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.