Enhancing brain cognitive functions

Autor: Aleksandra Tor

During recent years the development of neuroscience experienced rapid growth and reached a level at which scientists from decades before would not even dream of. Progress in brain scanning technologies and also in chemistry affected intensification of works on how the human brain works. This “hundred billion neurons with possibility a hundred trillion connections between them, packed into the 1,5 kilos of the human brain” (Rose 2006) are becoming little by little less mysterious to us. As Lyn Parker mentioned, these days can be observed “(…)the rapidly expanding range of possibilities for human enhancement that contemporary science now offers, as a direct result of our growing understanding of human physiology, biochemistry and cognition, and our increasing skill in manipulating these and other aspects of human life processes” ( Parker 2006)Should healthy adults be free to use psycho-pharmacological and other technologies to enhance their cognitive functions?

The process of „disenchantment of the world” went a step further. Emotions and cognitive processes are no longer entirely inexplicable. With a help of science we can explain even very complex feelings, like love or hope, in a purely “materialistic” way of chemical processes that can be evoked or eliminated by injecting a certain medicine. Mental illnesses ceased being mysterious, purely psychical disorders and started to be successfully cured by chemical substances. When these methods of treatment mental diseases became widely acceptable, the temptation of improving this way a cognitive functioning of a healthy brain appeared. We can all agree that “There is something very seductive about the idea of making ourselves stronger, fitter, more beautiful, more alert or more intelligent”( Parker 2006)
If humanity has the potential of improving healthy brains, should they do this? The major question is: should healthy adults be free to use psycho-pharmacological and other technologies to enhance their cognitive functioning? My answer to this question is yes, we should have this possibility.

Chemical Ways of Improving Brain Functions

First, I would like to clarify what exactly I have in mind when discussing about healthy adults and cognitive functioning enhancements. Healthy adults, where “health” is defined as “ a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (World Health Organization, 1948), who don’t need these substances for a medical treatment and who can reasonably estimate how certain substances can influence them.
Cognitive enhancements are “(…) the amplification or extension of core capacities of the mind through improvement or augmentation of internal or external information processing systems” (Bostrom 2008). Cognition is understood as the process that is used to organize information. And these processes, according to Bostrom, are “(…) acquiring information (perception), selecting (attention), representing (understanding) and retaining (memory) information, and using it to guide behavior (reasoning and coordination of motor outputs). Interventions to improve cognitive function may be directed at any of these core faculties.” (Bostrom 2008) The ways of enhancing the cognitive functioning, which I will be focusing on, are psycho-pharmacological, chemical substances, which improve such abilities as memory, learning and endurance. Gangani Niyadurupola described briefly how particular substances work on certain brain functions of a healthy person. Hence, by altering the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, memory can be improved. This can be done by the drug Donepezil, which is a common treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, or by stimulants like methylphenidate, used to treat people with Attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which alter the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, meaning executive functions can be improved. Another stimulant, modafinil, which is a treatment of sleep disorders, can improve abilities in a range of cognitive tests and let people for better functioning after sleep deprivation ( Niyadurupola 2008). These are the types of brain enhancements that I would like to focus on and which in my opinion should be free in use by every healthy grown – up.

Enhancing in the History of Mankind

Enhancement is any kind of improvement of previous characteristics. All the inventions and development of science, from the Stone Age till the 21st century, were the ways to improve human life. From the invention of the wheel to using amphetamine by students, the aim was one : make life easier, better, faster. People were using different kinds of enhancements for centuries, mankind always wanted to be better. “Physical and mental training, the use of stimulants and other mind-altering substances, even physical modification for cosmetic or religious purposes: all these have very ancient and culturally diverse roots.” (Miller, Wildston 2006) Education, training, creativity courses or even meditation are not perceived as enhancements. But humans had and still have numerous ways to improve their cognition such as mediation, yoga, martial arts, special diet, external technologies like computers and the Internet. Some might say that these “traditional” methods are nothing like chemical interference with an organism, but what about also “traditional” and widely popular enhancements like coffee, tea or energy drinks? They are also chemical substances which influence our cognitive functions. Brain enhancements are just relatively new discoveries: that is why a great number of people are afraid of them, of the thing that they do not know. Stephen Rose compares this fear to the invention of a telescope. “It is true that when Galileo developed the telescope there were those among his compatriots who refused to look through it, but few today would share this ethical discomfort. Yet in the context of substances that interact directly with our bodily biochemistry, we feel a considerable unease, reflected in custom and law.” (Rose 2006) Psycho-pharmacological enhancements are nothing more than the next step for humanity to improve their brain functions and they can be comparable to using coffee or energy drinks which are commonly consumed and widely accepted by society.
Gangani Niyadurupola predicts that chemical brain enhancements soon will have the same status as coffee. ( Niyadurupola 2008) With a great tradition of using brain enhancements, people should be free to benefit from the newest science inventions.

