is a „falsification“ of the personality. Depending on when the doping starts, it is questionable if and to what extend the neuronal development of a growing human being is impaired by such substances. Maybe the organism cannot learn to produce a necessary natural amount of the crucial substances itself, or an early physical dependence may develop.
In general I am very critical about medications intervening in mental processes that are influenced by emotional states, like cognitive abilities. The person that dopes away all the impairments of emotional stress won‘t develop a healthy understanding of the functioning of the psyche, that is, to me, necessary for a healthy and contented life.
On the other hand it is a logical social development to dope yourself to become better and better to succeed the others in a world that is driven by competition. But what I see is, that this leads to distrust, like your example of the ritalin testing after exams.
So, to me, the ethical debate has to start with basic ethical topics, like - How do we want to create the social life of the future? To me it is not a desireable social goal to push competition even further. Cognitive enhancement of healthy people promotes competition even more.
What does „safe“ as a limit to cognitive enhancement mean to you? I think, cognitive enhancement should be regulated by laws not by individual choice, because the abuse causes long term damage. Not only for the individual but a social competition without limits threatens a functioning peaceful society, I think. As people are trained very early to compete and always think in ways of competition there need to be some mandatory ethical guidelines to create a more „human“ society beyond efficiency and progress.

Danina Skrobek
Posted by Danina Skrobek on October 20, 2016 at 13:42

I first looked into the subject of “cognitive enhancement” in connection with my circle of friends, which mainly consists of lawyers. While preparing for the legal examination, a lasting persistence, a high endurance, a constant ability to concentrate and a special creativity are daily requirements for a long period of time. In order to meet this long-term challenge appropriately and to be able to call up the desired performance at the exact time of the examination, methods for increasing the concentration and performance are used in many cases. One popular drug amongst students is called “Adderall”, a combination drug originally used for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); it is now regarded as the “new” Ritalin. Experience reports refer to exclusively positive effects after the regular intake, which are often reflected in very good test results of the consumer.

I personally think the use of drugs or the use of other methods to increase performance is embarrassing. Since I fundamentally oppose drug usage, even with minor complaints such as colds, my fear and distrust regarding possible side effects would outweigh the potential positive effects. But who knows how long the body reacts positively (getting the desired effects) on the drug intake? From a social point of view, this is a distortion of competition, since performance results can no longer be regarded as a causal predictor of the intellectual, physical and mental performance. If one takes Adderall and can generate successes, then all want to do so shortly afterwards. It is therefore not possible to distinguish between the high-performing and under-performing people.

However, I believe that performance-enhancing methods should not be prohibited. Who does not strive for the individual optimum in times of unlimited possibilities, and tries to make improvements of all kinds to oneself by means of measures that partly contradict one’s own values? Social ideals can be found in different areas and encourage people to artificially expand the resources provided by nature.

Consequently, I agree your statement that any enhancing method should be “legal” as long as it is “safe” for the people to employ it, but “safe” can relate to quite different medical areas: Safe with respect to the human mental state, the biological or neurological processes? Your judgment provides some scope for the individual handling with cognitive enhancing methods depending on the consumer’s intention and personal definition of safety. In this context, I personally advocate appealing to the human mind and to hope for the responsible handling with enhancing methods. Due to my individual definition of safety focusing the integrity of brain function I am of the opinion that the access to such drugs or the use of such methods should be limited. Especially, the lack of research into long-term effects on brain function encourages my view. Therefore, a mature brain is – in my opinion – regarded as a precondition to employ such methods. According to Dosenbach and colleagues (2010) the brain maturity is reached at 22 years.

All in all, an age limit that excludes individuals under 22 years from the access to enhancing methods provides a centralization of the comprehensive meaning of “safe”. The age of 22 years should be the minimum of safety that must be guaranteed, whereby the consequences of these methods should continue to be investigated.

Dosenbach, N. U. F. et al. (2010). Prediction of Individual Brain Maturity Using fMRI. Science 329(5997), 1358-1361.

Nick S.
Posted by Nick S. on October 18, 2016 at 19:26

Dear Prof. Colzato,

from my still unprofessional point of view (that might become more based on facts during the coming semester) it comes basically down to the mere question of freedom: How can you possibly forbid people to make their own choices?
On the other side, of course, I do understand your point about the equality of people. Yet I ask myself, where is the need to make people equal regarding abilities in which they never will be truly equal? As you said, in the long term they would face serious problems if they archive anything only by doping. They would need to consummate more and more of the drug only to keep up with others that are clearly more suited for a job or whatever else. Besides, what keeps the others from using cognitive enhancement, too? Furthermore – even if it would create something like “fair opportunities” – there would be an entirely other inequality as of course methods to enhance the cognitive abilities would cost money. So in the end, these ways to generate an equality make people not equal at all.
I think there rather should be a different thinking about equality – there is no need for everybody being the same and equally good at everything. How I see this issue, it would be better to make people understand that they will be best and most happy with something they really can, that fits their abilities and personality.

