The temptation of smart drugs

Mental prowess in pill form is always tempting. Modafinil offers heightened alertness and wakefulness even during sleep deprivation; piracetam promises enhanced cognition and intercerebral blood flow; ergoloid offers purported memory and anti-ageing enhancements. There are many more. I’ve promoted these agents to friends and taken some of them myself.

The philosophical and ethical case for cognitive enhancement is well established1; that they work is (at least for some drugs) beyond doubt2. But advocates of their use might want to consider the alternatives first. Those taking them rarely consider the ‘optimised base case’—a scenario in which everything else cheaply possible is done before making an intervention. It’s another way of asking: what’s the control group for this experiment? Testing a drug on people who have a severely deficient diet is all well and good, but your potential consumers might be best advised to make sure their diet is adequate (cheap) instead of taking your drug (expensive).

Compared to taking smart drugs, the optimised base case is distinctly unsexy: exercising, meditating, getting enough sleep and a good diet that avoids insulin spikes will get you most of the benefits that cognitive enhancers offer. These things are cheap, easy, free of side-effects and proven to work (unlike many cognitive enhancers). Edge cases3 excluded, it’s worth doing them first.

Gwern offers readers a warning in his article on dual n-back, a technique for enhancing working memory and possibly increasing IQ, suggesting they turn back and focus on interventions with bigger marginal returns:

To those whose time is limited: you may wish to stop reading here. If you seek to improve your life, and want the greatest bang for the buck, you are well-advised to look elsewhere. Meditation, for example, is easier, faster, and ultra-portable. Typing training will directly improve your facility with a computer, a valuable skill for this modern world. Spaced repetition memorization techniques offer unparalleled advantages to students. … Modest changes to one’s diet and environs can fundamentally improve one’s well-being. Even basic training in reading, with the crudest tachistoscope techniques, can pay large dividends… And all of these can start paying off immediately.

Work on your optimised base case by making easier, cheaper interventions to your productivity first. Only then is it worth improving it further.

  1. Bostrom and Roache, 2009. Smart Policy: Cognitive Enhancement and the Public Interest. 

  2. Modafinil’s alertness-boosting effects are clinically proven, and the drug increases working memory. Piracetam and others purport to genuinely increase ‘cognition’, but for the most part the studies supporting this claim are small and old. 

  3. Such as where an immediate boost is needed—if you’re sleep-deprived or jetlagged but need to make an important presentation, for example.