Psyched!

The science of psych

Be All That You Can Be, and Then Some

When does cognitive enhancement compromise authenticity?

I first took Ritalin in first grade. I went off it soon after but tried it again in high school and have been reliant upon it and other psychoactive medications for the last 14 years—nearly half my life. Do I feel artificial? Do I feel like I'm cheating? Do I feel like I'm not being the real me? Those aren't even questions I ask myself anymore. After much experimentation with various molecules and dosages and life situations, I've made peace with my drug dependence, and now when pondering a prescription refill or an individual pill in my hand, instead of asking which me is the real me—chemically modified or au natural—I ask which me I prefer.

Despite the popularity of caffeine and alcohol, not everyone feels the same, and new research (covered in the August issue of Psychology Today) maps out our fears regarding artificial cognitive enhancement.

Collaborators Jason Riis at NYU, Joseph Simmons at Yale, and Geoffrey Goodwin at Princeton first asked people to rate how fundamental a series of traits were to personal identity. In order of rated importance, the traits were: reflexes, rote memory, wakefulness, foreign language ability, math ability, episodic memory, concentration, music ability, absent-mindedness, self-control, creativity, emotional recovery, relaxation, social comfort, motivation, mood, self-confidence, empathy, and kindness. So people tend to think that emotional traits are more fundamental than cognitive ones.

The researchers then found that people are most reluctant to take pills that enhance the highly fundamental traits. Their most cited concern was personal authenticity. So I guess Prozac is a more compromising compound than Adderall.

When rating which types of enhancements should be banned, people instead based their decisions on concerns about competitions and fairness—morality rather than identity.

In a companion study addressing pharmaceutical marketing, people were more reluctant to take a hypothetical drug whose tagline was "Zeltor – Become More Than Who You Are" when it was purported to address fundamental traits than nonfundamental ones. But when advertised as "Zeltor – Become Who You Are"—that is, enablement instead of enhancement—they were just as comfortable chemically boosting their inner warmth as they were their latent smarts.

So, was the goal of the study to help Big Pharma figure out how get more pills into more hands? After all, Jason Riis is a professor of marketing. That, of course, is the cynical take. Riis told me: "We’re speaking to, we hope, consumer welfare groups, policy makers, and regulators in the pharmaceutical, biomedical, and health industries. These drugs and technologies are fast developing, and clearly people are seeking technologies and ways of making themselves better. There’s a demand for it, and the nature of that demand needs to be better understood before we can really make informed decisions both personally and at a society level."

Personally, I'm not quite sure if there's a mental trait I wouldn't want to enhance artificially, through drugs or neurosurgery or chip implants or whatever. I would have to see how the results felt. But I asked my PT co-editors what they would shy away from.

Jay Dixit:

What I worry about are the tradeoffs. I think there's a danger in eliminating things that feel aversive but actually have some benefit. Take stage fright. If I need to give a toast at a friend's wedding or if I'm telling a story on stage, I'm always terrified before I go on. I rehearse, I pace, I feel like I'm overflowing with anxious energy. Some people in this situation take beta blockers or drink. And that certainly helps with the anxiety. But for me, I'd rather suffer through the anxiety before going on stage, because once I'm up there, that nervous energy turns to performance energy. I don't want to be dulled and sedated when I need it most.

Emotional recovery is another one I'd be wary of, due to the benefits of post-traumatic growth.


Kaja Perina:

Well, we know that stimulants such as amphetamines and steroids stoke grandiosity and recklessness so I'd be wary of any hypothetical drug that dramatically boosts mood or self-confidence.

And at the risk of sounding Machiavellian, I might also be leery of drugs that purport to make a person kinder or more empathic, simply because people who are highly empathic are at risk of being manipulated by others, so any such drug might override natural defenses and critical judgment, not to mention healthy competitive urges. You could call it the doormat drug. Then again, of the traits on this list I'm guessing empathy and kindness would be among the toughest to stoke psychotropically, because they involve such complex social emotions.

Hara Estroff Marano:

I'm keen on some caffeine, a longstanding natural cognitive and alertness enhancer. But little else. I think it comes down to two things. There are NO traits I want to enhance artificially because:

I pretty much like the way I function without enhancers, although there are down days.

Enhancing one trait throws some things out of balance, and judgment regarding performance relating to that trait is usually one of them.

And I suppose there is a third reason. Just as I like weather changes in the wider world, I like and enjoy coping with the natural variation in personal tone and cognitive performance from day to day. I get a sense of self-mastery from that...which, of course, is the very thing the best pill can't supply.

And here's how Jason Riis answered:

Sense of humor would be one that would maybe seem a little bit strange to me to enhance. But at the same time I'm not sure. I can image there being ways of that being doable. There's something that seems kind of magical about a sense of humor, but I'm sure that psychologically if we thought about it more there would be ways of breaking it down... So I guess my straight up answer is that there’s nothing I couldn’t imagine at least in principal enhancing. But that's imagining a different world where the technologies are different and the norms are different.

What would you refuse to enhance?

[UPDATE: I put this question to all of our bloggers for the Jan/Feb 2009 issue. Here's what some of them said.]

Matthew Hutson is a science journalist in New York City.

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