IEET > Rights > HealthLongevity > CognitiveLiberty > Fellows > Andy Miah > Enablement
People should be free to take smart drugs if they choose to
Andy Miah   Oct 27, 2011   The Independent  

If you could take a pill that would instantly improve your memory or increase your ability to make sense of complex ideas, perhaps even make discoveries worthy of a Nobel prize, would you? What if you could enhance your capacity to assimilate new languages in a fraction of the time than would otherwise be necessary to become fluent? Answers to these questions may now become more urgent as a range of cognitive enhancements are quickly becoming available via pharmaceutical research.

Many of the early signs of these prospects arise from drugs that are presently used primarily to treat medical problems, one of the most famous of which is Ritalin. However, the candidate drugs that could enhance our cognitive abilities is endless and all we are asked to do is decide on whether or not we think their use for general enhancement rather than just therapy is a good idea.

It seems beyond question that many of the benefits of smart drugs would be valued my most people. Who wouldn’t want to make ground breaking discoveries or be able to perform better in exams? Just this week, the journal Annals of Surgery reported improved performance of doctors who use the cognitive alertness drug modafinil.

However, there are also practical reasons for why we would want to improve our cognitive ability on a day to day basis. Being able to remember where we left our keys or what we had to buy at the supermarket spring to mind. Of course, it’s unlikely that people would risk any serious long term health problems that may arise from using smart drugs, so a major obstacle to their use is being able to reduce these concerns.

After that, we may then need to consider what counts as being smarter, so as to have a better idea about what we need to enhance. Answers to this question have eluded artificial intelligence researchers for years, though we do know that there are different kinds of intelligence – logical or emotional, for example – and the improvement of each may require quite different techniques and imply quite distinct consequences. Equally, we would want to know if there were any trade offs in cognitive improvement. For instance, is advanced logical functioning detrimental to the more empathetic dimensions of our humanity?

As well, one of the big questions that follows from a society of brain enhancements is whether their use may be justified for state intervention, perhaps in trying to improve the memory of witnesses in courts of law where evidence depends on it. Alternatively, might society seek to improve the empathetic capacities of criminals so as to more effectively facilitation their rehabilitation?
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Professor Andy Miah, PhD (@andymiah), is Chair in Science Communication & Digital Media, in the School of Environment & Life Sciences, University of Salford, Manchester. He is also Global Director for the Centre for Policy and Emerging Technologies, Fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, USA and Fellow at FACT, the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, UK. He is currently part of a European Commission project called Digital Futures 2050 and of the Ministerial Advisory Group on Digital Participation in the Scottish Government.


People should be free to take any drug they want to, fully informed about it’s effects to the extent that science is able to.

Agree with iPan’s version, people should be free to take any drug they want to.

People should be free to do anything they want to, as long as they don’t actually harm others or prevent others from enjoying their own freedom.

I agree with iPan as well.  I just hope people don’t repeatedly take them if side affects do occur.  That would just be stupidity.



“fully informed about it’s effects to the extent that science is able to”

People are fully informed about the effects of alcohol, smoking and other drugs like marijuana yet people still abuse them.  With that said, should still be no regulation of any kind? What do you suggest?


But they are not fully informed.

Scientific research on schedule 1 drugs is nearly impossible.

Why would you say that people are “fully informed”? When there is an enormous gap in our scientific understanding of most of these chemicals due to their illegalization?

@Christian re “should still be no regulation of any kind?”

There should be regulations to protect people from harm caused by the actions of other prople. There should be no regulations to protect people from what they choose to do with their own body without harming other people.

Those Drugs should fall under especially strict regulations against false advertising by the seller, as should all nonprescription drugs.
Only if the long term effects are unknown, or significant, then one could morally require that the buyer brings proof of being well informed. Which currently works in the form of a prescription, but I would prefer some sort of license to freely self-medicate that you can apply for.

I think this article focuses on the “rights” and immediate cost/benefit aspects at the expense of wider ethical issues.

Miah wrote “There are many things we do presently that require little effort, but which can have similar enhancing effects – such as sleeping well, drinking coffee every morning, or eating oily fish. We don’t worry about whether these tactics compromise some sense of our own authenticity, so why should drugs be any different?”

Miah is way too facile in his overeager desire to waive objections and make the ethical issues seem as simple as coffee and fish oil.  And how does he reckon that “sleeping well” belongs on that same list?

