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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

8 Responses

  1. gregorylent says:

    no limits on consciousness or awareness apart from belief.

    drop these limiting concepts.

    learn to quiet the mind.

    walk through the door that opens into the universe. and the multiverses.

  2. N3RV35 says:

    So ashkenazi jews have above average iqs and a nervous disorder, therefore intelligence equals nervous disorders? Does high intelligence also cause crooked teeth in Japanese people? Does correlation equal causation?

  3. Totally agree with your two responses, George. As we start adding to and changing our thinking matter, the trade-offs problems will be reduced.

  4. Joseph Coulter says:

    “This is apparently because of evolutionary selection for intelligence in the last 2,000 years.”

    If this is true, would its supposed cause of defects really differentiate it from situations of hasty natural selection of a non-cognitive nature? A bunch of kinks to be worked out in the future seems expectable after a two thousand year period of harsh natural selection. As for a field that exists predominantly in the form of giving kids amphetamines, I’m not expecting cognitive enhancement to be without its kinks either.

    This article may not be written from a transhumanist perspective, but while the article does give examples of cognitive change in both evolution and technology, and that both paths to cognitive change/augmentation have their problems, it doesn’t seem to me that transhumanism differentiates technology from biology by saying that there are fewer problems, but rather that while both have their problems in or after their R&D phase(2000 years of harsh natural selection is still an R&D phase, that’s no time at all), that technology simply advances much faster than biology, and because of that, the kinks get worked out faster.

  5. Beo says:

    Everything has tradeoffs.. Though i don’t see any confirmation for existence of “happy equilibrium point” or connection between genetic deceases and higher intelligence. It’s more likely that Tay-Sachs disease is independent side effect of Inbreeding in limited population. Sure such thing distribute both good and bad traits among population. What is clear that we are not going to get any intelligence enhancement drug any time soon. What article suggest that we just can’t separate attention or memory from other mechanisms of brain. Actually same is true for our computers. There is no point to use fast memory with slow cpu or memory bus. CPU will be a bottle neck and performance stay low. So it is unsurprising that same is true for brain.

  6. Anonymous says:

    The article used as a basis for this is rife with logical fallacies, and I would sure like to see some citations on some of the claims.

    “This is apparently because of evolutionary selection for intelligence in the last 2,000 years.”

    Says who?

    “It may be that the increase in brain power has caused an increase in disease.”

    … Why?

  7. Justin says:

    On one level, as this article has shown, it already has. On another level, its almost inevitable. You cannot change something in one place w/out changing something somewhere else in response.
    I see a future where we have ‘brain upgrades’ that function essentially like a smartphone plugged into our brains such that we can access the information directly. (or, this will at least be one form/type of implementation). As such, these enhancements will likely be upgradeable, both in hardware and in software. On the software side of things, it will probably take the shape of something akin to apps. As such, a simple example would be: a streaming stock ticker on my phone’s homepage. Sure it can show me where my stocks are up to a 15 minutes delay, on demand, immediately, anytime I choose to access it. On the other hand, most of these investments are considered long term investments, checking them hourly, minutely even, kind of defeats the purpose of the security of the investment.
    At a dinner party, is my ability to access the IMDB app to be able to go into the entire history of an actors career an addition or subtraction to a problem? As such, will having this information on brain w/out the fumbling for my phone, through its apps, and through its search ability really help my socialability? Or just make me look like a know-it-all or Captain Obvious… because, I think it’ll be safe to say that everyone else’ll have the same apps installed in their brains as well.

    I think, when its said and done, as these things start to get introduced, there will be a quick adoption, then evolution, then stagnation as culture begins to stabilize around this, otherwise, world-changing technology. The long term impact will obviously be a patternistic relativity to whats come before it. But, ultimately, it will be a ‘product’ of some sort (depending on what global economics are like at that time… don’t see star trek style economies but rather, more of the same). And, like all great products, it will be sold by Apple or given away by Google. Society will boom for a bit, then settle on a ‘more of the same’ mindset with a slow steady adoptation, and then a basic fundamental relapse back to where it started, which results on a rejection, and then another boom as everyone realizes they just can’t live w/out it (friendster, to myspace, to facebook). Because, be honest, at the end of the day, its human interaction that we’re all after anyway isn’t? peace of mind and human interaction.

    The real apps, the really cool technologies is when we can replace those. When we can artificially, safely, and even healthily produce dopamine, seratonin, adrenalin and all other ‘feel good’ neuro-chemicals of the brain and release it according to some brain-wave, experience-matching & enhancing app/program that not only allows us to share what we’re feeling, but bring it up on recall, spin it, tweak it, mix it and share it en mass. In the end, the technology will replace the humanity with…. even more humanity. ie, the..

    tl;dr: more of the same as we’re currently already seeing

  1. January 20, 2012

    […] doubled. However, increasing intelligence might not be an entirely good thing; George Dvorsky comments on a recent article by the journal Current Directions In Psychological Sciences that argues there […]

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