Will Cognitive Enhancement Result in Too Many Side Effects?
A new paper published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, claims that there are limits to human intelligence, and any increases in thinking ability are likely to involve trade-offs.
Drugs like Ritalin and amphetamines help people pay better attention. But they often only help people with lower baseline abilities; people who donít have trouble paying attention in the first place can actually perform worse when they take attention-enhancing drugs. That suggests there is some kind of upper limit to how much people can or should pay attention. ìThis makes sense if you think about a focused task like driving,î Hills says, ìwhere you have to pay attention, but to the right thingsówhich may be changing all the time. If your attention is focused on a shiny billboard or changing the channel on the radio, youíre going to have problems.
It may seem like a good thing to have a better memory, but people with excessively vivid memories have a difficult life. ìMemory is a double-edged sword, Hills says. In post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, a person canít stop remembering some awful episode. ìIf something bad happens, you want to be able to forget it, to move on.î
Even increasing general intelligence can cause problems. Hills and Hertwig cite a study of Ashkenazi Jews, who have an average IQ much higher than the general European population. This is apparently because of evolutionary selection for intelligence in the last 2,000 years. But, at the same time, Ashkenazi Jews have been plagued by inherited diseases like Tay-Sachs disease that affect the nervous system. It may be that the increase in brain power has caused an increase in disease.
Given all of these tradeoffs that emerge when you make people better at thinking, Hills says, itís unlikely that there will ever be a supermind. ìIf you have a specific task that requires more memory or more speed or more accuracy or whatever, then you could potentially take an enhancer that increases your capacity for that task,î he says. ìBut it would be wrong to think that this is going to improve your abilities all across the board.î
My thoughts on the matter:
- It’s true that our current state of intelligence may be at a certain happy equilibrium point, but that has to be understood within the context of adaptability to our prior Paleolithic existence in which we evolved as foragers and hunters. And as the article correct asserts, human cognition is also limited on account of hard biological limits, like cranial size. Moreover, there’s only so much computation that nature can do with a chunk of biological matter that’s roughly the size of a grapefruit. Looking ahead to the transhuman future, and given the potential for assistive technologies (e.g. nanotechnology, brain pacemakers, artificial neurons, whole brain transfer, etc.), it’s quite possible that we’ll be able to radically modify the way in which the brain operates.
- The tradeoffs issue is a very pertinent one. It’s been noted that imperfect memory may be a blessing in disguise, and that those people who have perfect recall live in a kind of virtual hell, unable to shake the constant stream of memories — including difficulties placing themselves in the present moment. Similarly, it’s well document that many eccentrics and geniuses suffer from attendant psychological problems, such as OCD, paranoia, schizophrenia, and so on. We may have evolved to our current state of intelligence and no further on account of the onset of various maladaptive functional impairments. If this is the case we need to seriously look more deeply into this, especially at the dawn of bona fide cognitive enhancement. My hope (and expectation) is that we will still be able to engage in cognitive enhancement, but that we will (a) have to work to allieviate the side-effects of increased intelligence and memory, and (b) learn to accept and adapt to having alternative psychological modalities (even if those “side-effects” might looks like impairment when assessed through the neurotypical lens).
George Dvorksy is a Canadian futurist and ethicist. This article was originally published at his blog Sentient Developments.