The coming revolution in mental enhancement

Here’s a near-future scenario: Within five years, 10% of people in the developed world will be regularly taking smart drugs that noticeably enhance their mental performance.

It turns out there may be a surprising reason for this scenario to fail to come to pass. I’ll get to that shortly. But first, let’s review why the above scenario would be a desirable one.


As so often, Nick Bostrom presents the case well. Nick is Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy & Oxford Martin School, Director at the Future of Humanity Institute, and Director of the Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology, all at the University of Oxford. He wrote in 2008,

Those who seek the advancement of human knowledge should [consider] kinds of indirect contribution…

No contribution would be more generally applicable than one that improves the performance of the human brain.

Much more effort ought to be devoted to the development of techniques for cognitive enhancement, be they drugs to improve concentration, mental energy, and memory, or nutritional enrichments of infant formula to optimize brain development.

Society invests vast resources in education in an attempt to improve students’ cognitive abilities. Why does it spend so little on studying the biology of maximizing the performance of the human nervous system?

Imagine a researcher invented an inexpensive drug which was completely safe and which improved all‐round cognitive performance by just 1%. The gain would hardly be noticeable in a single individual. But if the 10 million scientists in the world all benefited from the drug the inventor would increase the rate of scientific progress by roughly the same amount as adding 100,000 new scientists. Each year the invention would amount to an indirect contribution equal to 100,000 times what the average scientist contributes. Even an Einstein or a Darwin at the peak of their powers could not make such a great impact.

Meanwhile others too could benefit from being able to think better, including engineers, school children, accountants, and politicians.

This example illustrates the enormous potential of improving human cognition by even a tiny amount…

The first objection to the above scenario is that it is technically infeasible. People imply that no such drug could possibly exist. Any apparent evidence offered to the contrary is inevitably suspect. Questions can be raised over the anecdotes shared in the Longecity thread “Ten months of research condensed – A total newbies guide to nootropics” or in the recent Unfinished Man review “Nootropics – The Facts About ‘Smart Drugs’”. After all, the reasoning goes, the brain is too complex. So these anecdotes are likely to involve delusion – whether it is self-delusion (people not being aware of placebo effects and similar) or delusion from snake oil purveyors who have few scruples in trying to sell products.

A related objection is that the side-effects of such drugs are unknown or difficult to assess. Yes, there are substances (take alcohol as an example) which can aid our creativity, but with all kinds of side-effects. The whole field is too dangerous – or so it is said.

These objections may have carried weight some years ago, but increasingly they have less force. Other complex aspects of human functionality can be improved by targeted drugs; why not also the brain? Yes, people vary in how they respond to specific drug combinations, but that’s something that can be taken into account. Indeed, more data is being collected all the time.

Evidence of progress in the study of these smart drugs is one thing I expect to feature in an event taking place in central London this Wednesday (13th March).

next big thing

The event, The Miracle Pill: What do brain boosting drugs mean for the future? is being hosted by Nesta as part of the Policy Exchange “Next big thing” series.

Here’s an extract from the event website:

If you could take a drug to boost your brain-power, would you?

Drugs to enhance human performance are nothing new. Long-haul lorry drivers and aircraft pilots are known to pop amphetamines to stay alert, and university students down caffeine tablets to ward off drowsiness during all-nighters. But these stimulants work by revving up the entire nervous system and the effect is only temporary.

Arguments over smart drugs are raging. If a drug can improve an individual’s performance, and they do not experience side-effects, some argue, it cannot be such a bad thing.

But where will it all stop? Ambitious parents may start giving mind-enhancing pills to their children. People go to all sorts of lengths to gain an educational advantage and eventually success might be dependent on access to these mind-improving drugs…

This event will ask:

    • What are the limits to performance enhancement drugs, both scientifically and ethically? And who decides?
    • Is there a role for such pills in developing countries, where an extra mental boost might make a distinct difference to those in developing countries?
    • Does there need to be a global agreement to monitor the development of these pills?
    • Should policymakers give drug companies carte blanche to develop these products or is a stricter regulatory regime required?

The event will be chaired by Louise Marston, Head of Innovation and Economic Growth, Nesta. The list of panelists is impressive:

    • Dr Bennett Foddy, Deputy Director and Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Science and Ethics, Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford
    • Dr Anders Sandberg, James Martin Fellow, Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford
    • Dr Hilary Leevers, Head of Education & Learning, the Wellcome Trust
    • Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England.

