If you’ve ever hearkened to the dulcet tones of percolating coffee, you’ve not only ingested caffeine, which pharmacologically increases attentiveness, you’ve unwittingly become part of the debate on cognitive enhancement (aka neuroenhancement, aka neurodoping). For clarity, I would like nothing more than to provide you with a definition of cognitive enhancement. Unfortunately, such a definition has remained as elusive as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster (and no less controversial or mystical). To illustrate the convoluted nature of the issue, allow me to present one possible definition from someone I wouldn’t normally quote, Nick Bostrom:
Cognitive enhancement is the amplification or extension of core capacities of the mind through improvement or augmentation of internal or external information processing systems
He goes on to clarify what is meant by core capacities and processing systems. Even with that aside, we’ve raised a number of new questions with this statement. What ‘baseline’ level are we comparing to when we talk about enhancement? Do we need to define what it means to be normal or healthy first? And what in the world is the practical difference between amplification, extension, improvement, and augmentation?
There are also many potential avenues for cognitive enhancement to take place, all depending on one’s definition. Leaving aside the question of whether cellphones, personal computers, cars, household appliances, or other things of that ilk constitute a form of enhancement, let’s consider drugs as a gateway to enhancement for a healthy individual.
The World Health Organization defines health as,
… A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity
Or maybe you prefer the classics? Nietzsche might say,
Health is that particular amount of illness in which I can continue to pursue my major interests.
(That is my bad translation. Apparently I opened a can of worms trying to find proof that this quote actually comes from Nietzsche, but I’d like to believe that it does). There’s quite a bit of wiggle room in both definitions, and I do not think either allows us to unambiguously develop social or medical policy (although Nietzsche’s does a pretty good job). This overwhelming issue induces in me a Gordian Knot of mental contusions. I do not possess Alexander the Great’s level of problem solving, so I will treat this thicket of questions as any responsible person would, by pushing it to the back of my mind for a while, and talking about something else.
I was shuttled off, in a chartered bus, with about 30 complete strangers. We barreled over the hills of southern Germany. We weaved through ten house villages, and around cliff-perched castles. Personally having no map on hand, and no strong mental representation of middle southern Germany, we might as well have been going to Narnia (side note: I thoroughly checked any wardrobes I came upon, but found no interdimensional portals of any kind). After some time, we arrived in an isolated, now defunct monastery. The grounds serve mostly as a quaint escape for group meetings. We were treated to the idyllic frills of an autumn weekend getaway, crisp and cool air, smooth stone floors, and the sounds of clacking plates throughout the halls. We were gathered together for four days, philosophers and neuroscientists alike, to discuss ‘neuroenhancement, what could we do and what ought we to do?’
We gathered in the early mornings, deep into our cups (coffee cups of course), to read, discuss, and debate. What are the conceptual and ethical differences between neurodoping and doping in sports, if any? What enhancement drugs are currently available and effective (apparently not many)? How does the concept of human nature fit into the enhancement debate? How do smart drugs affect the patient-doctor relationship? What is the government’s role in enhancement policy making?
Somewhere in between the question marks, I had a fantastic time.
We gathered in the evenings to drink the night away, being sure to sample every flavour of alcohol on hand. These are the people I got to know: They are kind and soft-spoken, quirky and loud-spoken, and wonderfully strange. Some read Hegel, and some like Nagel. They’re very punny, but not necessarily puny. They take the train four hours just to have a coffee with their favourite academics. They fail to turn down a great discussion, no matter how drunk or tired. They are interested and interesting. They are fiercely argumentative yet remarkably relaxed. They possess a form of authenticity that is grounding. I am referring, of course, to authenticity as a perceived quality of one’s character, not the term used in the discussion of neuroenhancement (the specific nature or usefulness of terms such as authenticity was a hotly discussed topic).
I’ll admit I came into this meeting having read only about half of the requisite reading, which I did frantically the day before in the train. I thought I would sit silently, skimming my papers and sipping my coffee, listening to professors and organizers direct the discussion on its pre-ordained path. That is not what happened. Instead, I was immensely impressed with the preparedness and passion of these people I had just met. They would not stop opening their mouths. They seeped endless propositions, formulations, and questions. The discussions veered and branched endlessly into subsets and subjugates of enormous questions (sometimes to a frustrating degree), but the passion was never left behind. Most importantly, I could not close my mouth either.
In these discussions, which stretched and grasped far beyond the boundaries of the conference room, I felt energetic and alive. In the moment, completely satisfied and contented. So, in the spirit of diverting enhancement back to the front of my mind, I ask a question.
Could some super drug replicate this feeling of vibrancy and effervescence that comes with genuinely being engaged and intellectually stimulated?
In a very amateur, self-centered sense, I am an expert philosopher. I am a champion of my first-person perspective, a literary hero of my own psyche. This may be a naïve simplification of academic philosophy, but at the very least it represents an authentic form of personal philosophy. In an idealized form, philosophy aspires to transcend any intrinsic forms of language or personification, yet language is inextricably essential to humanity. I do not believe philosophy, as a concept, can exist outside of human existence and perspective.
