Walter Glannon, a Canadian philosopher, tells the story of a man who underwent Deep Brain Stimulation as a treatment for anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
The procedure involves implanting electrodes in the brain and regulating the frequency of electrical impulses. It’s a bit like regulating the heart with a pacemaker.
The patient reported less anxiety. In fact, he felt happy. But he wanted more. If a “normal” or “average” sense of happiness could be achieved by therapy, why not go for something better?
The man got an increased dose of stimulation and decided that it was just too good. He asked that the therapy be dialed back.
If you get the sense there is a larger issue behind this story, you’re right. We live in the age of cognitive enhancement. We human beings have the capacity to improve our cognitive abilities through the use of drugs, implants and prostheses.
Glannon is one of the better-known thinkers on this topic. He has two doctoral degrees, from Yale and Johns Hopkins, and his books have been published by Oxford.
He’s coming to Galveston on Wednesday to give a free public lecture as part of the Robert and Russell Moody Lecture at Moody Gardens.
This is a topic all of us are going to have to think about because it’s already a social phenomenon. Many students with normal cognitive functions take drugs designed to treat attention deficit disorder. These students don’t need the drugs for therapeutic reasons. Like the patient in Glannon’s story, they want better.
Is taking drugs in the hope of better test scores safe?
Is it fair? When athletes use performance-enhancing drugs to gain a competitive advantage, we punish them for cheating. How do we feel about students who use drugs to write a better exam?
Already, some drugs have second lives far from their prescribed uses. Propranolol was designed to treat irregular heart rhythms and high blood pressure. But it has a second life among people who suffer from stage fright. It allows business executives and professors at major conferences to give better presentations. It allows concert musicians to play fearlessly.
But a few people have suggested that the drug has still other effects: less fear of traffic when crossing the street, for example. On balance, is this use of a drug as a cognitive enhancer a good thing?
Debate about cognitive enhancement is coming. Should mentally competent people be free to choose cognitive enhancement for themselves? Should their insurance premiums go up because of the increased risks?
The debate about public policy is coming, and it would help if all of us brought our clearest thinking to the challenge.
If you need a good introduction to the subject, the lecture would be a good place to start.