The Next Step in the Evolution?

Most scientific discoveries are made for humans to improve quality of life and make it easier. Chemical brain enhancements are able to achieve the same. If people discovered such improvements, they should be able to use them. The discovery of how medical treatments influences a healthy human brain is a real revolution, and in the same way, an evolution. Humanity has evolved to this point, where the development of science is at such a high level, that it is possible to create a various ways of brain enhancement. That brings about an idea, that it is the part of the evolution. If we, with our brains, are able to create technologies to improve our cognitive functions, it was meant to be and, as Arthur Caplan puts it: “the new enhancement technologies are merely the logical next step in an ongoing process of using new knowledge to improve ourselves” (Caplan 2006) I agree with the Meliorist’s belief, that there are no or almost no limits in enhancing the human nature. Meliorism, defined by Webster’s dictionary, as the belief or doctrine that the world tends to become better and that man has the power of aiding its betterment. It is the idea that improvement of society depends on human effort. “Meliorism presumes that the world is not hopelessly corrupt, but rather that it can, through proper leadership and motivation, advance morally, politically, and economically” (Graebner 2000). If humans develop such technologies or sciences to do it, it means that it is the part of an evolution and we should not stop it. Arthur Caplan, the follower of the meliorists doctrine, considers that biology tells us what limits do exist in nature but does not show us what human being should or could become. “Biology tells us what limits exist in nature – regardless of whether we want to overcome the limits, change the limits, change the game, change the rules. I think, ever since Darwin, we haven’t had any basis for saying that there’s any biological limit on what we could be, should be or might want to become.” (Caplan 2006) Human beings are not perfect. In my opinion, we are not in the last stage of the evolution. It does not make sense to think this was, if during any time in the history of mankind people would think that way, they would stop to improve science and technology. Besides, there are empirical proofs, that we are not perfectly optimized by just biology and evolution. Lord Winston mentions that in his interview by Leon Zonneveld: “I do not believe that we are ‘optimized’ through evolution. If we were, we would not, for example, have a menopause. (…) This is a good example of our not being adapted to the environment in which we now find ourselves, because it would be perfectly appropriate for women, given their current state of good health by the age of 40 – 50 years old, to consider reproduction later in life. Neither do I like the idea of human perfectibility.” (Winston 2008) Limiting ourselves would be robbing mankind from the great possibilities of development. The opponents of this view say that making yourself better is a vanity, egoism and selfishness. There is nothing further from the truth. Of course, pushing one’s limit is what brings people pleasure, but improvement of an individual can bring huge advantages to the whole society. I totally agree with Arthur Caplan, who claims that: “I find no in-principle arguments why we shouldn’t try to improve ourselves at all. I don’t find it persuasive that to say you want to be stronger, faster, smarter makes you vain. Try to improve yourself.” (Caplan 2006).

Better Brains Equal Better Economy

I claimed in the previous paragraph, that improvement of an individual can bring huge advantages to the whole society. Here I would like to focus on economical benefits of using psycho – pharmacological brain enhancement technologies. The first and the most obvious thing is treatment of mentally disabled. It can cause the increase of a number of employees capable for work, and reduce costs of long term psychological and psychiatric treatment.
But I am focusing on healthy adults improving their cognitive functions. The first step is education. Because of substances like methylphenidate and dopenzil, the education process can last shorter and be more effective. In the case of taking these substances only by adults, it will concern only higher education level, such as universities, but also all types of trade schools, which prepare people for doing a certain physical or technical jobs. Not only would people learn faster, but also more efficient and on a more advanced level. All in all, the whole process would be less expensive. The ones who are not wealthy enough could afford this process. The next advantage of using brain improvements is giving a chance to the less gifted and less capable to studying. Nick Bostrom is expecting, that “societal benefits might be so strong that if would be economically efficient to subsidize enhancement for the poor” (Bostrom 2008) When it comes to working, people will do their tasks faster and more efficient, in one word – better. Because of drugs such as dopenzil and methylphenidate, they could focus better and do more complex tasks. Furthermore, substances like modafinil would reduce their tiredness and as an effect, lengthen work hours with an increase in the productivity of a company. As Gangani Niyadurupola claimed, “Even a small upward shift in cognitive abilities may have a beneficial economic impact with more people able to work and fewer losses due to negligence.” ( Niyadurupola 2008)

