Consider if someone does not have ADHD or Alzheimer’s or any other cognitive impairment requiring pharmaceutical treatment –does the individual therefore have no right to be unsatisfied with the mental capacity or IQ possessed? The de facto response is, of course individuals have the right to be unsatisfied. Plenty of people in the history of humanity have envied the superior minds unfairly bestowed upon others. It is a common theme in the literature of the world: jealousy of another’s talent, cunning, wit, charm, genius; all of which is now understood to be aspects of the physical brain, subtle differences in chemical balance or synaptic density.
There was nothing to be done. It is a waste of energy to be jealous if there is no genuine remedy to the situation, so the only options were to choose to be content with the given lot, or scheme to rob the object of one’s jealously, a theft which could only destroy that which was coveted.
Enter the modern drug industry. While the idea of using medicines for cognitive enhancement is not new, the powerful chemicals which have been developed and are being developing by pharmaceutical companies offer unprecedented specificity and potency. Medicines are meant to heal the sick, but the division between those who are sick enough to have access to these chemicals and those who are too healthy is not easily drawn. The industry’s ability to understand mechanisms of molecular action and design the potency increases yearly, meaning that some drugs can gently ameliorate problems that would have once been considered too insignificant to treat. The question as to whether the merely unsatisfied have a right to use these drugs is being asked, and answered, every day by researchers, doctors, students, interested individuals, and the FDA: how sharp is sharp enough when there are all these chemical whetstones at disposal?
Nootropics, smart drugs, cognitive enhancers; all synonyms for the ill-defined class of chemicals that are being developed, marketed and used for the purpose of increasing the mental capacity of the not-healthy-enough. Stated as “ill defined,” because the category ranges from such controversial household names as Adderall, Ritalin and Modafinil, drugs that are a mainstay of the off-label aspirations of ambitious intellectuals everywhere. This trickles all the way down to the dubious pharmacopeia of nutritional supplements, herbal remedies, over the counter elixirs that purportedly tweak the mechanisms of the healthy mind in a variety of beneficial ways. Nootropics are reputed to make the brain work better for longer, promoting inspiration and intensity, but can drugs actually make someone smarter, or do they simply dupe a person into applying given intelligence and/or IQ more effectively.
Intelligence is notoriously difficult to quantify, and the skeptical response to the use of nootropics is that placebo effect and chemically induced confidence are being confused with a genuine increase in the intellectual capacity of a person. Many might argue that the idea of intelligence is too complicated to disentangle, that learning, memory, clarity, creativity, focus and intelligence cannot be measured in isolation. This skepticism is justified, especially as so much of the evidence in support of cognitive enhancement is in the form of self-reported sensations of improvements. Even among the well established pharmaceuticals there is doubt as to whether the positive effects can be considered genuine and useful intelligence augmentation, or merely task specific effects related to mood, energy and focus.
Some studies have shown that Adderall produces no significant improvement in basic memory and learning tasks, but the dopamine boost it elicits prompts users to believe that they were working faster and better. Regardless of objective evidence of improvement, there is demand for IQ boosting pills, and where there is demand there will be supply, and where there is supply there will be competition, and competition requires proof that one product is better than another.
According to Barbara Lusk of the American Psychological Association, cognitive enhancement is already a billion dollar industry, and since access to pharmaceuticals is restricted, the only legal outlet for those who would improve their abilities beyond “healthy” are herbal supplements. The supply is plentiful. Products such as Alpha Brain, Addie Up, Brain Stack, and Brain Smart are marketed in the tradition of sports supplements, with bold claims about their effects, testimonials from thrilled users, and money-back guarantees. They are part of a category of supplements known as “stacks”: combinations of a wide variety of ingredients in various doses whose specific effects are supposed to complement each other.
These brand names all contain long lists of ingredients, and their websites always link to explanation pages that lay out the basics of neuroscience and, to greater of lesser detail, explain the ways in which their ingredients will promote improved brain function. Several of these explanation pages even link to research collected on the website of the National Center for Biotechnology Information, a well respected source for peer review research, even if the studies referenced were predominantly conducted on elderly patients suffering severe mental deficiencies. This is the difficulty when it comes to herbal supplements: while the evidence in support of such products is by no means conclusive, it is equally impossible to dismiss entirely.
The claims these products make are tempting, and the evidence is just inconclusive enough to interest the dubious and intrigued mind alike. The FDA has barred the healthy from access to the designed pharmaceutical drugs for nootropics use, but they say the public is free to conduct individual research when it comes to these herbal remedies. Hordes of unsatisfied amateur researchers are taking the pills regularly and estimating the distance between what they were once capable of and what they can now do as the new, herbally enhanced versions of themselves. There is as yet no answer to the question of whether or not a pill can improve intelligence, but there are lots of minds out there trying to figure it out with a little help from IQ in a bottle.
Editorial by Eric Anderson