In this age of performance augmentation, rumors of cognitive enhancement therapies abound. Loosely defined, certain types of cognitive enhancers are available to us all without needing to visit the doctor or a drug-dealer; the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants kick-start their day (and their brain!) with a cup of tea or coffee, utilising the caffeine content of favorite beverages to chemically augment their neurological systems and give them a temporary high that propels them through the initial shock of a brand new day.
In fact, the effects of the ubiquitous caffeine "high" should not be underestimated: coffee has been shown to alleviate depression, and there are many academics who correlate the emergence of the so-called “coffeehouse society” with the onset of cerebral advances and enlightenment. The scope to affect and re-programme our brains now appears to be so vast, however, that there seems to be a pharmaceutical or external option to create an almost bespoke cognitive experience. There are pills or procedures that can prevent the desire for sleep, improve clarity and focus, provoke anger or induce calm, increase intelligence, or even erase bad memories that may be impacting on our present reality.
Some of these brain-affecting stimuli have been discovered by accident: for example, the memory-wiping drug Fingolimod, available as a tablet under the brand name Gilenya, was originally created to treat remitting forms of MS by suppressing the immune system. It was found to cross the blood-brain barrier and extinguish "previously acquired fear memories".
Another inadvertently discovered brain enhancer was transcranial brain stimulation, a form of neurostimulation that uses a constant, low current delivered directly to the brain area of interest via small electrodes, which was originally developed to help patients with brain injuries such as strokes. Tests revealed, however, that it could also increase cognitive performance in various areas, depending on the area of stimulation, and has also been shown to improve language and mathematical ability, attention span, problem solving, memory, and coordination.
So, who uses these brain-boosters?
Not surprisingly, they are widely used in their field of invention: in 2008, 20 per cent of scientists admitted to using brain-enhancing drugs, including a researcher at the MIT-affiliated Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.
"We aren’t the teen clubbers popping uppers to get through a hard day running a cash register after binge drinking," the researcher explained. "We are responsible humans."
Responsibility must be shelved, it seems, as when faced with ever-increasing levels of cognitive excellence in all areas of science, it requires artificial enhancements in order to get the edge on your peers.
A recent survey conducted amongst the readers of Wired.com indicated that complex regimens of brain-enhancing substances are commonplace amongst their readers, whose occupations ranged from scientists and college students to business owners. Typically used products included drugs like Ritalin and Adderall, commonly prescribed for the treatment of attention-deficit-hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, to improve focus and memory and Provigil, developed to promote wakefulness in patients with sleep disorders, to replace sleep.
"I take half a Provigil tablet each morning, and three gingko capsules — just to activate my triple espresso," reported one wireless ISP owner. "I used to fall asleep at the service bench around 2 p.m. Now, I pretty much click along all day and still have enough reserve energy to service mama at night."
Our brain-power is also augmented by access to prosthetic knowledge, the unlimited font of information provided by digital technology, which is available to all those in possession of an internet-enabled device at the touch of a button.
One scientist has taken this concept one stage further, Not content with merely increasing brain performance or accessing digital information, he wants to upload his brain to a computer where he plans to live forever in a virtual form of reality.
”As a species, we really only inhabit a small sliver of time and space,” said neuroscientist Randal Koene at the 2014 Transhuman Visions Conference. ”We want a species that can be effective and influential and creative in a much larger sphere.”
Koene claims that by mapping the brain, reducing its activity to computations, and reproducing those computations in code, humans could potentially live indefinitely as silicon emulations of their former selves.
”When I say emulation, you should think of it, for example, in the same sense as emulating a Macintosh on a PC,” he said. ”It’s kind of like platform-independent code.”
Brain operation translates slickly into computer simulation: the patterns orchestrated by the 85 billion neurons that comprise our brains are similar in nature to the "on-off" binary-style utilised in computer programming. Early neurophysiologists such as Warren McCulloch noted that neurons can be in only one of two possible states: active or at rest, therefore computer scientists intent on creating brain-like machines soon realised that they could use the same basic binary logic systems in their prototypes to represent the action of neurons. An entire subfield known as neural networking has been based on the physical architecture and biological rules that underpin neuroscience, and many neuroscientists believe the essence of who we are—our memories, emotions, personalities, predilections, even our consciousness—lie in those same binary patterns.
Koene, who is the son of a particle physicist, first discovered mind uploading at age 13 when he read the 1956 Arthur C. Clarke classic The City and the Stars. This book is book is set one billion years in the future, in a city, Diaspar, which is automatically repaired by computerised machines. Not only do the machines repair the city, but the inhabitants themselves are created by the computer which creates bodies for them to live in and stores their minds in its memory at the end of their lives. At any one time, only a few of these people are actually living in Diaspar, while the rest are retained in the computer’s memory banks.
“I began to think about our limits,” Koene says. “Ultimately, it is our biology, our brain, that is mortal. But Clarke talks about a future in which people can be constructed and deconstructed, in which people are information.”
Koene is not alone in his vision of a computerised race. Columbia University neuroscientist Rafael Yuste, who proposed the large-scale brain activity map that helped inspire the BRAIN Initiative, a new Presidential focus aimed at revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain, suggests that our very essence of self lies in the traffic of brain activity.
“Our identity is no more than that,” he says. “There is no magic inside our skull. It’s just neurons firing.”
So we are all just biological computers with brains that are merely programmable extensions of our computer hardware. Or is this form of psycho or cerebral enhancement essentially similar to the mind-expanding drugs used by shamans throughout history to connect with spirit and higher powers? Are our souls also somehow "harvestable," as described in Whitley Strieber’s book 2012: The War For Souls, where soul energies were captured and used to power machines?
Is yet another of Whitley’s visionary concepts about to manifest into reality?
This is potentially the stuff of nightmares, so is some form of "Bill of Rights" now necessary for the protection of our brains and souls?
Though probably not envisioning the type of soul-harvesting scenario described by Whitley in his chilling book, nevertheless the Palo Alto-based Institute for the Future in California has highlighted a need for what they term a "Magna Cortica," a bill of rights based around the potential misuse of brain altering drugs and procedures.
"Magna Cortica is the argument that we need to have a guidebook for both the design spec and ethical rules around the increasing power and diversity of cognitive augmentation," said IFTF distinguished fellow, Jamais Cascio. "There are a lot of pharmaceutical and digital tools that have been able to boost our ability to think. Adderall, Provigil, and extra-cortical technologies.
"As the technology improves, the potential for abuse and damage becomes really profound. So many of the parallel examples that we would go back to have has really bad results:
Are we going to treat this like doping in sports, and create a criminal culture around it? Do we treat it as another version of a cell phone?"
The IFTF propose five simple principles to underpin the Magna Cortica:
1. The right to self-knowledge
2. The right to self-modification
3. The right to refuse modification
4. The right to modify/refuse to modify your children
5. The right to know who has been modified
Whether these measures would be enough to protect those of us who do not dare to dabble with mind enhancement further than the caffeine provided by our morning macchiato, as ultimately we will be competing in a society along with those who do augment their brains. Will the world eventually become a two-tier society where the artificially-enhanced dominate the rest of the unwitting population who make do with the standard performance of our God-given grey matter, and where those without access to prosthetic knowledge will be forced to retreat back into their caves to daub the walls with stick figures?