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From the January 1992 issue of Smart Drug News [v1n1]. Copyright (c) 1992, 1997. All rights reserved.


Cognitive Enhancement

by Steven Wm. Fowkes

What exactly is a “smart drug”? The most common meaning that comes to most people's minds when the word “smart” is mentioned is intelligence. Smart people are “mentally alert and bright” or “witty and clever.” But what exactly we are talking about with such descriptive phrases? Are we talking about intelligence and abstract reasoning? Are we also including memory? How about cognition? Coordination and dexterity? Reaction time? Or what about something really esoteric, like the ability to appreciate a joke or pun?

All of these aspects of mental function are important to us in different ways, and to different degrees. To arbitrarily select intelligence or memory as the most important is to engage in the most blatant kind of discrimination possible. For any such selection, one would probably find at least as many opponents as proponents.

Rather than deal with smart drugs only within the narrow contexts of cognition, intelligence and memory, Smart Drug News will deal with all aspects of mental performance. Within this context, any drug (or nutrient) which enhances aspects of mental performance can be considered a “smart” drug. When we speak of “cognitive enhancement,” we wish to include all of the myriad of mental functions that go into making us what we are. This would not only include such obvious aspects as intelligence and memory, but such items as sex, relaxation, sleep, immune function and neuroendocrine regulation. These are all vital aspects of human health and well-being which are related to the functioning of the brain. These are all subjects that we will consider in these pages.

Our Purpose

CERI's founding purpose is to deal with the technology of human performance. Given whatever it is that we wish to do with our lives, how can we better achieve our ends by improving ourselves? Although each person must adopt their own life's purpose for themselves, the means for realization of those purposes are more universal. Because smart drugs (and smart nutrients) affect the brain, they have the ability to affect our minds, and the potential to influence our perceptions, thoughts, emotions, spirituality, and dreams.

Cognition-enhancing drugs affect our most intimate organ involved in awareness of the world around us and inside us—our brain. But the connection between the brain and the mind is not obvious, nor is it well understood. Scientists are productively engaged in the quantification of brain functions, but analysis of the mind is largely left to theoreticians, theologians, and philosophers.

Brain and Mind

The brain-mind gap exemplifies the difficulty in quantifying the subjective. Brain science is quantitative and/or mechanistic. Mind science is qualitative and/or theoretical. Smart drugs must therefore involve issues that are beyond the present limitations of our modern biochemical and mechanistic science. In other words, cognitive technology is as much a subjective issue as it is a technological one. It can be used to achieve technological goals, like altering neurotransmitter levels, or for subjective goals, like increasing alertness or enhancing sexual response. Because we don't know exactly how we achieve these subjective ends does not mean that they are not real. If smart drugs enhance human values, let us recognize and acknowledge that fact. To the extent that they pose risks, let us be cautious.

The Right to Choose

The acceptance of risk is a politically sensitive issue in these modern times. Many people, in their authoritarian wisdom, deem that risks must be eliminated and crusade to that end. They do not do so to lower risks to themselves (that is already within their power). They do so to lower the risks of others. This motivation is a natural extension of the role of parents which must protect infants and children from dangers that the young do not recognize. And just as some parents cripple their children through overprotection, many politicians and bureaucrats allocate huge resources to combating increasingly smaller and smaller risks. In doing so, they infantilize our society.

Smart drugs are not likely to be exempt from such attentions. Cognitive technology may indeed pose significant risks. Smart drugs may have significant potential for abuse. Most human activities and technologies do. Where the line will ultimately be drawn between risks of smart drug use and access to their benefits will be a political consideration, not a rational or scientific one. Despite these potential restrictions, CERI will steadfastly support the right of adults to decide for themselves what is in their best interest and what is the best course of action to achieve their own values.

I look forward to the opportunity to keep you informed of new developments in cognitive technologies. See you next issue.