Brain Enhancement

Who wants to be smarter? This is a simple rhetorical question with an obvious answer. But how? How to become smarter? That’s the real question. One way, which is fairly obvious, is to work at it. We’re not born with much knowledge. As children, our brains have enormous capacity, but unfilled with experience or knowledge and unused in the sense of muscles. Human beings need to learn a great deal to be functional. Much of this learning we do naturally, just by growing up and living in the world. However, a lot of learning we must acquire deliberately, for example mathematics, reading, and writing. For modern human beings, these and many other areas of abstract learning are so important that we’ve institutionalized the process. It’s called schooling.

However, as human beings, one aspect of our nature is to look for shortcuts. Human beings have been messing with mental capacity since forever. Drugs, of course, are the historical mode for doing this. From a medical point of view, taking drugs like LSD creates a very real risk for mental impairment; but many of those who use it believe LSD ‘expands the mind.’ Something similar is said for many psychotropic and hallucinogenic drugs.

While strongly mind altering drugs exist in the margins of brain enhancement, milder forms of mental stimulation – the caffeine in coffee, for example – are routinely used. Thousands of products are marketed for their supposed brain enhancing properties. Studies appear with regularity showing that this or that vitamin, food diet, or health regimen will improve some form of mental ability. This is a major growth area for both science and quackery. While neuroscience is still grappling with the difficulties of understanding how the brain functions and how the mind works, given the strong demand for improving intelligence, it’s predictable that the future holds a succession of ‘new and improved methods’ for enhancing mental capacity. So called ‘designer drugs’ will be at the top of the list.

Sensory improvement can also be included in the package of brain enhancement. The line between sensory and cognitive enhancement is almost arbitrary. For example, eyes can be augmented by external devices (not just glasses). There are various forms of implants and surgeries that can benefit the eye itself. Still, what affects eyesight most is the brain’s ability to assemble, filter, and analyze the sensory input from the eyes. This too can be augmented, primarily with drugs but also in the future with electronic implants.

The use of electronics to enhance the brain is mostly science fiction, but only for the moment. The idea of somehow seamlessly hooking the brain to a powerful computer doesn’t seem far-fetched anymore. The future blending of electronics with organics (organic computation, for example) will also open pathways to brain augmentation.

Almost every advance in the area of brain enhancement can be used for medical purposes to treat diseases, repair damaged areas of the brain, and combat mental illness. Such uses will find minimal opposition. The same can not be said for non-medical, that is, elective or recreational uses of brain enhancing drugs or devices. The potential for all sorts of results, good and bad, is high. For example, brain enhancement might be helpful to an individual, but highly disruptive to society. We already worry about students who take tests while using amphetamines and other stimulants, and what that may do to distort the results. Sophisticated learning enhancement drugs will probably increase the distortion, with long-term implications for student competition and evaluation of educational achievement. (That’s a long winded way of saying that some people can afford brain enhancement, and some not, which may produce a new kind of class struggle.)

Impact Area: Brain Enhancement
It’s obvious that as an impact area Brain Enhancement blends with several other areas: Body Implantation, Nanotechnology, Neuro-intelligence, Neuro-emotion, Neuro-memory, Computer Power. Work in many disciplines such as biology, neuroscience, nanotechnology, and medicine will make contributions. It seems appropriate to aggregate some of the many developments in one topic, Brain Enhancement, because of its potential impact on human beings and society. In a way, Brain Enhancement is a culmination result, a byproduct of much other research, yet in the final analysis among the most potentially disruptive.