19 June 2009

The brain revolution

We are getting smarter. And the technology our intelligence has created is accelerating the process. Whether through external prostheses like computers and the internet, or internal amplifiers like cognition-augmenting drugs, we now have the means to immediately improve our mental powers. The definition of ‘intelligence’ is changing: it’s going to be less about how much knowledge your brain stores and more about how proficient that brain is in acquiring information and processing it for a particular purpose. To that end, current brain-enhancing technologies, whether external or internal, are the harbingers of homo novus; the New Man. With the aid of external technologies at least, we will become less dependent on having to memorize gigabytes of facts and figures when such information is just a point-and-click away.

For instance, during the writing of this essay I referred several times to an online dictionary-slash-thesaurus while also perusing Google and Wikipedia (if it’s on Wikipedia, it must be true!) for information and clarification. All this was in addition to the dead-tree media lying open on the desk next to my PC. In a very real sense, I’m much more smarter as a result of having a virtual storehouse of knowledge literally at my fingertips. While this does not diminish my agency in writing this essay, since I still have to decide where to look, what to look for and how to use what I’ve found, my ‘working’ knowledge has been greatly amplified through interfacing with the external ‘brain’ or ‘hive mind’ called the internet.

The act of selectively engaging with an inhumanly vast amount of information demonstrates what scientists call ‘fluid intelligence’. In the July/August 2009 Atlantic, Jamais Cascio writes in his article ‘Get Smart’:

…”[F]luid intelligence” – the ability to find meaning in confusion and to solve new problems, independent of acquired knowledge. Fluid intelligence doesn’t look much like the capacity to memorize and recite facts, the skills that people have traditionally associated with brainpower.

It is precisely because of our information-saturated age that we need to develop a new form of intelligence, one that would enable us to make sense of all the noise and select the bits that are actually useful to us. Cascio is correct when he writes:

The information sea isn’t going to dry up, and relying on cognitive habits evolved and perfected in an era of limited information flow – and limited information access – is futile. Strengthening our fluid intelligence is the only viable approach to navigating the age of constant connectivity.

One possible way to strengthen our fluid intelligence, or even just our general intelligence, is through cognition-augmenting drugs. ‘Neuroenhancers’ like Adderall, Ritalin and Provigil allow the user to, in Cascio’s own words, “study harder, focus better and stay awake longer with full clarity.” Cascio claims to be one of many people who take neuroenhancers to improve their mental performance and help them tackle complicated tasks. While some may baulk at the unsavoury connotations of taking drugs that affect the mind, consider that common food and beverages like coffee, tea and chocolate also alter the chemical state of the brain. Caffiene in particular is imbibed mainly for its concentration-boosting effects, just like neuroenhancers.

For those who remain unconvinced of the benign, even beneficial, uses of neuroenhancers, think of how great sums of money and effort are spent on more frivolous pursuits. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, in 2008 alone the global market for cosmetic surgery exceeded $30 billion, with the upshot being a worldwide increase in the number of beautiful bodies strutting all over the place. Now imagine a similar amount being spent on different kinds of cognitive augmentation, drugs or otherwise. The increase in intelligent, focused and innovative minds would presumably do more good for civilisation compared to a general surge in wrinkle-free faces, bigger boobs and tighter bums.

But what of that perennial Achilles heel of civilisational progress – human failings like greed, hate, fear, myopia and lust for power? Detractors would understandably claim that just because we may have the technology to make ourselves smarter, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we’d also become wiser. After all, we may simply become better at devising new (or improving old) ways to kill, exploit and invariably harm ourselves and others. But this argument presumes a distinction between human intelligence and human morality. What if no such concrete distinction actually exists? Neuroscientific research suggests that our ethical notions are intertwined with – even possibly derived from – our brain activity. There is no compelling reason to think that cognitive enhancement will only make us intellectually, but not morally, better human beings. It’s erroneous to think of moral sentiments like empathy, kindness and generosity as somehow being unconnected to the physicality of the brain. Too little or too much of certain neurochemicals, or extensive cell damage caused by disease or accident, can indeed affect a person’s morality.

The story of Phineas Gage illustrates this. Gage was a 19th century American railroad construction foreman who had an iron rod driven through his head when the explosives he was handling accidentally went off. Gage survived but lost a large chunk of his frontal lobes. After recovering from surgery, all those who knew Gage noticed a change in him. The man who was once a good-natured, responsible, diligent worker was now foul-tempered, rude, impulsive and unable to concentrate on the job at hand, so much so that he was eventually fired. A small mass of greyish cheese-like substance was all the difference between the Jekyll and Hyde transformation of Phineas Gage.

