December 10, 2011

Will cognitive enhancement result in too many negative side-effects?

A new paper published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, claims that there are limits to human intelligence, and any increases in thinking ability are likely to involve trade-offs.
Drugs like Ritalin and amphetamines help people pay better attention. But they often only help people with lower baseline abilities; people who don’t have trouble paying attention in the first place can actually perform worse when they take attention-enhancing drugs. That suggests there is some kind of upper limit to how much people can or should pay attention. “This makes sense if you think about a focused task like driving,” Hills says, “where you have to pay attention, but to the right things—which may be changing all the time. If your attention is focused on a shiny billboard or changing the channel on the radio, you’re going to have problems.”

It may seem like a good thing to have a better memory, but people with excessively vivid memories have a difficult life. “Memory is a double-edged sword,” Hills says. In post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, a person can’t stop remembering some awful episode. “If something bad happens, you want to be able to forget it, to move on.”

Even increasing general intelligence can cause problems. Hills and Hertwig cite a study of Ashkenazi Jews, who have an average IQ much higher than the general European population. This is apparently because of evolutionary selection for intelligence in the last 2,000 years. But, at the same time, Ashkenazi Jews have been plagued by inherited diseases like Tay-Sachs disease that affect the nervous system. It may be that the increase in brain power has caused an increase in disease.

Given all of these tradeoffs that emerge when you make people better at thinking, Hills says, it’s unlikely that there will ever be a supermind. “If you have a specific task that requires more memory or more speed or more accuracy or whatever, then you could potentially take an enhancer that increases your capacity for that task,” he says. “But it would be wrong to think that this is going to improve your abilities all across the board.”
My thoughts on the matter:
  1. It's true that our current state of intelligence may be at a certain happy equilibrium point, but that has to be understood within the context of adaptability to our prior Paleolithic existence in which we evolved as foragers and hunters. And as the article correct asserts, human cognition is also limited on account of hard biological limits, like cranial size. Moreover, there's only so much computation that nature can do with a chunk of biological matter that's roughly the size of a grapefruit. Looking ahead to the transhuman future, and given the potential for assistive technologies (e.g. nanotechnology, brain pacemakers, artificial neurons, whole brain transfer, etc.), it's quite possible that we'll be able to radically modify the way in which the brain operates.
  2. The tradeoffs issue is a very pertinant one. It's been noted that imperfect memory may be a blessing in disguise, and that those people who have perfect recall live in a kind of virtual hell, unable to shake the constant stream of memories—including difficulties placing themselves in the present moment. Similarly, it's well document that many eccentrics and geniuses suffer from attendant psychological problems, such as OCD, paranoia, schizophrenia, and so on. We may have evolved to our current state of intelligence and no further on account of the onset of various maladaptive functional impairments. If this is the case we need to seriously look more deeply into this, especially at the dawn of bona fide cognitive enhancement. My hope (and expectation) is that we will still be able to engage in cognitive enhancement, but that we will (a) have to work to allieviate the side-effects of increased intelligence and memory, and (b) learn to accept and adapt to having alternative psychological modalities (even if those "side-effects" might looks like impairment when assessed through the neurotypical lens).


victoria.a.pierce said...

Ok, I have to do a bit more research related to this article before I can respond in depth. Let me just say that the points are well taken. However, research is also showing that when used appropriately [suppliments] (for example treating PTSD ) and under supervision there has been increasing evidence that damage to the hippocampus (memory) can actually be reversed (the hippocampus and amygdala can shrink from excess cortisol and adrenalin - oxidative stress / allostatic loading; New evidence supports plasticity instead of irreversible damage ).
It is important to note here that the best research to date has been shown when Cognitive Based Therapy (CBT) is balanced triaganolly with Meditation and micronutient/ nootropic (with the emphasis on micronutrients) supplementation.

ZarPaulus said...

The "trade-offs" stance appears to be based on some rather shaky evidence. PTSD is related to strong memories of a specific traumatic event, you'd think that someone with really good memory would be able to recall the good things just as well as the bad. And the tendency of Ashkenazi Jews towards high-skilled professions and Tay-Sachs could easily be ascribed to largely unrelated factors, namely cultural traditions in the former case and a series of genetic bottlenecks in the latter.

Unknown said...

1) Don't forget about the brain mass to body mass ratio and the Corvidae bird family in that context. Cranial capacity and intellectual capacity correlate so poorly that in fact I find it almost suspect to mention them as the journal did.

2) Correlations vs. causation in this sense. All we know is that genius ability tend to correlate with psychological problem but keep in mind they are the exception to the rule, not a product of evolution. That is like saying that a monkey who would get boosted his intellectual ability would suffer due to poor memory because his intellectual ability is currently "capped". No, it's just that the brain is a holistic system. There are interdependencies that need to all be brought to a new level to support augmentation of one.

Obviously the whole "system" needs to evolve to meet new requirements of the boost, this is something we see evolution take care of. In our case, rather - we went beyond evolution in the Western world and in my opinion are still riding the wave of - or reaping the benefits of the byproducts of higher intelligence.

I find the Ashkenazi Jews research suspect because it unclear how the smaller gene pool has effected the matter. Again a correlation vs. causation problem.