Could boosting our brainpower be as simple as swallowing a pill? In his new book, DAVID ADAM turns human guinea pig and tries out some mind hacks for himself. He chats to JAMES LLOYD
What is cognitive enhancement?
Some people would argue that it can include things like brain training and caffeine, but I focus on two methods at the leading edge of neuroscience: smart pills and electrical brain stimulation. The idea is that these tools can be used to change the way the brain works, making us sharper and more focused, for example, or better able to recall facts or spot patterns.
A lot of cognitive enhancers originally came from the medical world, particularly for the treatment of mental disorders. But there’s a long tradition of healthy people taking medicines to enhance themselves – the classic example is drugs in sport. Now there’s a whole community of people who are experimenting with these brain hacks.
Tell me about your own experiments…
I decided to take the Mensa entrance exam to measure my IQ, and then again a year later, after I’d tried out some of these cognitive enhancers. I bought a brain stimulation kit off the internet for £50, which was an extremely basic device: a 9V battery and two wires, with an electrode at the end of each one. I attached the electrodes to my head using crocodile clips and a saline-soaked sponge, all kept in place by a knitted Spider-Man hat.
How’s this device supposed to work?
The nerve cells in the brain use electrical impulses to communicate. The idea behind electrical brain stimulation is that by applying a small current you can make certain neurons more responsive and easily stimulated. By choosing where you place the electrodes, you can target a region of the brain involved in a particular mental or physical activity. This is all done through the scalp – it’s not invasive. When I turned on my device for the first time, I got a bit of a fright, as a flash of light whizzed across my vision – I think it was a side effect of the electric current stimulating my optic nerve.
Is it legal?
There are currently not any regulations around electrical brain stimulation. That’s something some scientists aren’t happy about, as we still don’t have a full picture of how effective it is or what the electricity is doing when it’s in there. Smart pills are more of a legal grey area. A lot of these pills are medicines, so they’re not illegal but you’re supposed to have a prescription. One of the most common smart drugs is modafinil, which is used to treat sleep disorders such as narcolepsy. In the UK, it’s not illegal to possess it without a prescription, but it is illegal to supply it – unless you’re fulfilling a prescription!
How did you get hold of some?
Again, I bought it off the internet. I paid about £60, and then a brown envelope dropped through my letterbox a couple of weeks later. I got the drugs tested at a lab to confirm that they really were modafinil, and then I tried one out. It definitely felt like I could focus much more easily on my task – which was writing this book – and time just seemed more productive. It’s like a caffeine hit without the shakes. But I would also say: don’t try this at home. There are risks involved with buying things like this off the internet, and we don’t know what the long-term side effects of these drugs are.
Did your IQ improve?
In the week leading up to the second Mensa test, I stimulated my brain every night, choosing a particular part of the brain that’s thought to be involved in lateral thinking, and I also took a modafinil pill on the morning of the test. My IQ did indeed jump up from 125 to 135, which is a significant amount. But this isn’t a scientific experiment, of course. Maybe the increase was just down to natural variability, or maybe I was subconsciously trying harder. On the other hand, maybe it was the cognitive enhancement. We’d need a scientific study to find out. Don’t these techniques give an unfair advantage? If this stuff works, then there are lots of ethical questions. Some of it comes down to how we think about intelligence. In an exam, a smart pill isn’t going to plant information in the brain – it has to be there in the first place. So is it giving an unfair advantage? For certain subjects such as maths, which are based more on reasoning, you could argue that it would. But there are lots of other factors that affect people’s performances. Some people do better at a particular time of the day; others get crippling anxiety before an exam. Isn’t that unfair too?
Do you think cognitive enhancement will ever become widespread?
I think it’s unlikely that we’ll ever have a headset that can completely change someone’s performance. But maybe we don’t need to – maybe it’s just about giving people a boost to help them reach their potential. If a lot of evidence comes out over the next 10 years showing that these techniques are effective, then they’re going to become extremely attractive.