What makes us who we are? How do we hold on to that in the face of disease and decay? And are we capable of becoming more? These are questions that cognitive neuroscientists are dealing with on a daily basis. Cognitive neuroscience is a burgeoning field of study that seeks to understand the biology of thought. Right now, The basic goal of most neuroscientific research is to increase our general understanding of how the brain functions, and to develop treatments or cures for neurological ailments. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, psychological disorders, even mental impairment and ADHD may some day fall beneath the sword of scientific research.
Betterhumans.com reports on a group of Washington University researchers who may be laying the groundwork to grow new synapses within the brain. And scientists all over the world are finding new ways to attack Alzheimer’s with everything from chemical compounds to implanted stem cells. But this is not where the ground gets treacherous. Everyone seems to be in favor of curative medical research to keep our brains functioning longer, or to correct diseases or damage. The real question which we will be faced with soon is what lies beyond simple repair and maintenance. The possibility of augmentation looms near on the horizon.
One of the everyday erroneous conventions that most of us still take as truth is the old adage that humans use only 10 percent of our brains. This thought has always coexisted uneasily in my mind with all of the legitimate biological information we now possess about the most mysterious of our organs. Scientific American today dispelled that myth via an article by Barry L. Beyerstein of the Brain Behavior Laboratory at Simon Fraser University. The truth is much more complicated. Can we augment our brains? Undoubtedly. But to what extent and in what form that augmentation takes remains to be seen.
Even now there are a plethora of drugs available that may be able to improve our cognition. A WebMD article references some psychopharmaceuticals that can improve your memory. USA Today also mentions some “smart pills” available on the market. Science Blog.com talks about how choline supplements can have a dramatic effect on the learning potential and memory of children. Adage.com even brings to our attention a dog food that promises to produce smarter pets! Bruce Sterling in his speculative fiction novel Distraction writes;
“Cognition will become an industry soon. A massive, earthshaking, new American industry. Someday, the biggest ever.” And in this case, life is once again emulating fiction.
But the application of enhanced cognition creates controversy. New Scientist in February reported that James Watson, co-discover of DNA said “If you are really stupid, I would call that a disease” and advocates genetic screening to detect the lower 10 percentile of IQ. The Stanford School of Medicine reports on a meeting arranged by the National Science Foundation and the New York Academy of Science. The meeting raised questions about the effects of augmentative neuroscience on us as individuals, and on society as a whole.
In June The Nation ran an article which presented all sides of the neuroscience debate. Some feel that a fine line needs to be drawn between enhancement and therapeutic uses of the technology. Others urge a cautious approach, creating a field of neuroethics, where each technological possibility would be debated and examined before being presented to the public. The thoughts which most closely echo my own come from Dr. James Hughes.
… "There's better and worse. More life is good. More smarts is good," says James Hughes, who teaches health policy at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and is author of the forthcoming book "Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future."
"Sometimes I think I'm arguing for the plow" - a simple dramatic upgrade in human technology, Professor Hughes says. In 100 years, he predicts, "we'll have currently unimaginable cognitive abilities on tap" through technology…
As controversial as this topic is, my take on it is very simple. Do the research. Give us the tools and the choice that goes with them. If humanity as a culture had the opportunity to choose to be smarter, I think you would see exactly how clear cut this issue would become. At some level all of us want the ability to exceed our current limitations. And if I could improve my own life by improving my intelligence, I would do it in a heart beat. Mankind has been getting smarter since the dawn of time. Compare our mental faculties now with where they were a thousand years ago, or a hundred. There is nothing unethical about seeking self improvement. Indeed I believe that is at the core of what makes us human.
You’ll find that as we make ourselves smarter, rather than becoming distanced, we will become empowered. And as much as we want for ourselves, we want more for our children and the generations that follow. We can accomplish so much now as we are, think of what we will be capable of in a better, smarter future. Rather then debate whether or not we should take steps to increase our own intelligence, let us take the logical step and move forward and see where it takes us. I applaud the visionary neuroscientists that are currently planting the seeds that may some day grow into real life Flowers for Algernon. I’m on board folks…sign me up.
I say evolve and let the chips fall where they may. - Tyler Durden, Fight Club
More to come…