Under-currents of mistrust

From my own experience in discussing smart drugs that could enhance mental performance, I’m aware that objections to their use often run more deeply than the technical questions covered above. There are often under-currents of mistrust:

    • Reliance of smart drugs is viewed as irresponsible, self-indulgent, or as cheating
    • There’s an association with the irresponsible advocacy of so-called “recreational” mind-altering drugs
    • Surely, it is said, there are more reliable and more honourable ways of enhancing our mental powers
    • Besides, what is the point of simply being able to think faster?

I strongly reject the implication of irresponsibility or self-indulgence. Increased mental capability can be applied to all sorts of important questions, resulting in scientific progress, technological breakthrough, more elegant product development, and social benefit. The argument I quoted earlier, from Nick Bostrom, applies here.

I also strongly reject the “either/or” implication, when people advocate pursuit of more traditional methods of mental enhancement instead of reliance of modern technology. Why cannot we do both? When considering our physical health, we pay attention to traditional concerns, such as diet and rest, as well as to the latest medical findings. It should be the same for our mental well-being.

No, the real question is: does it work? And once it becomes clearer that certain combinations of smart drugs can make a significant difference to our mental prowess, with little risk of unwelcome side effects, the other objections to their use will quickly fade away.

It will be similar to the rapid change in attitudes towards IVF (“test tube babies”). I remember a time when all sorts of moral and theological hand-wringing took place over the possibility of in-vitro fertilisation. This hubristic technology, it was said, might create soul-less monstrosities; only wickedly selfish people would ever consider utilising the treatment. That view was held by numerous devout observers – but quickly faded away, in the light of people’s real-world experience with the resulting babies.



This brings us back to the question: how quickly can we expect progress with smart drugs? It’s the 64 million dollar question. Actually it might be a640 million dollar question. Possibly even more. The entrepreneurs and companies who succeed in developing and marketing good products in the field of mental enhancement stand to tap into very sizeable revenue streams. Pfizer, the developer of Viagra, earned revenues of $509 million in 2008 alone, from that particular enhancement drug. The developers of a Viagra for the mind could reasonably imagine similar revenues.

The barriers here are regulatory as well as technical. But with a rising public interest in the possibility of significant mental enhancement, the mood could swing quickly, enabling much more vigorous investment by highly proficient companies.


The biophysical approach

But there’s one more complication.

Actually this is a positive complication rather than a negative one.

Critics who suggest that there are better approaches to enhancing mental powers than smart drugs, might turn out to be right in a way they didn’t expect. The candidate for a better approach is to use non-invasive electrical and magnetic stimulation of the brain, targeted to specific functional areas.


A variety of “helmets” are already available, or have been announced as being under development.

The start-up website Flow State Engaged raises and answers a few questions on this topic, as follows:

Q: What is tDCS?

A: Transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) is one of the coolest health/self improvement technologies available today. tDCS is a form of neurostimulation which uses a constant, low current delivered directly to the brain via small electrodes to affect brain function.

Q: Is this for real?

A: The US Army and DARPA both currently use tDCS devices to train snipers and drone pilots, and have recorded 2.5x increases in learning rates. This incredible phenomenon of increased learning has been documented by multiple clinical studies as well.

Q: You want one?

A: Today if you want a tDCS machine it’s nearly impossible to find one for less than $600, and you need a prescription to order one. We wanted a simpler cheaper option. So we made our own kit, for ourselves and for all you body hackers out there…


Someone who has made a close personal study of the whole field of nootropics and biophysical approaches (including tDCS) is London-based researcher Andrew Vladimirov.

Back in November, Andrew gave a talk to the London Futurists on “Hacking our wetware: smart drugs and beyond”. It was a well-attended talk that stirred up lots of questions, both in the meeting itself, and subsequently online.

The good news is that Andrew is returning to London Futurists on Saturday 23rd March, where his talk this time will focus on biophysical approaches to “hacking our wetware”.

You can find more details of this meeting here – including how to register to attend.


Introducing the smart-hat

In advance of the meeting, Andrew has shared an alternative vision of the ways in which many people in the not-so-distant future will pursue mental enhancement.

He calls this vision “Towards digital nootropics”:

You are tired, anxious and stressed, and perhaps suffer from a mild headache. Instead of reaching for a pack from Boots the local pharmacists, you put on a fashionable “smarthat” (a neat variation of an “electrocap” with a comfortable 10-20 scheme placement for both small electrodes and solenoids) or, perhaps, its lighter version – a “smart bandana”.

Your phone detects it and a secure wireless connection is instantly established. A Neurostimulator app opens. You select “remove anxiety”, “anti-headache” and “basic relaxation” options, press the button and continue with your business. In 10-15 minutes all these problems are gone.

