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