Of course, it is hard to disagree that “there are also practical reasons for why we would want to improve our cognitive ability on a day to day basis.”  What I am suspicious of is the hype and over-promising around smart drugs. I invoke here Freud’s humanist dictum that people have two fundamental needs: love and work (and just to be clear, Freud was not referring to work as in “a job” but rather work as one’s “life’s work”, eudaemonia, an abiding pursuit, a vision plus the effort and freedom to fulfill it).

It is worth exploring whether the neuropharm approach may have an adverse effect on the effort and engagement that are very often necessary components of work.  While it could be argued that certain smart drugs will induce the single-minded focus and tenacity needed to achieve long-term mastery, such arguments really begin to look like “magic bullet”-style special pleading. Accounting for the contributions of personal engagement and repeated effort cannot be dodged so easily.

Neuropharm enhancements could even make love somewhat suspect. As an example: am I, the neuropharm user, genuinely loved and capable of loving, or am I only counted as lovable or loving because I take a particular drug that engenders particular behaviors, which are desired or demanded by others?

Lee Smolin in the concluding chapter of his book The Trouble with Physics writes about his concern for the nurturing of the next generation of physicists, particularly to steer them away from academic conformity and make them more capable of asking novel but relevant questions in physics.  Smolin quotes Einstein: “It’s not that I’m so smart. It’s just that I stay with problems longer.”  Einstein’s example of extracting a solution through patient praxis may be jeopardized by the neurocosmetology solution: in the dash after short-term “cognitive alertness” one may wind up discounting the patient praxis and stubborn effort that may have led to many of our most profound discoveries.

I also see in neuropharmaceuticals a potential biteback effect wherein users become less creative as they become more reliant on the drug – rather than bestowing instant brilliance and innovative thinking, it could induce conformity as users and prescribers become satisfied with mere social validation and conventional occupational success. Instead of becoming smarter, one could wind up becoming a tool.

As people turn to neuropharm for speed learning, it is worthwhile to ask whether the learning tendency of the brain itself may be altered for the worse. An example can be seen in habitual coffee drinkers who not only have trouble achieving a fully alert state in the morning and throughout the day, but also have trouble with basic nervous system functions such as regularly moving their bowels unless they have had a dose of the dark brown decoction.  As one gains capacity through exogenous chemistry, one loses capacity in endogenous chemistry.

In his book, Smolin envisions the practitioners of science as forming “both an ethical and imaginative community.” He also praises the “craft” element of science and cautions against the human tendency to delusion and error.  The question then is: will smart drugs help to instill a craft ethic in its users and liberate them from error, or will smart drugs create something like an army of Pod People on Prozac whose chemistry has been re-engineered to make them alert but complacent, non-complaining productivity machines?

Education could even make love somewhat suspect. As an example: am I, the literate person, genuinely loved and capable of loving, or am I only counted as lovable or loving because I have had a particular education that engenders particular behaviors, which are desired or demanded by others?

@Giulio Prisco:

Education is divergent and continuous;  in any given life the paths of one’s education may sinuously meander, split, and refine itself over time.  Taking a drug is convergent and episodic; the user passively doses him/herself according to a schedule, or PRN, and then a domino-like effect takes place within the user’s metabolism (this, admittedly, at the molecular level will be very complex, but this reaction has nothing to do with the user’s cognition). 

Unlike education, in order to work the dose needs to be titrated, packaged, administered and metabolized with readily quantified readouts.  While learners may get grades as readouts in a formal educational system, only a hack would equate the entirety of a person’s education with grades and schooling.  Whereas education proceeds from a mind and is meaningless without it, the dose does not need a mind at all—in terms of dosage, the mind is merely a dumb terminal that manifests certain neural effects.

So the substitution of education for neuropharm enhancement in your parody above is ben trovato si non e vero.

@rascheR duB - so you don’t take pills when you have a headache or a toothache, don’t wash your teeth (kind of unnatural, isn’t it), and don’t drink a beer to be in a better mood?

This is perfectly fine, as all personal choices that do not harm others are. What is not fine, is imposing your choices on others. Feel free to choose whether to drink beer or not, and leave others free to make the same choice.

I treat drugs, of any sort, the same I way I treat enzymes. They are a catalyst.

As (I think) rascheR duB is pointing out, the drug in and of itself does not make one “smarter”, it is what one does with it’s catalyzing effects.

As an illustrative example, one could take LSD and curl up into a ball of nervous fits and paranoid delusions.

