Civil Liberties

"We call for a presumption that mentally competent adults should be able to engage in cognitive enhancement using drugs."

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This is the conclusion of a group of prominent neuroscientists and bioethicists writing in Nature earlier this week. The authors correctly note:

Human ingenuity has given us means of enhancing our brains through inventions such as written language, printing and the Internet. Most authors of this Commentary are teachers and strive to enhance the minds of their students, both by adding substantive information and by showing them new and better ways to process that information. And we are all aware of the abilities to enhance our brains with adequate exercise, nutrition and sleep. The drugs just reviewed, along with newer technologies such as brain stimulation and prosthetic brain chips, should be viewed in the same general category as education, good health habits, and information technology — ways that our uniquely innovative species tries to improve itself…

Three arguments against the use of cognitive enhancement by the healthy quickly bubble to the surface in most discussions: that it is cheating, that it is unnatural and that it amounts to drug abuse.

In the context of sports, pharmacological performance enhancement is indeed cheating. But, of course, it is cheating because it is against the rules. Any good set of rules would need to distinguish today's allowed cognitive enhancements, from private tutors to double espressos, from the newer methods, if they are to be banned.

As for an appeal to the 'natural', the lives of almost all living humans are deeply unnatural; our homes, our clothes and our food — to say nothing of the medical care we enjoy — bear little relation to our species' 'natural' state. Given the many cognitive-enhancing tools we accept already, from writing to laptop computers, why draw the line here and say, thus far but no further?

As for enhancers' status as drugs, drug abuse is a major social ill, and both medicinal and recreational drugs are regulated because of possible harms to the individual and society. But drugs are regulated on a scale that subjectively judges the potential for harm from the very dangerous (heroin) to the relatively harmless (caffeine). Given such regulation, the mere fact that cognitive enhancers are drugs is no reason to outlaw them.

I point out (immodestly) that I dealt with many of these same concerns back in 2003 in my article, "The Battle for Your Brain" in which I concluded:

Like any technology, neurological enhancements can be abused, especially if they're doled out—or imposed—by an unchecked authority. But Fukuyama and other critics have not made a strong case for why individuals, in consultation with their doctors, should not be allowed to take advantage of new neuroscientific breakthroughs to enhance the functioning of their brains.

Similarly, the authors of the Nature article now conclude:

Like all new technologies, cognitive enhancement can be used well or poorly. We should welcome new methods of improving our brain function. In a world in which human workspans and lifespans are increasing, cognitive enhancement tools — including the pharmacological — will be increasingly useful for improved quality of life and extended work productivity, as well as to stave off normal and pathological age-related cognitive declines. Safe and effective cognitive enhancers will benefit both the individual and society.

Welcome to these new allies in the struggle for cognitive liberty.

Whole Nature article here.

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  1. As a dried-out alcoholic, I concur with Mr. Bailey’s conclusions.
    My new “cognitive enhancing” drug is sobriety. It’s pretty cool, actually.

  2. I seem to remember a similar article in nature or science in the past. Or rather, one of a similar theme.

  3. The rub here is that the drugs can alter your mental competence. All psychoactive drugs, even minor ones such as caffeine, subtly alter our perception of our emotional status. They alter the “weight”, good and bad, that we attach to things.

    Even very safe and useful drugs like the ones in the article, create a general feeling of optimism and positive view of ones actions. Such feelings might prevent us from acknowledging our mistake or otherwise taking stock. Even a minor effect, acting consistently over the course years might have significant consequences in the choices a person makes.

    I think it would be a prudent precaution to have individuals appoint another individual as medical proxy who force a reassessment of the drug use if they deem it wise.

  4. Even very safe and useful drugs like the ones in the article, create a general feeling of optimism and positive view of ones actions. Such feelings might prevent us from acknowledging our mistake or otherwise taking stock. Even a minor effect, acting consistently over the course years might have significant consequences in the choices a person makes.

    I think it would be a prudent precaution to have individuals appoint another individual as medical proxy who force a reassessment of the drug use if they deem it wise.

    Guess what? Religion can do that, too. Go to any AA meeting or any snakehandler Protestant Sunday social where speaking in tongues and other nonsense is going on and you’ll see a lot of optimism-cultivation. What do you think the cumulative effect of years of thinking God loves you and forgives you when you make mistakes has on your life choices?

    I’ll appoint a medical proxy after everyone else makes me their religion proxy.

  5. The time when I will access my male ancestors genetic memory draws nigh…

  6. I think it would be a prudent precaution to have individuals appoint another individual as medical proxy who force a reassessment of the drug use if they deem it wise.

    What a load of shit. Just because some people can’t handle drugs, we all need to have proxies to make determinations for us? Maybe you can’t trust yourself with drugs, dude, but I do just fine.

  7. Even very safe and useful drugs like the ones in the article, create a general feeling of optimism and positive view of ones actions.

    Inaccurate, except insofar as they improve their performance and thus lead to accurate increases in self-estimation.

