Distributed Processing: Is cognitive enhancement overhyped?

In an attempt to liven things up around here, I'm starting a series of weekly posts, called "Distributed Processing." Each of these posts will pose a question to my readers - weigh in and let's see where the conversation takes us!

The question(s) for this week:

Are "cognitive enhancement" technologies overhyped?

If there is real potential for cognitive enhancement, what are the implications?

Would you use a mind-amplifying technology yourself, or if there were "critical periods" for their use, on your children?

And a few conversation starters: The Atlantic Monthly features an article on the "Baby Genius Edutainment Complex," and asks whether the products marketed by companies like Baby Einstein might actually be harmful, given that so little research actually supports the claims that they are beneficial. "Smart drugs" like piracetam and modafinil claim to increase "mental agility," and are by some reports already in use by the US military, but have yet to see widespread impact. Then there are new genetic and molecular technologies still in the works - as discussed in this fascinating video (PDF here) by Nick Bostrom on cognitive enhancement. Even Eric Kandel - a Nobel Prize winner - has gotten in on the hype, and started his own neuropharmaceutical company.


Blogger Mizue and Eitan said...

If cognitive enhancement is really attainable - and why wouldn't it be - I guess there would be a wide range of implications that would take time to become apparent. Maybe a more competitive patent market, even smaller and even faster eletronic products... some cool inventions... I would also guess that cognitive enhancement could eventually lead to the disappearance of republican ideals :)
But what if that all means that as cognitive standards rise, we create an even wider gap between the "cognitively enhanced" and those who either do not use it or do not respond to it. Obviously, the former would have the advantage over the latter, and it would play out, eventually, in all aspects of life. Once a system of stratification is set into motion, the implications are devastating for the majority of people and it is a self-accelerating spiral that is nearly impossible to reconcile... as we can learn from the current state of our world.
But then again, if this stratification is based on cognitive ability then maybe the enhanced will see that it would be to everyone's advantage to address the situation, and raise the collective level of education and life.

So in that way, cognitive enhancement can be used as a tool for improving life on Earth rather than just another product to consume for affect.

Personally, I would definitely use cognitive enhancers. Heck, we all know I could use all the help I can get in that department.
In fact, I have tried piracetam, and its analogue - aniracetam. Piracetam is much stronger. Frankly, I didn't notice any effect with aniracetam, so I'll just talk about what I noticed with piracetam.

This was a year ago, so I'll try to remember... I think I was taking 1000mg per day. I started to notice effects after about a week. First of all, you know how much I need my coffee in the morning... well, I started to notice that instead of 2-3 cups in the morning, my first cup would just sit there and get cold, and I didn't even need it nor want it... and I was more awake and alert than ever - without any caffeine jitters. So after about 3 days of that I stopped even making coffee, and totally stopped drinking it for as long as I had piracetam, and a couple of months after.
I had an obvious sense of clarity and my productivity increased. Also, when I went to one of the outdoor festivals, one minty drop had the intensity and duration of 10, and lasted an entire weekend - for better or worse ;)
Piracetam supposedly increases the communication between the right and left brains, as well as oxygen level in the brain. I can't tell you from my experience if that really happened, because I don't have the ability or tools to see my brain in action...

Negative side effects were mainly a disruption of my sleep patterns - which weren't much of a pattern anyway at the time... but I did find it hard to sleep at night, and needed a nap in the afternoon.

I would take piracetam again, given the opportunity.

As for other mental amplifiers, I think you know where I stand on that one ;)

7/23/2006 07:04:00 PM  
Blogger A. T. Sperry-Taylor said...

I think there might be something to training working memory. Read this paper by Torkel Klingberg and others. I doubt that this paper proves anything significant (though the authors' conclusions are titillating) but this might be the area to investigate closely.

7/23/2006 07:19:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Chatham said...

Hey, thanks for the response!

I tried piracetam for about 3 weeks as an undergraduate, and for some reason it didn't work for me. I was taking around 800mg/day as well choline supplements every week or so. Instead of "waking up," akin to a cup of coffee, I just got very depressed - so I quickly stopped it and haven't tried any "smart drugs" since.

7/23/2006 07:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does a babbel fish count? :)

7/23/2006 08:01:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Chatham said...

AT - thanks so much for the link. This looks like a fascinating paper; I'm hooked by the end of the first paragraph, where the authors mention a problem with training something as dynamic as working memory: tasks become automatized after a while. This poses a problem for any cognitive-behavioral technique to improve WM, it would seem...

7/23/2006 08:19:00 PM  
Blogger Sandra said...

