Bet your brain

The mar­ket is flooded with brain boost­ers, even though there is lit­tle ev­i­dence to show for it

Down to Earth - - COLUMN -

IN THE last few years, we have seen a few IT barons bet­ting their mil­lions on ideas con­sid­ered quixotic by main­stream sci­en­tists. First, there was the flush of Sil­i­con Val­ley bil­lion­aires, Or­a­cle’s Larry El­li­son and Google’s Larry Page, to name a cou­ple, un­der­writ­ing the age-old quest for the foun­tain of youth. Then last year, Rus­sian ty­coon, Yuri Mil­ner, re­vived the flag­ging search for aliens with a fresh fat lease of $100 mil­lion. And now an Amer­i­can en­tre­pre­neur, Bryan Johnson, has in­vested $100 mil­lion into tech­nolo­gies that can make us brainier.

Johnson hired some of the best brains in the busi­ness to make us smarter. For in­stance, Theodore Berger, a neu­ro­sci­en­tist who stud­ies epilepsy at the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, Los An­ge­les, is try­ing to in­vent de­vices that can prop up sag­ging mem­o­ries in pa­tients suf­fer­ing from dis­or­ders such as Alzheimer’s or trauma. Later, he plans to ap­ply the same trick on healthy in­di­vid­u­als. Johnson is swayed by the idea that once sci­ence un­rav­els the ba­sic work­ings of the hu­man brain, we might be able to in­vent de­vices that can mimic, and thereby, en­hance fac­ul­ties like mem­ory and in­tel­li­gence. He told New Sci­en­tist “that hu­man in­tel­li­gence will be one of the largest in­dus­tries, if not the largest in­dus­try, to ever emerge”.

Many sci­en­tists, how­ever, re­main skep­ti­cal. Johnson is not the first ad­ven­turer in the con­tro­ver­sial quest for mak­ing hu­mans more in­tel­li­gent. The field is lit­tered with the corpses of failed sci­en­tific the­o­ries and ex­per­i­ments. Nonethe­less, mav­er­icks con­tinue to try out new ideas. To­day, any­one in­ter­ested in spik­ing their IQ can check out a slew of new fan­gled ther­a­pies: di­etary sup­ple­ments like Brain TonIQ that claim to push the lim­its of cog­ni­tion, or video games web­sites like Lu­mos­ity that prom­ise to amp up your brain power, and head­sets like that se­duce in­tel­li­gence by dunk­ing the wearer’s head in a sea of gen­tle elec­tri­cal rip­ples. In fact, be­ing smart is so prized that peo­ple are will­ing to try any­thing, even though there is lit­tle ev­i­dence to show for it.

Re­gard­less of whether these gim­micks en­hance in­tel­li­gence or not, the ques­tion we must ask is: what does it mean to “get smarter”? Any­thing any­one might do to the body or the brain—pump iron, prac­tice yoga, eat su­per­foods, solve brainteasers or have sex as of­ten as pos­si­ble—has an ef­fect, imag­ined or real. The trou­ble is that while do­ing some­thing more fre­quently may sharpen a par­tic­u­lar skill, such as solv­ing a cryp­tic crossword, it is not fun­gi­ble. In other words, it doesn’t make you bet­ter in other pur­suits such as fenc­ing or dumb cha­rades.

So when sci­en­tists talk of boost­ing in­tel­li­gence, what they mean is “fluid in­tel­li­gence”, a far more so­phis­ti­cated gen­eral acu­men that en­ables its owner to solve com­plex prob­lems us­ing a mix of mem­ory and knowl­edge. How­ever, the most com­mon mea­sure of this kind of in­tel­li­gence is the IQ test, which in it­self, is con­tro­ver­sial for its in­her­ent racial and cul­tural bi­ases.

So can we en­hance fluid in­tel­li­gence? Cu­ri­ously, so far only one study, car­ried out by a Swiss re­searcher cou­ple, claims to have done so. Es­sen­tially, they sub­jected a group of stu­dents to a se­ries of cog­ni­tive tests of in­creas­ing dif­fi­culty. They found to their sur­prise that solv­ing harder prob­lems some­how re­sulted in greater fluid in­tel­li­gence. How­ever, many sub­se­quent stud­ies failed to repli­cate it. But Johnson is on a dif­fer­ent track al­to­gether. He is not in­ter­ested in nudg­ing the brain from the out­side. Like the de­coders of the dou­ble helix, he wants to first de­ci­pher the code that gov­erns the life of neu­rons, which in turn, in­forms in­tel­li­gence, and then de­vise pros­thet­ics that can do the same.

It’s too early to say whether his gam­ble will pay off. Even if his project could un­scram­ble the messed up mem­o­ries of Alzheimer’s pa­tients, it would be a great achieve­ment. For now, or­di­nary mor­tals seized with in­tel­li­gence-envy would do well to fol­low the age-old nostrum of “eat well, ex­er­cise well, sleep well” in or­der to lead a con­tented life. Al­ter­na­tively, they can con­sole them­selves by the idea, put for­ward by a Stanford Univer­sity ge­neti­cist, that hu­man in­tel­li­gence “peaked thou­sands of years ago and we’ve been on an in­tel­lec­tual and emo­tional de­cline ever since”.


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