  8. I started writing a longer post, but really it’s not worth discussing the implications of what Shannon is saying because the underlying belief about the drugs isn’t remotely accurate.

  9. Fluffy,

    Guess what? Religion can do that,.

    No, religion and similar effects are analogous software. Drugs are hardware. Drugs alter the functioning physical mechanism that generate your personality.

    The key point to understand here is that the drugs alter the physical mechanism by which you perceive the world and by which you make decisions. Your fundamental self changes.

  10. I am aware that some drugs can turn mere mortals into academic supermen, expand consciousness, and allow for insane productivity. Megalomania is an acceptable side effect.

    With great power comes great responsibility

    Everyone aware of Bioshock?

  11. No, religion and similar effects are analogous software. Drugs are hardware. Drugs alter the functioning physical mechanism that generate your personality.

    Fairly accurate in the short-term, completely inaccurate in the long term, physiologically speaking.

    Really……..

  12. FYI there is a comment forum on Nature’s website about this topic as well …

    http://network.nature.com/groups/naturenewsandopinion/forum/topics/3503

  13. No, religion and similar effects are analogous software. Drugs are hardware. Drugs alter the functioning physical mechanism that generate your personality.

    The key point to understand here is that the drugs alter the physical mechanism by which you perceive the world and by which you make decisions. Your fundamental self changes.

    I would once have argued that this was a material difference, too, but it is my understanding that a CAT scan can detect brain chemistry changes that arise when the subject is listening to human speech or music.

    That means that listening to someone speak is, in fact, physically changing your brain, every bit as much as taking a pill is.

    Because the process of thought is a physical process, it is not possible to meaningfully distinguish between hardware and software when talking about the brain. Every individual thought has a hardware element, if you include the chemistry of your brain in your definition of hardware.

  14. I think it would be a prudent precaution to have individuals appoint another individual as medical proxy who force a reassessment of the drug use if they deem it wise.

    Oh, what horseshit. Let adults make their own decisions, and bear the consequences. If the consequences are so dire that you become actually incapacitated/incompetent, then a medical proxy will step in as for any other incapacitated/incompetent person.

  15. Unfortunately, whoever is appointed as Drug Czar can’t say the same thing, not even about medical marijuana. Why?

    Because Congress has made it illegal for him to so do.

  16. “No, religion and similar effects are analogous software. Drugs are hardware. Drugs alter the functioning physical mechanism that generate your personality.”

    How does one explain cannabinoids in nature and cannabinoid receptors in the human body? Is it natural for humans to seek altered states of consciousness through cannabinoids or are the receptors there because God wants to punish us?

    What about food that alters your mood, like chocolate or sugary treats, is that hardware or fuel?

  17. I think it would be a prudent precaution to have individuals appoint another individual as medical proxy who force a reassessment of the drug use if they deem it wise.

    I’m gonna go all fundie on Shannon Love for a moment.

    It’s my goddam body and I’ll put what I fucking like into it. Thank you for your concern but shouldn’t you be monitoring the wee tots pre-school playground? Those of who have reached the age of majority don’t want to listen to you.

  18. Don’t you understand just how bad drugs are? It is immoral to use drugs to improve your performance because it is illegal. I don’t do coke to run a faster 400, and you should not take adderall to stay awake. I hope it stay illegal because it is immoral and the physicians who prescribe adderall to these college junkies should be stripped and put behind bars. You think the bailout was moral danger, this is a moral apocalypse!

  19. Could someone publish a list of these drugs and how one can obtain them?

  20. Troll moderately successful for teh win!

  21. @ Hazel

    Ritalin and Adderall are some. There are both CNS stimulants. Just tell your family doctor or psychiatrist that you think you have ADD. Take some online diagnostic tests. They help for when you need to list symptoms.

  22. The article basically tells you how…

    (1)Go to general physician or psych
    (2)Complain about inability to focus and fatigue w/o implying depression.
    (3)casually suggest that you were on adderall as a child and it really seemed to help
    (4) score!

    oh yeah, moral danger, drugs are bad, go to jail etc…

  23. Fail, Epic fail. Fail.

  24. Since drug laws probably won’t change in our lifetime you might as well work within the system in order to get pharmaceutical and other drugs. ie. Get prescribed Medical Marijuana, sue employer if they fire you and go to the Supreme Court.

  25. It is immoral to use drugs
    ______________________________________
    by whos morals, by whos standards. morals have no place in law, just as religion has no place in goverment. My morals say it is ok, and as long as i am responsible and no one else is hurt. it would be moral ,LOL for you to stay out of my PRIVATE PERSONAL BUISNESS!

  26. can you fail if you haven’t tried and don’t throw around the word epic like that. please stop reducing the quality of my internets.

  27. J sub D,

    It’s my goddam body and I’ll put what I fucking like into it.

    … and leave me to clean up the mess if you fuck up? I’ve hauled to many drunks and druggies out of my way to fall for the idea that all the consequences altered mental states land only on the person partaking.