However, there is still much to do, and an important meeting is looming. So, you go to the “enhance” menu of the Neurostimulator and browse through the long list of options which include “thinking flexibility”, “increase calculus skills”, “creative imagination”, “lateral brainstorm”, “strategic genius”, “great write-up”, “silver tongue” and “cram before exam” amongst many others. There is even a separate night menu with functionality such as “increase memory consolidation while asleep”. You select the most appropriate options, press the button and carry on the meeting preparations.

There are still 15 minutes to go, which is more than enough for the desired effects to kick in. If necessary, they can be monitored and adjusted via the separate neurofeedback menu, as the smarthat also provides limited EEG measurement capabilities. You may use a tablet or a laptop instead of the phone for that.

A new profession: neuroanalyst

Entrepreneurs reading this article may already have noticed the very interesting business-development opportunities this whole field offers. These same entrepreneurs may pay further attention to the next stage of Andrew Vladimirov’s “Towards digital nootropics” vision of the not-so-distant future:

Your neighbour Jane is a trained neuroanalyst, an increasingly popular trade that combines depth psychology and a variety of advanced non-invasive neurostimulation means. Her machinery is more powerful and sophisticated than your average smartphone Neurostim.

While you lie on her coach with the mindhelmet on, she can induce highly detailed memory recall, including memories of early childhood to go through as a therapist. With a flick of a switch, she can also awake dormant mental abilities and skills you’ve never imagined. For instance, you can become a savant for the time it takes to solve some particularly hard problem and flip back to your normal state as you leave Jane’s office.

Since she is licensed, some ethical modulation options are also at her disposal. For instance, if Jane suspects that you are lying and deceiving her, the mindhelmet can be used to reduce your ability to lie – and you won’t even notice it.

Sounds like science fiction? The bulk of necessary technologies is already there, and with enough effort the vision described can be realised in five years or so.

If you live in the vicinity of London, you’ll have the opportunity to question Andrew on aspects of this vision at the London Futurists meetup.


Smart drugs or smart hats?

Will we one day talk as casually about our smarthats as we currently do about our smartphones? Or will there be more focus, instead, on smart drugs?

Personally I expect we’ll be doing both. It’s not necessarily an either/or choice.

And there will probably be even more dramatic ways to enhance our mental powers, that we currently can scarcely conceive.

This post originally appeared on David’s blog here:

25 Responses

  1. […]Overclock nootropic formula is exactly this pill. Overclock is a nootropic formula by Empowered Labs designed to enhance cognitive performance, memory, and creativity. […]

  2. Martin says:

    I has taken millions of years of natural selection to create the human brain. I don’t think that a few scientists tinkering around with drugs and neuron stimulation will be able to make it work better. If it were easy, evolution would have already discovered it.

    • David Wood says:

      Hi Martin,

      You ask: how can scientists possibly hope to do better than evolution? It’s a good question.

      Nick Bostrom and Anders Sandberg comprehensively addressed that question at some length in their 2008 paper “The Wisdom of Nature: An Evolutionary Heuristic for Human Enhancement”,

      The short answer is that there are three sorts of circumstances in which this aspiration makes good sense:
      1. Changed tradeoffs;
      2. Value discordance;
      3. Evolutionary restrictions.

    • Andrew says:

      But aren’t these scientists and their tinkering a part of the evolutionary process? 🙂

  3. Paul says:

    I’m sorry the first few paragraphs made me LOL! An increase of 1% in 10 Million scientist equals 100,000 additional scientists felt the same as saying, “Hi I’m Holly, I have an I.Q. of 6000, roughly the equivalent of 6000 P.E. coaches!” Just think, we could make SIX additional P.E. coaches with 1% cognitive enhancement given to those 6000.

    Is 1% enough, even collectively? We do’t share a hive mind, though there are certainly advances being made that could make that possible, in the near future too, which could possibly increase the same 10 million scientists minds cognitive abilities exponentially, not a mere 1%. Also, it’s not always the smartest guy in the room that finds the solution to a complex problem.

    • David Wood says:

      Hi Paul – I agreed, there are many skills that add into group intelligence. A raw measure of IQ fails to do anything like adequate justice to all of them. But like you, I expect that smart use of technology will be able to significantly augment a wide range of these skills.

      Also like you, I expect that smart tech will increase our intelligence by more than just a single percentage point. But Nick Bostrom’s point is that the case for research into smart ways to enhance mental powers exists and is powerful, even if the effect on an individual is relatively small.