One could also take LSD and study fractal animations.

One could take a smart drug in a room full of dumb people.

Or one could take a smart drug in the company of intelligent seekers.

Set and setting make all the difference, and I believe that smart drugs will be the same.

In an information starved environment, smart drugs won’t help anyone much.

In an information rich environment, they could help a lot.

Drugs can facilitate learning aptitude, but the cannot supply the curriculum.

However, the title of this article starts with “People should be free…”

So, naturally, the conversation revolves around legality and autonomy, not the potential uses of some drugs or any drugs.

Autonomy is inviolable.

@Giulio Prisco:

I disagree that any critique that examines possible negative externalities on the neuropharm issue is the same as imposing choices on others.  This is a site about ethics after all, and the contributors and commenters at IEET are in the preliminary stages of a long conversation; we are not taking a binding referendum on the future.  And let me point out that a site that purports to be about ethics (which is to say, an inquiry into the consequences of actions), is bound to generate questions about potential goods and harms.  I am sorry if this frustrates you.

Also, I disagree with your rhetorical question about neuropharm enhancements and the washing of teeth.  You evidently are not a man to make distinctions . . . that is, of course, your business.

My bottom line: I value critical thinking, not simplistic boosterism.

Not imposing my will upon you in any way whatsoever,

rascheR duB


You are correct about the title, the subject and Miah’s central thesis.  I would claim that Miah did not delve deep enough and stayed within the too-safe confines of thumbs up or down about smart drugs. I’ll only add here that Miah’s question and answer are premature without first having made an attempt to lay out the particulars of the issue (benefits vs. unintended consequences; efficacy vs. adverse effects).


Ampakines tend to only increase verbal memory and other language related skills. There’s little data they do anything in terms of enhancing other types of intelligence like critical thinking or kinesthetic learning. Also, most ampakines (ie. the racetam series) aren’t currently regulated but a lot of research and development of these compounds is funded by DARPA, so it’s likely the really powerful developments will be classified.

@rascheR duB - my bottomline is even simpler: If what a person chooses to do does not harm others, others must not interfere. This is ethics.

Where as from a psychological stand point having Ritalin or a smart drug should be used in everyone. Did you know that Alcohol has the same effect as Ritalin except its temporary and it causes addiction?

I believe this should be available as a dietary supplement to ppl over 21. That’s the end of the story; This would increase efficiency in everybody. Why not? Lets stimulate the economy this way, by providing something that works and gives confidence in the end user to make right decision based on smart thinking, which is stimulated.

If there a smart drug, That would help me become more intelligent and help my me memory or increase my ability to make sense of complex ideas, I need it so I could learn?

Smart Drugs are ritalin adderol and so on. But finding out which is the safest out of them is the hard part. Its usually the side afects and the addiction that caves the persons lifestyle in.

Taking it however in segment and controlled usage can really help anyone. Why not give it to the people how want it the most? People who need it the most? What is the trouble of having a smart society of people?

Its interesting now that i think about it. So many kids get the treatment from parents for add, but that is only a side guess you truly never know who has it or not. Only the person can tell you that. Know I can see this to as an unfair advantage in school over other kids. If you’re able to analize things faster than anybody else? How is that fair?

Maybe my best friend in 2nd grade was able to finish all the multiplication charts faster than me with the only reason of him taking a smart drug? It should be available to everyone and not based on the fact that people who have insurance are only the ppl who can get it.

I may not have said thing the right way here, but you get my point hopefully.


LSD should be mandatory

I kid, I kid

Wait, no I don’t

No wait, I kid i kid


I live for drugs, I live for drugs, I am the white rabbit

I am not totally crazy about drugs. I have heard some people say good things about them. Mostly I see those people end up with a ruined life though.

What about people who naturally process faster?  Thinking about it, while it may give them a computational edge, it may not make them more successful.  Success is not necessarily a product of processing capability and speed. 

Frequently the inhibitors for speed in computation are the same inhibitors that help regulate socially apropriate behaviors.  How many of you haveither seen someone all mentally amped up commit massive social Faux Pas or have personally had that experience????

Smart drugs may help with intellectual challenges but don’t necessarily make “success” easier.

Daniel I agree with that, But could it be maybe someday that some drugs will help us live longer make us smarter better memory The right mix of berry and or other plants. Could be a drug with benefit who know not me? But I do know my memory is not as good as some people and that seem to make them smarter.

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