Getting Smarter Faster

How to solve seemingly intractable problems like catastrophic AGW? The answer is likely to spark a new inequality debate. Check out this Emily Singer interview with Michael Gazzaniga, an advocate of the widespread use of cognitive enhancers.

TR: The commentary argues that cognitive-enhancing drugs “should be viewed in the same general category as education, good health habits, and information technology.” Why do you think this is true?

MG: All new technologies are at first resisted, even the typewriter. When changing mental states, people get antsy, especially when it appears to enhance capacity. There is somehow a sense one is cheating the system. Well, so is chemotherapy. When all of these new technologies are used in moderation and the right social context, they are a good.

And later,

TR: Really? What about in high-pressure situations, like academia?

MG: Remember, these drugs don’t make you smarter. They keep you awake so you can study so you can be smarter. While there are always fads of use with such products, usage will settle down to a base rate. That base rate may be higher than some people like, but it will be established no matter what the external drug policy might be.

This brings to mind the idea of sharpening incentives. Cognitive enhancers might, for a variety of reasons, magnify inequality — but will it do so in a way that has a clear moral upshot? We’ve seen that more educated societies tend to have more income dispersion, in no small part because different people have different values concerning the appropriate balance between market production and household production, or between work and leisure. Plenty of physician assistants, for example, could have become physicians, but they weren’t willing to make the required sacrifice of time and sanity.

Pervasive use of cognitive enhancers, or rather more pervasive use, will introduce new puzzles.

Is it appropriate to redistribute from capable middle-class achievers who choose to use cognitive enhancers to maximize their income to capable middle-class achievers who have ethical qualms about artificial cognitive enhancement and thus fall behind? These are fine distinctions that are essentially impossible to police, and of course they extend to variety of other choices and interventions that are already part of our daily lives. We have good reason to believe that upper-middle-class parenting styles that involve extensive verbal interaction between parent and child, limited autonomy, and a wide space for parent-child negotiation are “good” for kids in that they train children for success in the educational and professional world. Working class parenting styles that emphasize broad autonomy for the child but that discourage negotiation in favor of clear lines of authority seem to work somewhat less well in this narrow context. But aren’t kids who wheedle and negotiate all the time little bastards? Whoa, I’m not saying this is necessarily true — just throwing out that training kids for success can clash with having cool, agreeable kids who can cook up fun activities independently, e.g., popping wheelies.

Also, I’d love to see some crude measurement of the effect of traditional stimulants, e.g., caffeine, nicotine, etc., on cognitive ability, work effort, etc. I’m sure numbers are out there. Because I consume neither, I’m hoping the benefits are fairly modest. I have to say, if Adderall were available over-the-counter, I would be strongly inclined to try it. Having never used it, I’m really, really curious as to what effect it would have on my ability to concentrate, and also on my general demeanor.