Bioethics Blogs

Cognitive enhancement, legalising opium, and cognitive biases

Suppose you want to enhance your cognition. A scientist hands you two drugs. Drug X has at least 19 controlled studies on the healthy individual showing it is effective, and while a handful of studies report a slight increase in blood pressure, another dozen conclude it is safe and non-addictive. Drug Y is also effective, but it increases mortality, has addiction potential and withdrawal symptoms. Which one do you choose? Great. Before you reach out for Drug X, the scientist warns you, “I should add, however, that Drug Y has been used by certain primitive communities for centuries, while Drug X has not.” Which one do you choose? Should this information have any bearing on your choice? I don’t think so. You probably conclude that primitive societies do all sort of crazy things and you would be better off with actual, double-blind, controlled studies.

Now what if I told you that, regardless of your interest in cognitive enhancers, you have been choosing Drug Y over and over, day after day, for several years?

A review of the scientific research on modafinil reveals it produces an enhanced performance on tests of digit span, visual pattern recognition memory, spatial planning and stop signal reaction time; lower error rate in a visual spatial task; increased new-language learning;  improved fatigue levels, motivation, reaction time and vigilance; improvement on spatial working memory, planning and decision making at the most difficult levels, as well as visual pattern recognition memory following delay and subjective ratings of enjoyment of task performance; and so on and so on.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.