So far for my opinion about equality and back to the main topic. Form my point of view, you should not interfere with the permission or prohibition of methods of cognitive enhancement since it would neither stop the drugs from existing (as you can observe with other stimulants – people keep on getting and taking drugs if they wish to) nor would it make people more equal. Although a prohibition would formally give the impression of fairness in contests (e.g. job assessments), I find it highly unrealistic to believe you can consequently control everybody, for example by a drug test. But I believe it would turn out positive to educate people about cognitive enhancement in a global way – with all the benefits and risks. This could also include the creation of a moral norm, just as doping in sports is happening but absolutely not respected. As it is already done, some people will use the existing tools to enhance their performance and it is their free choice to do so, but there should be an easy way for them to inform themselves about the consequences regarding both their health and the ethical implications.

So in summary I agree with your opinion that cognitive enhancement should be legal – but I would not say “as long as it is ‘safe’”, because I think that is too extendable a word. Of course there should not be a free-to-get substance that dangerous that it kills people or makes them irreversibly ill, but I do not think it is possible to draw a clear line as to where some method is more or less dangerous considering the individualism of bodies, use and situation as well as the temporal dimension. I consider it more important that everyone has the opportunity to inform himself in a global manner – for adults that could be through professional sources in the internet and for children by preventive school education.

Katharina B.
Posted by Katharina B. on October 18, 2016 at 10:47

Cognitive enhancement means that healthy people take a supplement or participate in a procedure to enhance their performance. Why should healthy people do such an effort? There are no long time effects analysed jet and especially brain enhancing drugs could lead to addiction. This is very dubious. I agree that people who are ill (e.g. dementia) can use such supplements to delay the illness’ consequences. But healthy people shouldn’t take use of those things. Moreover, it is difficult to compare the performance of persons who used pharmaceutical products and persons who didn’t. Why shouldn’t it be enough when all people perform in a natural way? When these products are legal, there will be people using it. This will lead to other people taking it because of role modelling or the fear of staying back. People who don’t want to use cognitive enhancing will do so to not be excluded from the competition. Consequently, even more people are indirectly forced to enhance their performance by using such methods to stand the competition. What would it mean for future recruitment tests? Will there be tests for people using cognitive enhancement and people who don’t? And how will it be possible to control the use of such methods? Are there going to be tests that only people with cognitive enhancement will pass? If so, people are forced to take supplements to have any chances.
When we always try to enhance our performance and efficacy – where will be the end? There will be even more methods and products to become even better. But for what terms? In addition, there are increasing numbers of people having a burnout or other health problems (e.g. back pain, headache) because of working too much and the wish of always be better, faster and more efficient. When these supplements and techniques are legal, these problems will raise. Moreover, there are no information jet about the long term effects that could cause even more illnesses in the future. Additionally, it is important to think about psychological effects. What does it mean for people to only perform sufficiently by using a supplement? All success will be attributed external and how does it influence the feeling of self-efficacy which is so important for human being, performance and learning?
In my opinion there should be long and deep discussions about these products and methods and the people have to be informed about possible consequences (e.g. addiction, long term effects). It would be very difficult control the use of such methods when there are forbidden since it is costly and complex to, for example, screen every student after an exam. Moreover, it would be ethically questionable. But this topic has to be discussed in public regarding the raising number of people using cognitive enhancement and the questionable consequences for humans and our community.

Jan R.
Posted by Jan R. on October 17, 2016 at 12:42

Cognitive Enhancement is used to make a person achieve results that he/she otherwise would not have. If you look at this fact from a critical perspective, it gets obvious that the person using this supplements feels pressure to deliver results that have at least the quality of previous ones. Regarding the fact that we live in a highly competitive society this pressure to always be on top leads to more psychological dysfunctions than any supplement could ever hand back. Furthermore the evidence provided in this field concerning medical risks should be investigated in a more detailed way.
As Gina W. said, it is illegal to enhance our physical performance in any kind of official competition. For me it is simply unfair to those who try to “win” in a natural way. Isn’t the labour market a competition as well? Shouldn’t we play fair in here as well? In my opinion everyone should be given the same chances. Of course one could argue that these equal chances are given to everyone by fully legalizing any kind of supplements. But does it stay fair if you have to pay for equality?
So why should we divide between these two kinds of income-producing fields? Even more important: Why do we have to do anything possible to improve ourselves?
Further research should focus on longterm studys to examine the mechanisms of cognivitve enhancement and how it affects our health and wellbeing.
Personally, I totally agree with the quote by Walter Bishop but just as long as it is achieved by ourselves without the use of supplements.
To put it in a nutshell I disagree with the use of supplements to improve individual performance except for medical reasons like the use of acetylcholine to help people suffering from dementia.

Gina W.
Posted by Gina W. on October 17, 2016 at 08:24

It is illegal for athlets to take pharmaceutical products or medical procedures to improve their performance on competitions. Why should it be “legal” for students or employees to apply those things in order to improve their performance?
I really do think it is risky to not prohibit cognitive enhancement - especially as long as the long-term effects remain unknown. How can we compare student’s or employee’s performance while not knowing who used cognitive enhancement and who did not? In order to decide whether we should support or allow people to make use of those methods, we need research about the longterm effects for health and society.
I agree with the author stating that in no case cognitive enhancement should be mandatory, but I do disagree in the point that it should not be prohibited: It should, at least as long as real effects remain unknown. It is the same in sports: Some products are tested and legal, and some are not and illegal. I do think that is the right way to keep fairness in society. In no case it should be unclear, who applies methods of cognitive enhancement and who does not- there should be screening as there is in sports.

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