Science & Technology

Editor's Note: Mental Failings


I'm not yet 40, but I'm already losing my mind.

Or parts of it, at any rate. I sometimes call one of my sons by the other's name, even though there's a seven-year gap between them. I occasionally stop to remember phone numbers that I've been dialing for years. I increasingly find myself struggling to recall bits of information that never used to prompt such brain lock.

Before you start feeling too sorry for me –or too smug –remember that we're all in this leaking boat together. Memory loss and other elements of diminished mental capacity are the brutal, universal facts of aging; like death and taxes, they eventually happen to all of us.

That's precisely why this month's cover story, "The Battle for Your Brain" (page 24), is so important. reason Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey (note to self: double-check that name) reports that we're rapidly entering a "dawning age of neuroscience" that "promises not just new enhancements for Alzheimer's and other brain diseases but enhancements to improve memory, boost intellectual acumen, and fine-tune our emotional responses." Widely used drugs such as Prozac, Ritalin, and Zoloft provide a hint of what's coming –a future in which we will be able to manipulate our minds and moods more effectively than ever before.

This burgeoning field requires a wide-ranging conversation about "neuroethics." That discussion is already under way but has so far mostly ignored the desires of the people who may choose to avail themselves of such enhancements. As Bailey points out, that's because "so many of the field's critics…hope to restrict that autonomy in various ways." While critics worry that such advances will undermine personal responsibility and rob us of our "authenticity," Bailey makes a compelling case that informed individuals should be given the widest latitude possible to take advantage of new, brain-boosting breakthroughs.

The ultimate issue is one of individual choice vs. group control. This is a perennial issue for reason, and it runs through other articles in the issue. Senior Editor Charles Paul Freund tells the story of an Iranian professor sentenced to death for speaking out against his country's repressive rulers ("Liberal Martyrdom in Iran," page 18). In "Wrecking Property Rights" (page 32), Sam Staley exposes how local officials are using eminent domain to rob owners of perfectly good property and deliver it to well-connected cronies. Reviewing a long-awaited biography of H.L. Mencken, Slate's Jack Shafer reminds us that for all his many failings, the Sage of Baltimore remained a "laureate of free thinking" and a consistent critic of conformity ("Scourge of the Booboisie," page 48).

A world in which choice trumps control –in which people can pursue happiness on their own terms to the greatest possible extent –tends to be more prosperous and peaceful than the alternative. When it comes to freely choosing to use neuroscience that might make us all a bit sharper for a bit longer, it's hard to see a downside. Certainly, my kids –whatever their names are –would agree.