Sebastian Pokutta's Blog

Mathematics and related topics

cognitive enhancement – optimizing our brains?

with 4 comments

While browsing through nature I stumbled upon an article titled ‘Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy‘ (a pdf is also available here). The authors basically advocate a more open approach to brain enhancing drugs:


Society must respond to the growing demand for cognitive enhancement. That response must start by rejecting the idea that ‘enhancement’ is a dirty word, argue Henry Greely and colleagues.

Today, on university campuses around the world, students are striking deals to buy and sell prescription drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin — not to get high, but to get higher grades, to provide an edge over their fellow students or to increase in some measurable way their capacity for learning. These transactions are crimes in the United States, punishable by prison. Many people see such penalties as appropriate, and consider the use of such drugs to be cheating, unnatural or dangerous. Yet one survey estimated that almost 7% of students in US universities have used prescription stimulants in this way, and that on some campuses, up to 25% of students had used them in the past year. These students are early adopters of a trend that is likely to grow, and indications suggest that they’re not alone.

In this article, we propose actions that will help society accept the benefits of enhancement, given appropriate research and evolved regulation. Prescription drugs are regulated as such not for their enhancing properties but primarily for considerations of safety and potential abuse. Still, cognitive enhancement has much to offer individuals and society, and a proper societal response will involve making enhancements available while managing their risks.

Frankly, I am not sure what I should think about this – actually, I guess I do not even want to think about it and its implications. I mean operations research and optimization are, well, about optimizing things. We optimize production schedules, frequency allocations, diets, and even sports. But optimizing or enhancing our brains? By taking drugs? Henry Greely and colleagues argue that society “must start by rejecting the idea that ‘enhancement’ is a dirty word”…. well, I guess I am not there yet.

So, I decided to spend some time today researching this development (rather than working on a conference abstract ;-( – I feel the guilt). I was even more surprised to learn that according to a survey conducted by nature (see also wired and others) about 20% of their readers (mostly researchers and scientists) (at least) tried to enhance their brain performance by using Ritalin, Adderall and Focalin – so called smart drugs. As most of these people are probably more on the smart side and educated enough to understand what they are doing, it would be too easy to dismiss their actions  as a  ‘glitch’ or a habit of some ill-guided drug addicts.

Apart from these invasive ‘treatments’ the market of smart games (i.e., games designed to improve the cognitive performance) is growing fast. From Nintendo’s Brain Age, PositScience to modified version of the n-back task (which is claimed to improve the fluid intelligence). Mental gyms are springing up (e.g. vibrant brains in San Francicso). According to Smart Brains, a research firm, “revenue from “brain-fitness software” reached $225 million in 2007″.

Similar for books on cognitive enhancement. For example, the Brain Rules book (and the website with video clips) from John J. Medina illustrates how our brain works and provides basic guiding principles of how to improve our brain performance by choosing the right setting, diet, rhythm etc. (Several articles on enhancing the cognitive performance can be also found on wired – see the “see also” section at the bottom). Techniques like mediation etc have been out there for hundreds of years.

Given all that, it seems obvious that there is a huge demand for brain enhancements which in turn might be understood as an indicator for the ever-rising pressure to excel. Given that trading smart drugs is a crime in the United States, punishable by prison, the (expected) effect of these drugs has to be rather significant (would you risk to go to jail for a cup of coffee?) and the pressure sufficiently high. The development is not completely new though: Jean-Paul Sartre and Paul Erdös took amphetamines to keep up with the incredible pace with which they were moving forward. On the other hand, the ethical impact of using smart drugs as well as the social effects are not well understood at this point. Will our children be forced to use smart drugs in order to keep up with the rest of their cohort? Do I have to take smart drugs to succeed?

The biggest problem that I see here, especially for the invasive treatments, is that we experiment with the most complex organ of the human body without having a thorough understanding of its mechanisms and thus of the effects that we cause.


Written by Sebastian

March 9, 2009 at 10:31 pm

4 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Hello Sebastian.

    I share your disquiet with the idea that brain enhancement through drug use should be simply accepted because it is possible. This is separate from a discussion of enhancement through brain exercise.

    I see some very good reasons why people would want to begin a program of brain exercise — either because they have a particular skill or capacity they’d like to improve, or because they want to stay sharp as they age. Scientists have produced a lot of sound research data now showing that the right kind of training will lead to changes in the brain.

    Best wishes,
    Effective, Affordable Brain Fitness Software

    Martin Walker

    March 10, 2009 at 7:01 pm

    • Martin,

      I agree that these are two separate things. Smart games and brain exercises I would rather see as ‘training’ in the sense that it takes time and effort to achieve improvement in contrast to ‘popping a pill’ which is rather effortless.

      Most of us know under which circumstances they think better and that, I guess, is already some kind of optimization in terms of diet, sleeping habits, doing brain exercises etc. But I feel that this is something completely(?) different than ‘popping pills’.



      March 11, 2009 at 12:26 am

  2. But where do you draw a line saying this supplement is good and healthy, and this is a drug and gives an unfair advantage? Surely this is the same loop performance sports people are caught in.

    Is Adderal or Ritalin worse than coffee?


    July 26, 2009 at 3:27 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: