Better Thinking Through Chemistry

This chapter was due for inclusion in The Rough Guide Book of Brain Training, but was cut – probably because the advice it gives is so unsexy!

rgbt_cover_small.jpgThe idea of cognitive enhancers is an appealing one, and its attraction is obvious. Who wouldn’t want to take a pill to make them smarter? It’s the sort of vision of the future we were promised on kids TV, alongside jetpacks and talking computers.

Sadly, this glorious future isn’t here yet. The original and best cognitive enhancer is caffeine (“creative lighter fluid” as one author called it), and experts agree that there isn’t anything else available to beat it. Lately, sleep researchers have been staying up and getting exciting about a stimulant called modafinil, which seems to temporarily eliminate the need for sleep without the jitters or comedown of caffeine. Modafinil isn’t a cognitive enhancer so much as something that might help with jetlag, or let you stay awake when you really should be getting some kip.

Creative types have had a long romance with alcohol and other more illicit narcotics. The big problem with this sort of drug (aside from the oft-documented propensity for turning people into terrible bores), is that your brain adapts to, and tries to counteract, the effects of foreign substances that affect its function. This produces the tolerance that is a feature of most prolonged drug use – whereby the user needs more and more to get the same effect – and also the withdrawal that characterises drug addiction. You might think this is a problem only for junkies but, if you are a coffee or tea drinker just pause for moment and reflect on any morning when you’ve felt stupid and unable to function until your morning cuppa. It might be for this reason that the pharmaceutical industry is not currently focusing on developing drugs for creativity. Plans for future cognitive enhancers focus on more mundane, workplace-useful skills such as memory and concentration. Memory-boosters would likely be most useful to older adults, especially those with worries about failing memories, rather than younger adults.

Although there is no reason in principle why cognitive enhancers couldn’t be found which fine-tune our concentration or hone our memories, the likelihood is that, as with recreational drugs, tolerance and addiction would develop. These enhancing drugs would need to be taken in moderate doses and have mild effects – just as many people successfully use caffeine and nicotine for their cognitive effects on concentration today. Even if this allowed us to manage the consequences of the brain trying to achieve its natural level, there’s still the very real possibility that use of the enhancing drugs would need to be fairly continuous – just as it is with smokers and drinkers of tea and coffee. And even then our brains would learn to associate the drug with the purpose for which they are taken, which means it would get harder and harder to perform that purpose without the drugs, as with the coffee drinker who can’t start work until he’s had his coffee. Furthermore, some reports suggest that those with high IQ who take cognitive enhancers are mostly likely to mistake the pleasurable effect of the substance in question for a performance benefit, while actually getting worse at the thing they’re taking the drug for.

The best cognitive enhancer may well be simply making best use of the brain’s natural ability to adapt. Over time we improve anything we practice, and we can practice almost anything. There’s a hundred better ways to think and learn – some of them are in this book. By practicing different mental activities we can enhance our cognitive skills without drugs. The effects can be long lasting, the side effects are positive, and we won’t have to put money in the pockets of a pharmaceutical company.

Link to more about The Rough Guide book of Brain Training
Three excellent magazine articles on cognitive enhancers, from: The New Yorker, Wired and Discover

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