    If you don’t create a private system for monitoring peoples drug altered behavior, the negative externalities of those behaviors will drive people to seek a coercive state based solution. Requiring medical proxies is no more invasive than requiring titles for property. It provides a private, individual oversight mechanism that will allow greater freedom.

  28. you have no internets. youre too prude and a big moralfag to have any internets. please come back when you are over 9000

  29. (1)Go to general physician or psych
    (2)Get drugs
    (3)???
    (4) Profit!!!

    fixed

  30. We can’t be friends anymore.

  31. If you don’t create a private system for monitoring peoples drug altered behavior,

    Formerly known as “friends and family”, or even “civil society.”

  32. Fluffy,

    That means that listening to someone speak is, in fact, physically changing your brain, every bit as much as taking a pill is.

    I can tell you are uneducated in this area. You are trying to make an argument of Aristotelian for a phenomenon that is sensitive to scale. By your reasoning I should be no more concerned when I am shot at by a .45 than if I am when I am shot at with a BB gun. After all, they are both projectiles fired from a gun, therefore they must have the same magnitude of effects.

    The brain changes state in response to environmental input and its internal operation. That is the way it works. Drugs however, alter the state in a particular direction by brute force amplification or suppression of naturally occurring states. The effects of drugs are usually thousands of times stronger than the natural signals.

    Anyone who has taken psychoactive drugs of any kind know that they alter the decisions one makes. I am simply suggesting that we some kind of PRIVATE, INDIVIDUALLY CHOSEN system to make sure that the use of enhancing drugs doesn’t cause runaway problems.

  33. The brain changes state in response to environmental input and its internal operation. That is the way it works. Drugs however, alter the state in a particular direction by brute force amplification or suppression of naturally occurring states. The effects of drugs are usually thousands of times stronger than the natural signals.

    So what?

    That still means that your hardware/software analogy was inapt.

    It also means that it’s absurd and meaningless to talk about there being some “true” underlying fundamental personality, that cognitive drugs remove.

    If “the brain changes state in response to environmental input and its internal operation” then there is no default state and no static personality for us to compare our cognitively-enhanced personality to. There is only a flux that we understand in a very limited way and the rough continuity of which we label the “personality”.

    If you don’t create a private system for monitoring peoples drug altered behavior, the negative externalities of those behaviors will drive people to seek a coercive state based solution.

    You’d have to demonstrate to me that there were negative externalities associated with my own, personal, individual use of cognitive drugs [or any other drug] before I would accept this as an argument. Not somebody else’s.

    There are many more negative externalities associated with trying to prevent me from taking cognitive drugs than allowing me to take them. Allowing me to take them will have no impact on anyone but me at all, that I can possibly imagine. Not allowing me to take them runs the risk that I will freak out, go all John Brown on your asses, and blow up a building or something. So if we’re going to structure public policy on the basis of the potential for negative externalities, it looks like the potential externalities associated with prohibition are worse.

  34. I am simply suggesting that we some kind of PRIVATE, INDIVIDUALLY CHOSEN system to make sure that the use of enhancing drugs doesn’t cause runaway problems.

    Sorry, I should have addressed this part too, since there is where you try to give the appearance of being reasonable.

    If we’re allowed to individually choose, then I choose me to be my own medical proxy.

    What? I can’t choose myself? Then it’s not an individual, private, or free choice.

  35. I am all for this, but there is one thing I don’t understand. Why doesn’t the “kids are already using them illegally, and demand will just increase” argument work for marijuana? Even worse is to see news groups such as Fox News running this story and for the most part agreeing with it, but yet bring up marijuana and we are all a bunch of despots just asking to be sent to hell.

    I guess it is the fact that these medications are already legal to take with a prescription. Personally, I would much rather smoke a joint than take some pills to help me get through my day, I don’t know about anyone else here, but thats just me.

  36. Could someone publish a list of these drugs and how one can obtain them?

    Here are a few actual or potential cognitive enhancers:

    Hydergine

    Piracetam

    Vinpocetine

    Dimethylethanolamine

    Dilantin

  37. … and leave me to clean up the mess if you fuck up? I’ve hauled to many drunks and druggies out of my way to fall for the idea that all the consequences altered mental states land only on the person partaking.

    If you don’t create a private system for monitoring peoples drug altered behavior, the negative externalities of those behaviors will drive people to seek a coercive state based solution. Requiring medical proxies is no more invasive than requiring titles for property. It provides a private, individual oversight mechanism that will allow greater freedom.

    As soon as I harm somebody else send the fuckin’ cops. Until then, you have no right to tell tell me how to maintain my own body and psyche.

    You do, however, have permission to kiss my ass.

  38. By your reasoning I should be no more concerned when I am shot at by a .45 than if I am when I am shot at with a BB gun.

    I’d much rather be “shot at” by a poorly aimed .45 than a precisely placed BB.

  39. Nothing to add so late, except a big ROFL for Shannon calling someone uneducated (while clearly ignoring the blatant BS in her previous comments). So funny.

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