    • Andrew says:

      However, we are dealing with a non-linear chaotic system where small size effects can be significantly amplified over time bringing in an avalanche effect. Who knows, may be this 1 % is what separates us from, dare I say, singularity? 🙂

  4. Andrew says:

    Psychostimulants are not nootropics, full stop. Modafinil is, above all, a psychostimulant. I really grow tired of this confusion between these rather different groups of drugs.

    Psychostimulants may have a nootropic component in their action, but so can antidepressants, anxiolythics, adaptogenes etc. Even sugar (glucose) does, to an extent, and so do coffee, cigarettes and small volumes of alcohol. It does not imply we have to resort to all these to enhance some aspects of our mental performance, even though many subconsciously do.

    At the end of the day, there are far too many interesting opportunities to explore regarding the development of novel highly selective cognition enhancers that going over and over the old psychostimulant debate is excruciatingly boring.

    If anyone is seriously interested in pharmacological cognition enhancement targets, have a look at the extensive, relatively recent review available here:

  5. Are these drugs absolutely free of side-effects? The two links above give no information about side-effects or possible interactions. Is there some website with a more thorough description of all this?

    • Andrew says:

      Hi David, as usual it will depend on a specific drug, since even within a single given group there will be discrepancies between different compounds. Piracetam being the first and the oldest is the most well-studied and does not have any significant side effects. Some of the newer ampakines do, e.g. phentropil and noopept may give that jittery feeling you are probably familiar with when overloaded with coffee. The sites are many, for example You can also grab the slides of my previous talk with the Futurists at
      but it will require free registration.

      • Jared says:

        Is there any information on the mechanism they operate by?

        • Andrew says:

          Hi Jared, the slides above explain what I consider to be the most fundamental mechanisms of nootropics action in layman terms. Of course, there is more to it, but this is a popular talk. The slides of the upcoming talk will explain the mechanisms of cognition enhancement via tDCS, tACS, tRNS and high power TMS. I don’t think we’ll have enough time to go into weak power TMS which is the most controversial, but we’ll see. In any case, the underlining principles between drug and neurostimulation action in this case are very similar, for instance cognition enhancement by tDCS is blocked by NMDA antagonists and BDNF is implicated.

      • Thank you! I will take a look.

  6. db says:

    Now for just a tidbit about the MIS use of these currents. People as you know, can come into your vicinity while you are on the phone, say and pick up your words or those of others who are on the other end. This is done soley intentionally by some who have the sensitivity but can not get the info at a distance. I want to know why you were here yesterdAy across the road specificLly for the phone call to my dad and why my information that i am only going to be here till ( month) was so important to you. You did it last week also when i was talking to my husband. I learned aomething about him from that call and his reaction to You being here but what do you need to know my future activities for? Listen i dont give threats and there have been aome who think it a good joke to talk about me ‘killing you off’. I enjoy a good joke but one warning here. A man died last year with in months, out of the blue after he had done the same thing with ulterior motives. I just reported the incident. I didn’t give him the cancer that killed him quickly ok? Nor did i grieve when i for the information on his death
    Anything…Anything you need to know you know where I am. If you do have ulterior motivea the ones giving the illneses are the ones who read you like a book. I dont i specifically do not want to because i so not choose to be carry all of the voices in the world in my head.
    Just saying

  7. db says:

    There are alao cds you can get that do the same things as the caps. It has been a number of years since i received adds from them but if i ever find the site again i will link it. You might could google something like neurological toning or brain stimulating cds. It works with different toning and sound waves directed specifically to the associated areas of your brain to open those latent cells. I never used them but i would now if i ever found them again. The story i am working contains the skull cap which does the same as the article talks about. I got much of the idea of it from the book Change Your Brain change Your Life. What should happen over time, logically speaking is that the caps will stimulate those brain areas and make them more sensitive to the vibrations of the currents around you which contain the energy and electromagnatism of the thoughts going around. Cell phones and our servers already send out some pretty strong waves that others can pick up on if they are in your vicinity.
    As a child i used to wonder how it was that a persson on one side of thw world could have an idea about something, say an invention and that idea is duplicated all the way across the globe.

