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Are Mind-Enhancing Drugs a Good Idea?

Scientists are testing drugs that can sharpen our brain. But will they give some people an unfair advantage?

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Are there drugs that can enhance your memory? Image courtesy of Flickr user vissago

I know memory is a very fickle friend, but firing blanks three times in one day when I tried to remember a name was ridiculous. So when I heard about new research into a so-called “memory pill,” I thought, “Can we fast-track this thing?”

Scientists would call it a “cognitive enhancer,” which has come to mean drugs that can sharpen the brain’s focus, such as Ritalin or Adderall. In the recent study the drug was Modafinil, designed originally to treat narcolepsy, but in this case given to a group of sleep-deprived surgeons. While the medication didn’t seem to improve the performance of the doctors in simulated surgery, it did enhance their short-term memory and sped up their ability to complete complicated tasks.

All of which raises ticklish questions. If a pill can make doctors better surgeons, shouldn’t we want this? What about fighter pilots or, say, New York cab drivers? And might we reach the point where brain enhancers are required to perform certain jobs?

Cosmetic neurology?

These issues have been percolating for several years, as Ritalin and Adderall have evolved from a treatment for attention deficit disorder to a pharmaceutical study aid for college and high school students. Back in 2008 the New York Times asked, “Brain enhancement is wrong, right?” In the article one scientist spoke of “cosmetic neurology” and others raised the prospect of a designer drug divide between those with access to brain meds and those without.

Already Modafinil, which can be purchased online with a prescription, is being marketed as a way to “cut through the fog of excessive sleepiness.” Earlier this month, BBC science editor Susan Watts reported the results of an anonymous online questionnaire about the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs. Just under 40 percent of the 716 respondents said they had used one and 92 percent of them said they would do it again.

At the moment, brain drugs can improve performance only marginally. But in a recent piece on the BBC’s “Newsnight,” Watts cuts to the chase: “What if a pill could make you 50 percent smarter, or even 100 percent. Would you still say no?”

She also reports that scientists are getting serious about something they’re calling “moral enhancement.” They’ve apparently begun testing hormones that could make people kinder, more empathetic, more moral.

Are you ready for a Nice pill?

Here are other developments in tapping the brain’s potential:

Bonus video: Not only does Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman lay out the difference between experience and memory—being happy in your life versus being happy with your life—but he even uses colonoscopies to help make the point.

The Question: Is it our responsibility to get as much out of our brains as possible?

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