Individual Freedom is Freedom of Enhancing

As I pointed out before, people should be free to benefit from the newest science inventions.
Humans have free will and have rights to make their own choice, if they want to use brain improvements or not. If we are talking about healthy adults, who can reasonably estimate how certain substances can influent them, the discussion about freedom to use this kind of specifics should be no more stormy than the one about selling alcohol for adults. Nowadays, adults can easily and legally buy cigarettes, alcohol or in some countries even drugs. All these intoxicating substances are disturbing or damaging humans cognitive functions, but their selling is accepted by the majority of society. That is why I do not see the reason, why substances which actually improve cognition should be banned. I agree of course that there should be some regulations, as in every kind of medicines and drugs available in the market. Nick Bostrom proposes two options for regulation. One is to establish a baseline level for acceptable risk by comparing it with other risks that society allows individuals to take. Then, “Enhancements that could be shown to be no more risky than these activities would be allowed, with appropriate information and warning labels when necessary”. (Bostrom 2008) Another possibility that he presents is an ‘enhancement licenses’. People willing to undergo potentially risky but rewarding enhancements could be required to demonstrate sufficient understanding of the risks and the ability to handle them responsibly. This would both ensure informed consent and enable better monitoring.(Bostrom 2008) This is similar to my own opinion. If people would be able to be aware of the influence this type of substances on their brains, they should be free to use it.

Opponents: Enhancing as a Society Destroying Force against the Human Nature

There are a lot of controversies on human enhancements. I would like to concentrate on two main points of critique by brain enhancement opponents.
The doctrine, which stands in opposition to the technologies of brain improvement is called anti-meliorism. The main argument used by anti – meliorists is that because of this kind of enhancing people will loose their humanity, their “human nature”, so that bioengineering in general should be stopped. Arthur Caplan, who is a meliorists, present the anti – meliorists view like this : “ ‘You know what’s going on right now? Breasts are being augmented. Wrinkles are being smoothed out. Fat is being suctioned out. Blood is being doped and moods are being calmed. If we don’t put a stop to this, who knows where we’re going to be? Everybody’s going to have a breast job. Everybody’s going to have pectoral implants. Everybody will run around trying to take drugs to alter their moods – to make them happy or complacent. We have to get on top of this push within the bioengineering side of things to try to change us because it’s going to lead to places that we would find unappealing.” (Caplan 2006) Anti – meliorists argue that there is a core that cannot be touched or changed or manipulated without loss of who we are. But what is “human nature”? Anti-meliorists don’t tell us that. “They posit the view that what our nature is, whatever it is, is right, when we know that it’s right only in relation to a set of environmental challenges that don’t exist any more or that we’re modifying all the time.” (Caplan 2006) That is why this argument is logically and conceptually incorrect, because the anti-meliorists statement is that the way we are is the way we should be. According to Arthur Caplan, what we know from evolution, is that the way we are is an interesting accident and it tells us certain things about what will make us function well, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the way we should be or what we should become or how we should decide to change ourselves. “We are a creature or species, as all are, in a state of flux.” (Caplan 2006) What is more, as I pointed out in previous paragraphs, enhancement is everything that makes human life better and easier. We have used enhancements for centuries and we do not consider them as a danger to our humanity. “That’s what agriculture is. That’s what plumbing is. That’s what clothes are. That’s what transportation systems are. They are all attempts by us to transcend our nature. Do they make us less human?”(Caplan 2006) Caplan argues that if we limit ourselves, in the way that many anti-meliorists are suggesting, then “we will rob ourselves and our descendants of some of the most exciting opportunities that the biological revolution presents.” (Caplan 2006)
Another major issue is that enhancements are a bad influence on society. Winston and Bostrom pointed out, that using enhancements by certain people can create diversities. The society would be divided into two groups: ones who want and can afford brain enhancements, and ones who do not want or cannot afford this type of improvements. Brain enhancement would create new diversities. In my opinion, this argument is not well-considered. Firstly, diversities existed and still exist in every society. People do not need more than the slightest differences to become intolerant and divide. History taught us that if there are advantageous circumstances, everything can be a cause of diversity. Moreover, brain enhancements could even reduce diversities. “Widespread use of enhancers would raise interesting questions for society. Currently individuals with above average cognitive performance in areas such as memory, reasoning, etc., are valued and rewarded. Making such performance readily available to all individuals could reduce the diversity of cognitive abilities in the population, and change ideas of what is perceived as normal” ( Niyadurupola 2008) The opponents of chemical brain enhancing are also anxious, that using psycho- pharmacological would destroy unique talents of individuals. But as Niyadurpola claims, “researchers suggest that although currently envisaged cognitive enhancers may raise the baseline of cognitive abilities they will not effect talents such as creativity or the need to work hard to excel”. ( Niyadurupola 2008)

