The Enhanced Brain

To desire immortality is to desire the eternal perpetuation of a great mistake.
— Arthur Schopenhauer

We easily accept the idea of wearing spectacles, smoothing an ugly wrinkle with Botox, reshaping our nose or buying help with our children’s schooling to improve their intellectual ability. Whether physical or mental, we consider that an inherited or acquired genetic imperfection can be treated like any other event, vital or not. If these choices raise no ethical problems, what about medication that we divert from its therapeutic purpose to increase our brain efficacy? Drugs for intelligence or memory already exist. We can use medication outside its therapeutic context to improve our mental function or increase our intelligence. Even so, are we ready to accept that people use cognitive stimulants and psychoactive drugs? Is brain doping acceptable in society any more than in sport?

These questions are at the heart of never-ending debates between neuroscientists and philosophers, among others. They concern the non-therapeutic use of new technology. Today fundamental new progress in neuroscience and its technological applications offers everyone an arsenal of tools for improving motor function, perception, attention and memory. Possibilities of improving brain power are multiple, whether based on medication, implants or neuroprostheses. Aimed at improved individual performance, recent progress raises new questions about the respect of moral values and legal rules, and even about individual health. Should we anticipate dealing with the consequences when the brain is involved? The goal today is to put into perspective recent progress in neurosciences and anticipate social, moral and judicial implications. It is indeed time to reflect on limits to impose on the use of new technology, notably the cognitive enhancers called smart drugs. By acting directly on the brain and seeking to “enhance” it, that is to say make it work better than normal, we are perhaps meddling with man as a human being. The debate is open. While philosophers bring replies, scientists try to overcome the problem. Can the two points of view be reconciled?

The debate about the illicit consumption of drugs prescribed for specific pathology, such as attention deficit or narcolepsy, is open and opinions divided. For some the possibility of improving intellectual performance is a potential source of discrimination and thus inequality. There would certainly be those who could afford treatment to improve their intellectual faculties, and others without the means of access to drugs to enhance their ability. Are we heading for a two tier society where a wealthy handful could afford to dope their brain while the rest remained cut off from new knowledge and intellectual prowess? If so, this doping would represent an important and dangerous discriminatory factor. What would happen if some scholars or students doped their brains to improve their performance at school, while the rest of the class had none? Would their teachers incite the whole class to participate? Even worse, for the detractors, cerebral implants, neuroprostheses or implanted memory chips would lead to modification of the whole or part of human identity. For example, to satisfy economic needs it would be possible to impose socialized management of our mental activity. We would lose free will and submit to the dictatorship of an instrument. According to this point of view, quintupling man’s mental function would mark the start, under the growing influence of cyberneticians, of a radical transformation of man as defined by the humanists of the Enlightenment.

On the contrary, others are convinced by the advantages of technology in the service of mankind and encourage the development of cerebral doping. For these partisans Homo sapiens has always succeeded in increasing his mental faculties by discovering the virtues of coffee at breakfast or a cigarette to stay awake late into the night. Molecules produced by the pharmaceutical industry to dope intelligence or memory would only form part of the many ways to achieve this end. For better or for worse Ritalin, Modafinil and amphetamines have a bright future. Consumption of these smart drugs and psychostimulants in general is on the increase. For example, Modafinil can increase attention and memory, and also reduce time spent sleeping. Its structure and mode of action are different from psychostimulants. It aims to prolong waking and is widely used to treat hypersomnia (excessive sleep), narcolepsy (sudden bouts of falling asleep), and by night workers. Today it is used deviously to overcome sleep deprivation in certain professions, such as the military, firefighting and nursing. There are numerous websites vaunting its merits and stating that its efficacy approaches that of amphetamines with side effects “more like caffeine”. At the time of its marketing in 2002, the press observed that Provigil (another brand name for Modafinil) “is showing signs of becoming a lifestyle drug for a sleep-deprived 24/7 society”. Maybe this unexpected popularity means that coffee and cigarettes have reached their limit and can no longer satisfy workaholics. If so, perhaps doping the brain is a subterfuge to enable modern slaves to stay in the race toward ever more competitivity, like the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass”.

To be more convincing the advocates of brain doping attack directly the three arguments used to condemn it. The first concerns the bias that this usage could engender at work or in education. In view of the already accessible arsenal of psychostimulants such as tobacco, vitamin C or coffee, to recognize the use of smart drugs would be a scientific way to validate and control them. The group then attacks the myth of the prowess of “natural” rather than “artificial” learning, by analogy to the world of sport. The difficulty with this debate that has raged since Antiquity is to define the borderline between natural and artificial. The authors remind us that writing or informatics that help learning are not natural as well.

Finally, because drug abuse is a social scourge society seeks to control the use of substances because of their toxicity and risk of dependence, but we now know that dependence on heroin, hypnotics and nicotine shares the same neurological mechanisms. However, tobacco does not have the same legal status as heroin. In practice, the fact that a substance is addictive is not enough to ban its use.

More research is needed to identify the specific brain mechanisms that improve our cognition in a more realistic way. That being said, we already know that cognitive functions and happiness are not always correlated, so why bothering so much with our brain power?


Norbert Wiener (1894-1964) was the founding father of cybernetics, and is still seen as a pillar of modern information and communication technology. In 1948 he published Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (New York: John Wiley & Sons), which established the concepts of this new field. This science of analogies between organisms and machines formalized the notion of feedback and has implications for engineering, systems control, informatics, biology, philosophy and even the organization of society.

Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There is a novel written by Lewis Carroll in 1871 as a sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Playing in her house Alice wonders what is on the other side of the mirror. In this new world everything is reversed. She becomes the subject of a chess game involving a Red Queen. During the game Alice and the Red Queen are running at full speed. But Alice notices they are not getting anywhere. “Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.” The Queen replies: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

In Physics II, Aristotle said: Of things that exist, some exist by nature, some from other causes. By nature the animals and their parts exist, and the plants and the simple bodies (earth, fire, air, water) — for we say that these and the like exist ‘by nature’. All the things mentioned present a feature in which they differ from things which are not constituted by nature. Each of them has within itself a principle of motion and of stationariness (in respect of place, or of growth and decrease, or by way of alteration). On the other hand, a bed and a coat and anything else of that sort, qua receiving these designations i.e. in so far as they are products of art — have no innate impulse to change. But in so far as they happen to be composed of stone or of earth or of a mixture of the two, they do have such an impulse, and just to that extent which seems to indicate that nature is a source or cause of being moved and of being at rest in that to which it belongs primarily, in virtue of itself and not in virtue of a concomitant attribute.

Image via Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock.

Pierre-Marie Lledo, PhD

Pierre-Marie Lledo, PhD, is a research director specializing in neuronal stem cells and brain plasticity at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and chair of the department of Neuroscience at the Pasteur Institute. He is recipient of a CNRS bronze medal and several Prizes from the French Academies of Medicine and Sciences. He belongs to the European Academy of Sciences.
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