“Don’t Resist Until It’s Too Late”

frogboil.jpgThe debate on cognitive enhancement has reached BoingBoing and the NYT. I’ve been skeptical of the topic before, and this snippet from Benedict Carey’s article gave me little reason to change my mind:

Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania who foresaw this debate in a 2004 paper, argues that the history of cosmetic surgery — scorned initially as vain and unnatural but now mainstream as a form of self-improvement — is a guide to predicting the trajectory of cosmetic neurology, as he calls it. . . .

The public backlash against brain-enhancement, if it comes, may hit home only after the practice becomes mainstream, Dr. Chatterjee suggested. “You can imagine a scenario in the future, when you’re applying for a job, and the employer says, ‘Sure, you’ve got the talent for this, but we require you to take Adderall.’ Now, maybe you do start to care about the ethical implications.”

On this line of thought, in the early stages of the development of enhancement technology, it’s untoward to object to its deployment because it’s rare. One person’s use of the drug doesn’t appear to harm anyone directly. But by the time the “Adderall requirement” arises, the drug is so common that it’s likely futile to resist the requirement to take it. It’s the old “boiled frog” syndrome.

I will concede that one apologist makes a good argument about performance enhancement here (which I obliquely anticipated in this post):

“I think the analogy with sports doping is really misleading, because in sports it’s all about competition, only about who’s the best runner or home run hitter,” said Martha Farah, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. “In academics, whether you’re a student or a researcher, there is an element of competition, but it’s secondary. The main purpose is to try to learn things, to get experience, to write papers, to do experiments. So in that case if you can do it better because you’ve got some drug on board, that would on the face of things seem like a plus.”

Nevertheless, I think there are likely several situations where a wider distribution of opportunities to do good might alleviate the need to “enhance” a select class of brains chemically (and leave all better off). For example, if more people had the science education necessary to become a doctor (and the government funded more medical education), we might not need to rely on a relatively small cadre of residents to go through so many sleepless nights. . . . precisely the type of exhausting experience that enhancers like Provigil are designed to counter.

PS: For a more sanguine view, check out the Neuroethics & Law Blog. On the other hand, Nancy Kress’s science fiction novel Beggars in Spain does a great job challenging complacency on the topic.

Photo Credit: Cactusbones.

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