On neuroenhancement

The New Yorker recently featured an article on so-called “neuro-enhancement” or “cosmetic neurology.” As the name suggests, neuro-enhancement refers to off-label use of stimulants usually prescribed to children and young adults for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. The article cited some alarming statistics. For example, at some universities, the number of undergraduates taking prescription stimulants for non-medical use reached up to twenty-five and even thirty-five percent. Average use was reported to be around 4.1 percent of students according to a study completed in 2005. The statistics suggest that pill-popping among college students in order to stay awake and focused is becoming about as “normal” and socially acceptable as drinking a cup of coffee. Why is that so disturbing?

There doesn’t seem to be much of a debate as to whether measures should be taken to stop this practice. Unlike the case in the sixties, when hallucinogens and other “mind-expanding” drugs were all the rage across college campuses, there is no “war” on this type of drug. Perhaps this is partly because the stimulants have a legitimate medical purpose, and are prescribed to treat a recognized psychiatric disorder. Most of the drugs that became popular in the sixties have no corresponding medical use, although, at least in the case of marijuana, some people might argue otherwise. But I think a more likely explanation for the relative complacency surrounding the stimulants has more to do with today’s efficiency driven culture. Unlike drug usage in the sixties, the drugs today are not being taken in the context of a counter-cultural movement. To the contrary, they are being used for the purpose of meeting or surpassing the very demands that we as a society, via educational institutions, employers, or other organizations, place on our youth.

In law school, we had a word for hyper-competitive, brown-nosing students. We called them gunners, and they were not liked. You know the type– the kind of student who would resort to misfiling the books in the library that everyone needed to use for the completion of an assignment, and other deceptive and off-putting behavior, just to give themselves a slight edge. In the end though, it was never the gunners who earned the highest grades and got the best jobs. In our first year, almost inevitably, the top grade in any given class went to an unassuming student that no one else had really paid much attention to before. Later of course, we did notice them, and knew exactly who was going to be at the top of our class. They were always the students that floated through seemingly effortlessly, supported by a natural, unquantifiable knack for the nuances of legal analysis. That’s not to say they didn’t work hard. Sometimes those with the most natural talent were also the least motivated, and those students ended up falling behind, and after an initial advantage, ended up about the same place in the class rankings as the gunners and others who, while maybe not as diabolically competitive as the gunners, worked extremely hard but simply lacked that innate ability that catapulted their peers to the top.

Why do I relate these observations about the old pecking order at my law school? Well, it struck me that the gunners are going to be among the early adopters for this new class of neuro-enhancing stimulants. Might this make them a little more effective in their quest for classroom dominance? If the statistics cited above are correct, and such a high percentage of students are taking these drugs, then it seems likely that this indeed might be the case. This is disconcerting to me because of the type of ability that this could potentially devalue and displace.

What does it mean to have a “natural” ability or knack for something? Although this manner of description comes quite “naturally” to us in common speech, it’s a concept that’s very difficult to pinpoint exactly. I venture to offer a few characteristics that people usually have if they are described as having a knack for something. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and reasonable people may well disagree with the importance that I assign to these two factors, but it seems to me that the advantages enjoyed by a person with a knack fall into two broad categories. First, there is a quickness factor. A person with a knack usually picks up the target skill very quickly. A corollary to this might be that such a person does not stand to benefit as much from additional exercises and practice sets designed to teach lower level aspects the person with the knack already understands. Second, the perspective of a person with a knack seems to differ from that of their peers. A person with a knack tends to have more insight into the “big picture,” and perhaps largely for that reason, it is usually the person with the knack that comes up with innovative new ideas.

Both of these characteristics – quickness and the tendency to have a better grasp of the whole – are intangible features that don’t lend themselves very well to quantification or scientific study. They are also features that don’t respond well to training and practice as means of improvement. Whether you “get it” or you don’t seems to be governed, not by conscious control, but largely by subconscious processes. In many respects, what we call natural ability overlaps with a concept cognitive neuroscientists call “automaticity,” or perhaps, it is better to say that people with a knack seem to be able to automatize difficult or complicated tasks more quickly than others. Neuroscientists categorize a set of skills as automatic if it is inevitably and incorrigibly executed given the relevant stimulus, and once executed, it does not consume cognitive capacity. That is, other tasks can be performed in parallel. Paradigmatic examples include reading or playing a piano sonata. In short, people with a knack are able to quickly automatize certain necessary skills, which then frees up cognitive resources for use in exploring a given subject more deeply, or simply from more of a meta-perspective.

So what happens if the gunners begin setting the pace? They lead us right into a Heideggerean nightmare: instead of using technology to take over the drudgery and the minutiae and leave us free to actualize those creative impulses that, perhaps even more than reason, set us apart from animals, we are using technology to enslave our minds. Sparks of inspiration don’t come when all cylinders are firing, when for example, we are frantically putting together that quarterly report for the boss by the end of the day. They are far more likely to come when the mind is free to wander: while we are taking a walk, sitting by the side of a pool, or relaxing in the evening before we head off to bed. Neuro-enhancers may lead to an amazing ability to churn out more reports, but they also have the effect of crowding out the possibility for inspiration and originality, leaving behind the slick outer shell of an over-polished, two-dimensional world. Ironically, it appears that the things we don’t have conscious control over might be the very things that set us apart as individuals, for it is our subconscious, automatic, instinctual behavior that frees up cognitive capacity and saves us from becoming automatons, mere cogs in a machine. Perhaps society would benefit more if the best students, instead of following the lead of the gunners, took the afternoon off to smoke a joint or experiment with LSD.

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