Book Re­view

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

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This month, we dis­cuss The Ge­nius Within by David Adam, a book that con­sid­ers brain hacks to boost brainpower

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, 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. 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.


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