Given this graphic example of how a person’s ethics can be affected by physical changes to the brain, the grounds for opposing cognitive enhancement because it allegedly would not affect one’s moral sensibilities start to look shaky. It’s equally possible that positive sentiments could be enhanced, so that we would not only become smarter, but also kinder, more sympathetic and yes, even more long-sighted with regards to the possible negative outcomes of our augmented minds and so act to prevent them from occurring.

One such negative outcome would be the exacerbation of existing social inequities due to lack of education and restricted access to technology. Socio-economic factors currently prevent the majority of people on the planet from realising their cognitive potential. Poverty, war, famine, exploitation and other recurrent problems will most likely still be around when the brain revolution arrives. Today, a lack of computer and internet literacy skills keeps many people from acquiring decently-paid jobs that don’t involve manual labour. This inability on their part to interact with a great store of information and knowledge is a significant barrier to their socio-economic advancement. Cognitive augmentation could end up simply being just one more way in which a large portion of humanity is discriminated against when it comes to job opportunities.

Using drugs to enhance one’s mental ability in a professional or educational context has been compared to doping in sports. Critics say it’s a form of cheating. The comparison isn’t a fair one though. Sports, unlike work or school, is essentially a ritual with formal observations, chief among them being the implicit idea that all competitors are playing on a level field, metaphorically and often literally. To give oneself any sort of unfair advantage, whether through performance-enhancing drugs or just launching off the blocks prematurely, is to negate the very definition of competitive sports, supposedly a contest amongst equals. But in the context of a job or schooling, to call the use of cognition enhancing drugs ‘cheating’ isn’t quite accurate. To begin with, participants in the ‘game’ of work or school aren’t all equal in the same sense as contestants in a sporting event are considered to be equals. A group of colleagues or students is comprised of individuals with often widely varying degrees of intelligence, aptitude and determination. While one could say that all participants in a particular sport are more or less equally trained, equally fit and equally determined to win, and are all governed by the same narrow strictures accorded to their sport, workers and students on the other hand are bound by a much looser set of rules, plus a larger number of variables exists in their situation.

Yes, the worker or student who pops brain-boosting pills will have an edge over the ones who don’t. But if that’s considered ‘cheating’, than it would also be ‘cheating’ if a student has a more powerful computer than her peers, or if a worker drinks more coffee than his workmates. Since it’s rather facetious to count these as ‘cheating’, the case against cognition-enhancing drugs on the grounds of ‘unfair’ advantage is diluted simply because of the variety of legitimate ways in which any one worker or student could gain an advantage over his peers. One could even argue that a student who wasn’t quite as bright or focused as his classmates would only be ‘levelling the field’ by taking drugs that boosted his ability to concentrate and process information.

But critics like The New Yorker writer Margaret Talbot aren’t impressed by the promise encapsulated in a ‘smart pill’. In her April 27, 2009 article ‘Brain Gain’, Talbot elaborates on the pernicious ramifications of a smart drug culture:

The experience that neuroenhancement offers is not, for the most part, about opening doors of perception, or about breaking the bonds of self, or about experiencing a surge of genius. It’s about squeezing out an extra few hours to finish those sales figures when you’d really rather collapse into bed; getting a B instead of a B-minus on the final exam in a lecture class where you spent half your time texting; cramming for the G.R.E.s at night, because the information-industry job you got after college turned out to be deadening. Neuroenhancers don’t offer freedom. Rather, they facilitate a pinched, unromantic, grindingly efficient form of productivity.

Talbot makes a valid point about the dark side of neuroenhancement: it can be used for a very narrowly defined purpose, which is for people to simply become more efficient. But the potential embodied in neuroenhancement is so much more than just being about turning people into ever more productive machines. Neuroenhancement is ultimately an enabler, in the same way that the invention of writing, then the printing press, then the internal combustion engine, and then the computer, have all been enablers for our species throughout history. As to what ends these enablers are used for, that always was, and is, entirely up to us. The very neutrality of all these enablers, including neuroenhancement, behooves us to respect their inherent power and utilise it wisely. Neuroenhancement, whether in drug form or not, is no guarantee of good ideas or good character. Yet the fact that it can assist – in no small measure – in the development of good ideas and yes, even good character is not something to be casually disregarded, for all the obstacles and potholes along this arguably inevitable road humanity will take.


Note: Please be assured, gentle reader, that the author of this essay did craft it without the aid of any neuroenhancing drugs. Or at least nothing stronger than weak tea, no milk or sugar.

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