    It is most likely thAt many of your thoughts and ideas that seem to come to you out of the blue are actually thougts ideas or words that some body in your area is talking about. The distance depends on your sensitivity as well as the strength of energy with which it is being sent out
    Here is a
    Believe it or not that you can do with as you will.
    prayer is pretty much the same thing. When i was in my my 20s i was making my childrens beds and i suddenly felt as though i had been slugged in the gut by an overwhelming sadness and despair and i was seeing a group of black people crying out for help. I didnt know what to do but being a christian at the time i started praying I was never into watching the news in those days but i discovered later that there were people being slUghtered in Africa. Something with mandala was going on and i knew that i was getting those crys and pleas

    Its the energy. The vibrations and all of our brains have them. In varying degrees. All of the cellular towers and activity that we have now is already opening our minds to these currents of energy and other minds. The caps will open your sensitivity more by stimulating those brain areas.
    For those of you who really have a desire to “know it all”. Just ‘stay tuned’

  8. db says:

    Winslow, Modafinil however seems to carry a lot of side effects with it where as the drugs that this article speak of are supposed
    To be free of that

  9. TSCTH says:

    I’m already on the seemingly nootropic drug Modafinil and i can attest that it very much boosts my brain power.

    But i do have to point out something. Namely that I’m on Modafinil to counteract the negative side-effects of Seroquel.
    I was on Seroquel for 6 years where i was continually told that the mind numbing zombie states and the need for a minimum of 11 hours of sleep would go away. But it didn’t, so i ended up researching what to do during the 30 or so minutes i had each day of normal functioning, ending in me discovering that many on equally mind-numbing drugs swear by Modafinil’s miraculous effect.
    So i asked my doctor for it and now i function normally, I’m sharp as a knife 24/7 and i only need 7-8 hours of sleep. ^^ All 153 IQ points are firing at peak output and i can actually get shit done. ^^ And thanks to its incredibly minute side-effect, all i ever get is ~1 combined hour a week of weak, controllable euphoria (which does make otherwise boring tasks much more interesting) and an urge to exercise. ^^

    So all in all, Modafinil might be more effective on me since I’m counteracting something. I can’t tell for sure either way, as i only have a sample pool of 1.

    • shagggz says:

      How long have you been on it, and at what dose? It’s supposed to have a significant tolerance effect.

      • TSCTH says:

        ~7 months and I’m currently at 300 mg.
        I was started off at 200 mg (as it’s the recommended minimal dosage), which was bumped up 100 mg last month after my body had gotten used to the dosage.
        Most people end up at 300-400 mg. That seems to be the sweet spot between to much and too little once the body gets used to it. ^^

        And yes, it’s extremely well tolerated according to most studies, though some will claim otherwise. Personally, the worst side-effects i’ve had were some stomach issues the first 5-7 day of taking them (which is to be expected when starting new medicine on a daily basis) and the occasional light euphoria (which, honestly, is a bonus in my eyes).

        But please try researching it on your own, since i might be a bit biased on this subject. I truly feel Modafinil has saved my life, by taking me from a mind-numbing zombie state to my old philomathic self. ^^

        • shagggz says:

          When I say tolerance I don’t mean agreement with your body, but habituation – the need for higher and higher doses to achieve the same effect. That you have already had to increase your dose within the span of a few months doesn’t bode well for the long-term sustainability of your use of this drug, at least at the current rate.

          • TSCTH says:

            Oh, i misunderstood you.

            Generally, it’s considered very sustainable, with a marked decrease in need adjustments to achieve an active dosage, as the body gets used to it.
            The adjustment i already had is a pretty standard one when talking about chronic medication. The standard process is to start people off at the lowest active dosage (200 mg in the case of Modafinil) and then add to it once the patient (me in this case) start experiencing a minor return of symptoms.
            I went through the same process with Seroquel (the drug the Modafinil is negating the negative side-effects of), where i started off at 25 mg (which was perfect for about a week) and ended up at my current dosage of 600 mg.

            But everyone is unique and require a different dosage of Modafinil, but in 3/4 of cases, my current dosage of 300 mg is what most users of Modafinil end at.

  10. Why all the hypotheticals? We already have modafinil. It provides a case study on “what it will be like” when there are effective cognitive enhancers. Most people have never heard of it.

    It would be a bit different I think if modafinil or an equivalent were OTC in the developed world.

  1. March 15, 2013

    […] “Imagine a researcher invented an inexpensive drug which was completely safe and which improved all‐round cognitive performance by just 1%. The gain would hardly be noticeable in a single individual. But if the 10 million scientists in the world all benefited from the drug the inventor would increase the rate of scientific progress by roughly the same amount as adding 100,000 new scientists. Each year the invention would amount to an indirect contribution equal to 100,000 times what the average scientist contributes. Even an Einstein or a Darwin at the peak of their powers could not make such a great impact. Meanwhile others too could benefit from being able to think better, including engineers, school children, accountants, and politicians.” – David Wood […]

Leave a Reply