6. Smart Drugs

2019; Unified Korea

Can we change who we are? For millennia, we’ve eagerly bought potions and medicines that promised to make us smarter and wiser, and for just as long, we’ve been bitterly disappointed. Yet we kept coming back; there was just something irresistible about improving ourselves without any effort.

And then the promises came true.

Today, we might pity those who never had access to personality reconstruction and metacognitive mapping, but it’s easy to forget that mind-altering substances have always given a cruder kind of relief and variety to our lives.From alcohol and caffeine to cannabis and amphetamines, we’ve never lacked ways to stimulate and relax our minds.

It was much trickier, however, to create drugs that increase elements of our intelligence, like improved attention or wakefulness, without harmful side-effects. It wasn’t until the teens and 20s that we had the tools to produce the first true cognitive enhancers, or ‘smart drugs’. Completely unprecedented in history, they caused quite a stir.

I have a range of samples lined up here, provided generously by Prof. Arienne Niyonshuti at the Kigali Museum of Medicine. All of them are from the first wave of readily available consumer-grade smart drugs in 2019. On the left here, we’ve got an orange pill called Tricity, which improves memory formation and recall; next to it, there’s a square chocolate that helps with language; a green pill, Numony, that reduces tiredness and stress; and finally on the right I have a pill of the most well-known smart drug: Ceretin, a wide-spectrum cognitive enhancer.

So, let’s try one out! Here’s a glass of water… and I think I’ll take the Ceretin. Now, I’m told that we’re not supposed to take these drugs any more since they get automatically expunged by our neural laces, but I’ve had Prof. Niyonshuti’s team temporarily disable my lace’s usual functions aside from recording. Prof. Niyonshuti will now explain exactly what’s going on in my brain right now:

“We can see quite clearly that the active components of Ceretin are entering your bloodstream, crossing the blood-brain barrier, and altering the behaviour of your synaptic neurotransmitter receptors in the frontal cortex and cerebellum. It takes a few minutes for the drugs to take effect, though, so we’ll wait a little while before giving you the cognitive tests I’ve prepared.”

What’s extraordinary about these drugs is that their creators actually had very little idea about how they operated. Scientists could observe their effects and check for any harmful side-effects, and they had hypotheses about their method of action, but they would lack anything even approaching a complete model of the brain for at least another decade.

It looks like the Ceretin has now taken effect, so I’m going to take a few old-fashioned tests to assess my memory skills, along with reasoning and attention. I won’t bore you with the details, but they basically involve things like predicting the next symbol in a series, and distractor tests.

…And here are the results! Across the board, my cognitive performance has increased anywhere from fourteen to twenty percent compared to the tests I took beforehand. These results don’t prove anything in themselves, of course — I’m just one person, and this wasn’t a double-blinded experiment — but I definitely feel a fair bit sharper. I can only imagine how appealing it must have felt back then.

These weren’t the first smart drugs on the market — modafinil, an ‘alertness’ drug, was released in the 2000s — but they were the first to gain widespread popularity. The biggest markets for drugs like Ceretin tended to be countries such as China, Japan, Singapore, and Unified Korea, where they were heavily advertised on Starcraft and ZRG casts; North America and the EU lagged behind due to safety concerns.

Smart drugs helped students gain an edge when it came to the exams that controlled entry to meritocracies; they also eked out another percentage point of inaccurately-measured ‘productivity’ in large corporations. However, their high cost prompted violent protests by those who argued that they should either be made freely available or banned — with mandatory drug testing before exams. One Unified Korean chaebol, NSK, provided Mnemosyne for all of its thirty thousand employees.

Of course, it was impossible to stop smart drugs from being illegally imported and sold in other countries at inflated prices. This caused further tensions in highly unequal countries like the US, where they became another symbol of the power the rich had to simply ‘buy’ success. In 2024, President Martinez addressed the issue head-on by legalising not just smart drugs but also recreational drugs, and allowing for the production of cheap ‘generic’ smart drugs just five years after their initial release to market.

Smart drugs had their downsides. Though it was difficult to tell at the time, we now know that the benefits conferred by any given first or second-generation smart drug usually came at the expense of other cognitive functions like creativity, long-term memory formation, or empathy. The drugs also contributed to the damaging ‘speed-up’ culture of the time, increasing the pressure on already-frantic workers.

It’s time to turn my lace back on now, and that means the Ceretin will be flushed out within a few seconds. While it’s doing that, it’s fascinating to look back on how smart drugs, however crude they were, paved the way for our laces. Not long after the first wave, researchers were testing ways of combining them with portable transcranial magnetic stimulation, which offered superior temporal and spatial resolution to drugs, truly changing people’s mental capacities and even personalities. But it all started here, with these four pills…

Follow me at @adrianhon and @futureobjects

A History of the Future in 100 Objects will be available on Kindle, iPhone and iPad this summer as an eBook and iOS Newsstand app. A lovely coffee-table book will be out this autumn.

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