One of the many sad results of Perplex City being put ‘on hold’ is that I can’t explore the effect of cognitive enhancement on society. As a former neuroscientist who studied experimental psychology at university, I always enjoyed writing about my pet fictional company, Cognivia, and its range of cognitive enhancements including Ceretin (wide-spectrum enhancement), Mnemosyne (memory booster), Cardinal (maths), Synergy (creativity) and others. I still think the names are really cool as well.
As usual though, reality is catching up to fiction at an breathtaking rate; The New York Times published an article today covering the use of cognitive enhancers in universities and society in general:
In a recent commentary in the journal Nature, two Cambridge University researchers reported that about a dozen of their colleagues had admitted to regular use of prescription drugs like Adderall, a stimulant, and Provigil, which promotes wakefulness, to improve their academic performance. The former is approved to treat attention deficit disorder, the latter narcolepsy, and both are considered more effective, and more widely available, than the drugs circulating in dorms a generation ago.
… One person who posted anonymously on the Chronicle of Higher Education Web site said that a daily regimen of three 20-milligram doses of Adderall transformed his career: “I’m not talking about being able to work longer hours without sleep (although that helps),” the posting said. “I’m talking about being able to take on twice the responsibility, work twice as fast, write more effectively, manage better, be more attentive, devise better and more creative strategies.”
Would I take cognitive enhancers? I would certainly like to give Provigil a try, if only to see what it’s like. I have concerns about its long-term efficacy, and obviously there are issues of developing a dependency on it (if not physiological, psychological). There are already many people out there who regularly use caffeine and Pro-Plus to pep themselves up. You could argue that the stimulant properties of caffeine are merely a side-effect, and that the reason people drink coffee is because it tastes nice, but I find that as hard to believe as the notion that people drink alcohol only because they enjoy the taste.
The fact is, we already widely use cognitive enhancers, whether it’s caffeine or sugar. They do improve our performance. They are not natural in the slightest, unless natural somehow means ‘old’. So the question becomes, are we prepared to allow use of cognitive enhancers that are even more powerful, more reliable, and with fewer side-effects?