New Questions, New Choices

There is no doubt that the science of brain enhancement gives new, exhilarating possibilities to develop the human condition. Here I just focused on chemical psycho – pharmacological methods, but technology gives now many more possibilities to interfere and change the cognitive functions. We are still not aware of the full potential that these techniques have.
Nevertheless, with amazing new opportunities, these scientific discoveries also carry a lot of dilemmas, moral and ethical. As Lyn Parker states, “We will be forced to think harder about what defines us as human beings, and how far we really want to go in reshaping how we are.” (Parker 2006) With development of neuroscience and the spread of knowledge on this topic, more questions and concerns appear. Questions that humanity never had to ask before.
Redefining of such conceptions as emotions, abilities or states of mind can be very hard and controversial. Also facing us is the fact that the psychical processes or character attributions that were perceived as constant and unchangeable can be eliminated or changed by chemical substances, which can be shocking. My statement is that humanity should use the potential of improving themselves, both bodies and brains. These days we should have the possibility to derive from scientific discoveries, as was mankind always doing.

References:
Caplan, A., (2006). Is it wrong to try to improve the human nature? In Miller, P., Wilson, J., (Eds.) (2006). Better Humans? The politics of human enhancement and life extension. London: Demos.

Miller, P., Wilsdon, J., (2008). Stronger, longer, smarter, faster. In Miller, P., Wilson, J., (Eds.) (2006). Better Humans? The politics of human enhancement and life extension. London: Demos.

Rose, S.,(2006). Brain Gain. In Miller, P., Wilson, J., (Eds.) (2006). Better Humans? The politics of human enhancement and life extension. London: Demos.

Bostrom, N. (2008). Smart Policy: Cognitive Enhancement in the Public Interest. In Zonneveld, L., Dijstelbloem, H., & Ringoir, D. (Eds.) (2008). Reshaping the Human Condition: Exploring Human Enhancement. The Hague: Rathenau Institute. Retrieved April 2, 2009, from http://www.rathenau.nl/showpageBreed.asp?steID=1&ID=2963

Niyadurupola, G. (2008). Better Brains. In Zonneveld, L., Dijstelbloem, H., & Ringoir, D. (Eds.) (2008). Reshaping the Human Condition: Exploring Human Enhancement. The Hague: Rathenau Institute. Retrieved April 2, 2009, from http://www.rathenau.nl/showpageBreed.asp?steID=1&ID=2963

Parker, L. (2008). Foreword. In Zonneveld, L., Dijstelbloem, H., & Ringoir, D. (Eds.) (2008). Reshaping the Human Condition: Exploring Human Enhancement. The Hague: Rathenau Institute. Retrieved April 2, 2009, from http://www.rathenau.nl/showpageBreed.asp?steID=1&ID=2963

Winston, L. (2008). Cognition and its Environment: The Limitations of Genomic Intervention. In Zonneveld, L., Dijstelbloem, H., & Ringoir, D. (Eds.) (2008). Reshaping the Human Condition: Exploring Human Enhancement. The Hague: Rathenau Institute. Retrieved April 2, 2009, from http://www.rathenau.nl/showpageBreed.asp?steID=1&ID=2963

Graebner, N., (2000) The Limits of Meliorism In Foreign Affairs Retrieved April 2, 2009, from http://www.vqronline.org/articles/2000/winter/graebner-limits/

World Health Organization. WHO definition of health: preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization. Retrieved April 2, 2009, from www.who.int/about/definition/en/