‘Anew generation of scientists is not satisfied merely to watch and describe brain activity,” writes David Adam. “They want to interfere, to change and improve the brain — to neuroenhance it.”
In his new book “The Genius Within: Unlocking Your Brain’s Potential” (Pegasus), Adam offers a many-sided investigation of neuroenhancement — a hodgepodge of technologies and drug treatments aimed at improving intelligence. A London-based science writer and editor, he previously wrote about obsessive-compulsive disorder, its history, and his own struggle with it in “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop” (2014).
“We wonder at the stars, and then we start to work out how far away things are. And then we design a spacecraft that’s going to take us up there. I think that’s happened with neuroscience.”
For this installment of the Undark Five, I talked with Adam about neuroenhancement — among other things, whether it’s fair to enhance some people’s cognitive abilities but not others’, why the subject of intelligence makes so many people uncomfortable, and whether “smart drugs” will one day make us all Einsteins. Here’s our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
UNDARK — There’s been a shift within neuroscience from not just trying to understand how the brain works but to enhance it. How did that happen?
DAVID ADAM — I think it’s not just about enhancing it, it’s about intervening in the brain. I see a pretty consistent model where science first tries to observe, and then tries to interpret and understand, and then tries to intervene. We see that when it comes to the natural world: We look at space, we wonder at the stars, and then we start to work out how far away things are. And then we design a spacecraft that’s going to take us up there.
I think that’s happened with neuroscience because of the tools that are being developed. Until the 1980s, to understand what was going on in the brain you mostly waited for people to have a stroke, and then you’d see what cognitive function they’d lost. And then you looked at the part of the brain that was affected.
Then we had a new technology to scan brains, and we asked it to perform tasks. That allowed people to make a pretty rough but useful map of what is in the brain. And we now have tools where we can try and intervene without being too invasive. Of course, you don’t want to start drilling into people’s heads to do research studies, but you can do stuff from the outside now to try and steer the behavior of brain cells, or to sort of introduce a change, and then see the results. I think it’s largely driven by the technology that is available to scientists as much as it is by any need or desire to want to do it.
UD — There are a lot of ethical questions around the use of neuroenhancements. One is whether their use is a form of deception or that they provide an unfair advantage. You write about how you used them as an experiment — specifically, the drug modafinil and electrical brain stimulation — while taking an intelligence quotient test that landed you in the high-IQ society Mensa. Is that cheating?
DA — I’m not sure we know enough at this point to make an informed decision. If it’s a form of cheating, there has to be some form of competition involved, right? When we are talking about the use of cognitive enhancement, its use will often end up being for things like ordinary tasks. But where there is competition, let’s say you’re playing chess, I can see a case that using some forms of cognitive enhancement would be cheating — if done where everyone didn’t have the same access to them.
In terms of academic examinations, I think it’s more difficult to say conclusively that it’s cheating because there are so many other variables that impact somebody’s performance on an exam. If you start saying a cognitive enhancer is giving someone an unfair advantage, well, there are other ways, perhaps, that unfair advantages can creep into an exam. Some people do better in the morning, and some do better in the afternoon. So in order for cognitive enhancements to be a form of cheating, one needs to assume that the playing field is already level, and I don’t think it is. Let’s say a child who goes to a school in the inner city where the teaching isn’t great and there’s a lot of disruption in the class: Is it cheating if they take something that helps them remember stuff? Or is it cheating if someone pays to go to a private school where they have none of those disadvantages of the former?
When I took the IQ test, yeah, I think it was cheating. An IQ test is, in part, about your ability to use information and reason, and turn your mind to certain tasks. Cognitive enhancers do help you to do that. I had given myself an advantage that other people didn’t have.
UD — What about savant syndrome — the condition in which individuals with severe mental conditions also exhibit a very specific form of genius?
DA —I think savants show two things. They show a degree of scale in the difference of what can be achieved. They do things far more quickly and far more effectively than the rest of us, using the same equipment essentially. But they also show that it’s possible to take one mental skill and be so off-the-charts good at it without everything else being that good. And so that goes against most of the theories we have of intelligence, which is that it’s all anchored to the same sort of capability.
UD — You write that efforts to measure and improve intelligence make many people uncomfortable. Why?
DA — You don’t have to dig very far to find examples of intelligence measurement being abused. IQ tests were heavily associated with eugenics, and it was the Nazis who took it to its dreadful, logical extreme. They made everyone wake up and realize that “No, no, this is completely wrong, and what on earth were we thinking?” There’s a legitimate concern that this could repeat because a lot of the pretty ugly motives and attitudes that drove that are still around. Some people certainly have a political viewpoint, which is ready to use any kind of apparent endorsement of differences between groups of individuals to support their own prejudice.
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UD — Do you worry boosters of the field will start making outsized claims like we’re going to turn everyone into Einsteins?
DA — Anyone who tells you they understand how the brain actually works is a fool or a liar, and I think that will continue for a long time. Anything that claims to be based on rigorous hypotheses is a bit dubious. We’re still at the stage where we are trying out things and we’re seeing what happens. But then that’s sort of the way we’ve dealt with the brain. A lot of medicines for mental illness are based around the same principle. You gave someone a drug, it seemed to make them better, so we’ll give it for that. And then we’ll try and work out how it helped.
I think there are already some brain stimulation kits on the market, the makers of which vastly overstate what we know about the brain. And they try — and, I think, overinterpret — the changes they see. Now the changes might be real, and that’s where I think it is quite exciting. The brain is complicated but it can be changed.
“There are already some brain stimulation kits on the market, the makers of which vastly overstate what we know about the brain.”
We know there are certain techniques that we already use that change the way the brain works and organizes itself. The more we experiment, the more we will discover, and then have more promise to intervene in those ways. I don’t think the effects are ever going be huge — but then they kind of don’t need to be to have an effect.
And we can pretty safely say we’re not going to turn everyone into Einstein. Not everyone has the potential to be Einstein. All you can do is help them to achieve their own potential. Talent is always going to be out of reach for some people, unfortunately.
Also, if it costs $500 to buy one of these kits, that just gives another way of an elite securing the advantages for themselves. There’s certainly an argument, an ethical or moral argument, that smart pills, if they work, should be given to the people on the bottom of the scale. To sort of compensate for them losing out on the lottery of life.
Of course, we had Einstein, didn’t we? We’ve shown that we don’t need cognitive enhancement to produce people like Einstein. And I don’t think that’s the goal, really. I think it’s more about there’s a huge middle ground where people are competing for resources, attention, jobs, and money. The geniuses will kind of take care of themselves, and it’s everyone else who’s going to be more interested in cognitive enhancement.
Eric Allen Been is a freelance writer who has contributed to The New Republic, The Atlantic, Vox, and Vice’s Motherboard, among other publications.