By Devin Van Dyke
Intelligence is the raw material of human achievement. Every distinction between man and animal is the result of our exceptional brains.
Even though the forces of evolution have not ceased to work on us, for the last 50,000 years the individual human brain has not substantially changed. Our remote hunter-gatherer ancestors were as intelligent individually as we are today – all the landmark achievements of civilization are the work of our collective intelligence. The “hive-mind” is talented in some areas but challenged in others: our weaknesses in long-term planning and morality are indicated by our failure to solve global warming or end genocide and war. A society of minds informed only by evolutionary signals can never transcend the animal kingdom from which we arose. In order to fulfill our potential and transcend our animal roots, it is necessary to further develop our individual minds. The field of cognitive enhancement exists to do just that.
Imagine the consequences of, for example, a 25-point increase in intelligence worldwide, or even simply among those involved in government. Such a shift could change the course of history in radical ways. What may strike you as science fiction is not far off in scientific terms – the fields of neurology and psychopharmacology are developing quickly and our understanding of the biological infrastructure of intelligence is growing accordingly.
The statement that people use, on average, only 10% of their brains has been proven to be a myth, but the fact remains that we are nowhere near the actualization of our full mental potential. Through advancements in medical science we will be able to improve cerebral efficiency and health, and even eventually exceed the brain’s biological limitations.
The safe and effective “smart drugs” that are our best and nearest bet for sustainable cognitive enhancement are just around the corner. In fact, the first generation has already arrived.
There exist a few options for those looking for a mental boost, starting with caffeine, a minor stimulant. Its effects on focus and wakefulness have made it ubiquitous in Western culture. Then there are the psychostimulant drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall, prescribed for ADHD and related illnesses. Their effects on alertness and information retention are famous on college campuses for their usefulness as study aids. However, Adderall and its relatives are more productivity enhancers than intelligence enhancers, and their beneficial effects come with the risks of neurotoxicity, heart problems and addiction.
More promising is the large and diverse class of chemical known as nootropics. The term refers to any substance that improves mental function and is neuroprotective, or, at the very least, entirely nontoxic. To qualify as a nootropic a compound must be effectively free from negative side effects. The original nootropic is Piracetam, first synthesized in 1964. Scientists quickly noticed its beneficial effects on even healthy brains and its spotless safety profile, which has remained intact through over 40 years of study. Its primary effects are a substantial increase in verbal memory and recall, as well as a noticeable gain in the perception of visual and audial contrast. A number of studies support its beneficial effects on subjects with Down Syndrome, dyslexia, and dementia, as well as on simply aged or even perfectly healthy brains (see papers published by the labs of Ennaceur, Wilsher, and Schuer).
Other nootropics include DMAE (dimethylethanolamine) and choline: precursors to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is heavily involved in learning and attention. Vinpocetine is a vasodilator which enhances cerebral blood flow and communication between the hemispheres of the brain. Huperzine A increases synaptic levels of acetylcholine and functions as a neuroprotective agent.
Though not technically a nootropic, the stimulant modafinil has been shown to improve focus and wakefulness without serious side effects and with a much lower addiction potential than ADHD stimulants or coffee. It reduces the need for sleep and can keep users awake for 36 hours without fatigue. Though available to civilians only by way of prescription for narcolepsy and related disorders, modafinil has seen use by the US Air Force on long missions. Drugs like modafinil may eventually render sleep entirely unnecessary.
Many other nootropics and miscellaneous “smart drugs” exist in various stages of research, clinical testing, and use. The more we learn about the biological basis of intelligence, the better able we are to deliver focused and safe therapies to enhance it.
The field of cognitive enhancement is exciting and fast-paced. However, its successes can be misunderstood and its proponents attacked for trying to ‘play God’ or engineer an unfair playing field. The off-label use of psychostimulants in academia is a particularly controversial issue that casts a negative light upon the prospect of scientifically augmented cognition. The debate over the proper societal response will be long and harsh, but the fact remains that cognitive enhancement is possible, effective, and safe, and might be a widespread reality sooner than you think.