Neuroenhancement's Mainstream Moment May Be Here

John Watson


March 09, 2017

In This Article

In the Shadow of Silicon Valley

Neuroenhancement is a phenomenon originating in large part from Silicon Valley; and, as such, it has inherited the language of techno-optimism common to this industry.

"In a lot of ways, we are the sickest, weakest cohort of humans in the history of humanity. You look at obesity, at Alzheimer disease, at cancer rates; those trends are going up and to the right," said Woo. "I think it's worth opening that dialogue around how do we best look at optimizing and helping people be the best possible version of themselves. We really see it as our mission to be a human-enhancing company. How do we help people be the best possible version of themselves?"

The neuroenhancement movement has also taken on Silicon Valley's quality of speaking of massive disruptions, even those that would occur at the very seat of who we are as a people, in primarily commercial terms.

"The way we look at it is that our cognitive abilities are our most important aspects in terms of economic value," said Woo. "We are no longer being valued for the physical labor that we can do; most of our economy is based on the amount of intellectual output we can do. Obviously, as you see in Silicon Valley, that competition is probably at its peak. If a company goes to market a few months quicker than the other companies, that company might be the winner take all in that market. You have a combination of very smart people with very ambitious goals, and there's some competitive dynamic to it. It sort of directly follows that one would seek out any advantage one could gain in terms of optimizing productivity."

Arguments such as these have faced criticism due to their perceived tunnel vision. In a 2013 search of the literature regarding neuroenhancement in so-called normal subjects, Gregor Wolbring, PhD, and colleagues[8] sought to categorize the ways in which these interventions are typically described. They noted that their impact on healthcare and ethics is rarely discussed and that this research instead tends to be focused on issues related to "consumers."

Dr Wolbring, associate professor of community rehabilitation and disability studies at the University of Calgary's Cumming School of Medicine in Alberta, Canada, sees inherent risks in seeking to rapidly change our expectations around individuals' cognitive abilities.

"I really think that we first have to have a discussion around what drives the demand for the neuro/cogno enhancers and whether these drivers have to be changed first," Dr Wolbring said. He likens the phenomenon to that of doping in sports, which privileges individual performance over the traditional goals of these efforts like team building.

"It's the same with neuro/cogno enhancements. What do they do to the area of occupation of paid work? People start talking about the occupational dangers of robotics and automatization, but an expectation of enhancement is even more dangerous. And they are all even more dangerous if we do not eliminate the existing culture of peer pressure and bullying."

Such questions may seem like the province of science fiction rather than medicine. Yet with millions of dollars of investment entering the burgeoning nootropics industry, innumerable academic researchers and biohackers seeking to refine their use, and an ever-expanding desire to seek whatever advantages we can in an increasingly competitive workplace, neuroenhancement may seem unexceptional sooner than we expect.


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