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A Dose of Genius: "Smart Drugs" Are On The Rise, But Is Taking Them Wise?

I suppose it's telling that my first thought, upon reading this article, was not "Is this right?" but "Where can I get some?"

I spend most of my time feeling pretty stupid. I don't think I'm very smart at all, in fact. I make a lot of mistakes, my memory is terrible, I'm not nearly as good at logical reasoning as most of the people I work with, and I'm terrible at laying out arguments. I just have gut instinct, intuition. This intuition is usually pretty reliable, but it's hard to win an argument with "I have a feeling" when the person you're discussing something with can lay things out point by point and shoot you down. Whenever I try to focus on my intuitive reasoning and try to distill it into something I can explain to other people, my brain gets this weird fuzzy ache. Warning, CPU overtemp, initiating emergency shutdown. And it's just gone. Then, even when I do manage to come up with a good argument, it's either five minute after the discussion ended -- or if I thought of it beforehand, I forget it as soon as the discussion begins and am left floundering. So because I can't explain this stuff to other people, I lose confidence in myself and my instincts -- after all, if my thoughts and opinions are valid, I ought to be able to explain and defend them, right?

Because of this, improving things like focus, attention and memory are a huge deal to me, especially given the job I have (programming obviously requires all of these things) and the woman I'm dating (who has these things in spades, and gets rightfully frustrated when I can't keep up). I can come up with interesting ideas, but I often can't think clearly or broadly enough abou them to reason about them effectively.

Now, I'll stop discussing my personal failings for a moment, because I want to highlight something the author of the article says:

Is this what smart has come to in the early 21st century? Is Ken Jennings, the "Jeopardy" phenom, our model of smart? Do SATs and grade-point averages measure all of what it means to be intelligent? If so, these drugs have a potent future.

No, obviously, the ability to focus and remember things is not the be-all and end-all of intelligence. But they are two of the most vital instruments in our intellectual ensemble. The thing we have to remember is that what we call "intelligence" is not a discrete entity. It's a composite of a thousand different things: inspiration, confidence, memory, attention, breadth of knowledge, breadth of experience, the ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated pieces of information... the list goes on.

But the easiest things to understand, on a cognitive level, are memory and attention. We can't put inspiration or experience in a pill, but we can improve these things. And that's better than nothing.

Why consign yourself to being merely human?

The author complains that smart drugs don't improve intelligence all round, but improving one or two areas is better than nothing, isn't it? We're stuck with what we've got, when it comes to intelligence -- so I say we should do everything we can to maximize our potential. We have a duty to ourselves and our species to be the most intelligent and thoughtful people we can be. These drugs won't magically make people more intelligent, and they certainly won't make them better, happier, more empathetic and well-rounded people -- but they'll help. It's an incremental improvement.

And looking at the world, it seems to me that we need every bit of smart we can get.


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Kesper North

February 2011

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