I’m rambling. All of this is to say that my particular brand of philosophy is not necessarily what a trained and brilliant philosopher enacts. Proceed with caution.
I enjoy being speculative, so I will make the statement that:
One could pharmacologically induce the feeling of fulfillment, liveliness, and purpose that comes with finding and participating in the activities that make us feel alive.
Using this drug I could lounge in my living room, atrophying my mind in solitude while all relevant neural circuits provide me with pharmacological bliss. Instilling the mental state, with all of its suspense and entrained memories, of the moment after the end of a symphony, last notes lingering in the air. Feel the accomplishment of rooting out an almost untraceable programming error, code compiling instantly. Or getting the spices in my pumpkin pie just right, the gratifying combination of sweetness and kick.
I think using it would be wholly psychologically damaging. It would be unapologetic and vile thievery. It would be downright neuronally, and practically, confusing. It would induce a sort of disease.
As I believe many a psychologist would agree, emotions are manifested as learned reactions to personal experiences. Sometimes evolution and genetics play a large role in this, but often they do not. If psychologists did not believe this they would not endeavour so voraciously to treat patients by building new, healthier emotional associations with our experiences. As Robert Nozick would argue, when we hook ourselves up to the Experience Machine, a simulator capable of providing us with any experience we desire, we deprive ourselves of grounded contact with the real world. One could attack the validity of the notion of a strictly ‘real world.’ Perhaps a better phrasing would be that of Schermer, that happiness is only true or meaningful if it is a meaningful reaction to one’s circumstances in the real world. This argument holds even if the real world is somehow replaced by a matrix-like reality.
To come back to my point, our evolution does tell us something; it tells us to use our experiences and our coding, our instinct and gut, to select our future actions. In a world where mental state and emotion does not coincide with experience, how can we ever select the appropriate actions? What fires together wires together. If drugs provide me with all the emotional diversity I need, how can I learn that any action other than popping pills is appropriate? This becomes even more poignant when considering the chemical dependence one can develop to certain pharmacological interventions. In many ways we struggle with this notion already in the treatment of depression, when learned, beneficial behaviour does not match up with our subjective experience. We try to correct this disconnect, but it is not an exact science.
All this discussion and debate and debunking which we took part in at this conference led to something else. It imbued within me the feeling of acceptance and understanding. One might jokingly point out that as adolescents we don’t want to be understood. In our teens, understanding is our greatest fear! Lest the world (or even worse, our parents) uncover our strange perversions and simple minded opinions. As Stephen Fry quips in his autobiography, “… no adolescent ever wants to be understood, which is why they complain about being misunderstood all the time…” This changes as we age. Now I want to be accepted, my perversions and fetishes and quirks inclusive. I open parts of myself to others, hoping they will take me in and reciprocate. I want to be questioned, but respected. To be among peers, colleagues, friends, and equals.
Most of us are not blessed with an over-abundance of trust in strangers, but in this safe environment of like-minded strangers that we experienced at this meeting, we opened up. I tested boundaries. I shared opinions on suicide, drug use, sexual preference, relationships, food, movies, books. No topic was too extreme or too mundane and banal. Whether it be discussion on quantum physics infused philosophy over breakfast, or flirting with the thought of a polyamorous relationship (I’ll leave the deconstruction of that statement as an exercise to the reader), we were constantly digging these canals to each other. Self-made routes of human connection.
Someone asked me if I thought this kind of no-holds-barred approach to openness and human intimacy we showed at the conference is a propensity held chiefly by academics. I do not think it is, but I think this analysis represents a subset of the truth. This curious blend of intimacy and friendly bonding is an established trait of actors and musicians. It extends naturally to academics. I’m not attempting to romanticize or aggrandize ‘academics,’ I think this is true of any activity that makes one feel alive. In those moments when one feels most one’s self, we reach out to the people around us to share in our good fortune. We bond with them. We hope they will be there in the future, in the hope that their presence may restore our – oh so sorely – sought after sense of self-fulfillment, which is often times tenuous.
Accepting all the risks of sounding pontifical and preachy, I say that even the act of this writing is a way of reaching out to those in my life who make me feel most myself, to connect with them momentarily. To them I am saying: you enrich my life. Stick around.
As to whether these super drugs or smart drugs will ever exist, look no further than your morning cup. We will always be looking for pharmacological solutions to societal problems. When these drugs do become available, I don’t know if I’ll be the first or the last to embrace my inevitable identity as Jonathan On Drugs. But, as this pharmaceutical rapture slouches towards us, waiting to be born, I accept the rabid excitements and crushing disappointments of life hand in hand. I carry on, content in the knowledge that because of the wonderful people and experiences I’m so fortunate to have, for today it’s enough just to be Jonathan.