Are "cognitive enhancement" technologies overhyped?


There's a huge market of fraudulent products claiming to be cognitive enhancements, from supplements to energy drinks to video games. Consumer understanding of what's real and what's possible is understandably confused. Some products provide benefits, others are mystic nonsense, and it can be hard to sort out. It also depends on definition, as everything from sunshine to caffeine to exercise is a cognitive enhancer.

Modafinil is dubbed "the transhumanist drug" not only because it is a true medical enhancement for non-disordered people, but because there are so few other candidates. Piracetam, ritalin, the short list is very short and fraught with side effects.

But there is research and I'm excited to see Kandel's projects and others. The potential is there to improve memory, focus, processing speed. But drugs pass through the system; it'll take neurotech to really alter the brain. (TMS could be used as cognitive enhancement neurotech, and some support neurofeedback, though their effects are impermanent as well.)

Neural interface implants and the like involves more hype than reality at this point. An array of electrodes is not so exciting no matter how often Cyberkinetics is in the news as it's not interactive, and a neurochip has succeeded in exchanging unmodulated signals with an isolated rat neuron but has much development ahead).

But theory and creativity are essential and it's terrific people are considering and envisioning this potential. Just don't expect to be neurojacked anytime soon.

If there is real potential for cognitive enhancement, what are the implications?

Improved lives.

Would you use a mind-amplifying technology yourself, or if there were "critical periods" for their use, on your children?


7/23/2006 08:47:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Chatham said...

hah, I second the comment about Cyberkinetics. they must have some superhuman PR people.

7/24/2006 12:22:00 PM  
Blogger memphisphil said...

Cognitive enhancement is simply the latest example of the trend toward better health for humans. While the focus is on brain function, rather than heart or lung function, this is not fundamentally different than using aspirin for heart health or avoiding red meat or air pollution. Because these are not new ideas, it seems "cognitive enhancement" is hyped because it's not new, but at the same time it's not hype at all because the same tools that worked for our bodies from the neck down will also work for the brain--namely, exercise and chemicals.

Mizue and Eitain bring up an interesting issue of class differentces created by cognitive enchancement. Because these technologies represent an extension of existing health-enchancement tools, the same people who have benefitted from the same sorts of health enhancements in the past will be the first ones to take advantage of cognitve enhancement. These people are already at the higher strata of society, with health insurance and college degrees, and by virtue they will have the time and money to take advantage of cognitive enhancement. While this creates the potential for cognitive enhancement to widen the gap between the poor and rich, it is basically not different than any other health care advance. However, I do believe that there exists a moral obligation to share these health advances to those who cannot afford it--health advances for both the body and the mind--which are not met by the current health care system.

While new chemicals for cognitive enhancement are exciting--especially moldanifil--it seems that there is a huge opportunity to exploit "old school" general health practices for their
"cognitive enhancement" effects. Physical exercise is one of the most interesting examples, with numerous studies showing cognitive enhancement benefits. Yet, in the same way that not all exercise is effective, I think this problem extends to "mental exercise", including Baby Einstein and the "Brain Trainer" game on the Nintendo DS. Without controlled research on the effects of mental exercise, it may turn out that they're as ineffective as the "vibrating belts" that were supposed to melt fat off your bodies.

7/24/2006 12:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just found this post - very interesting!
I started off life as an Occupational therapist and became progressively more interested in neuropsychological rehabilitation after brain injury/neurological illness. Thats not quite relevant here except in terms of the underlying philosophy of OT, namely that the brain, and its functions in 'some' respects self construct through useful/purposful/relevant tasks and activities. As a result I guess I think, as memphisphil said the outcome may be more pedestrian than we think - a little habitual exercise, diet, outlook on life, engaging in interesting activities for their maintenance and neuroprotective benefits.
One of the big issues for me in respect of all this neuroscience stuff is how improved cognitive functions would transfer into improved performance....

I think its reasonable to suggest that a challenging task is a function of cognitive abilities anyway so the types of tasks will be different for everyone. the important think is the pitching and grading of tasks/the task environment/complexity etc etc

7/25/2006 04:11:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Chatham said...

Hi Anon, very interesting. Can you explain what you mean by "the pitching and grading of tasks/the task environment/complexity"?

I actually share your concern that a lot of cog neuroscientists have not really "followed through" on the application-end of things, in the sense that many feel safe to proclaim their work as "basic research," when in fact with just a little more thought & follow-through, the findings can have fairly immediate applications.

7/25/2006 04:16:00 PM  

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