It’s Thursday night of finals week, spring quarter. Tomorrow night you have a math final and the evening after that you have physics — neither of which you’ve started studying for, thanks to the stubbornly low throughput of your heap allocator (which is due at midnight tonight with your last late day). To make matters worse, you’ve depleted your stash of English breakfast tea, since Arrillaga predictably ran out of sachets this morning. After a moment’s deliberation, you open up your bottom desk drawer, where you keep your only partially legal last line of defense: an electrode-studded “thinking cap” that will improve your focus for the next few hours and boost your numerical cognition enough to teach you differential equations tomorrow before the exam.
This scenario could be reality for incoming freshmen within the next decade with the help of a technique called transcranial electrical stimulation (TES). In TES, a series of electrodes fitted to the scalp apply a small battery-driven current to the brain. At a basic level, the current changes the voltage across the membrane of the neurons to make them more excitable. The result is that the brain responds more strongly to stimuli, so tasks like learning are enhanced. In one study, a few bouts of TES during learning helped children with developmental dyscalculia — dyslexia for math — and improved their numerical cognition for up to six months.
TES doesn’t have to be restricted to those with learning disorders. It could theoretically be used as a cognitive enhancer, much the same way that drugs like modafinil and Ritalin — intended to treat ADHD — are used by healthy college students to improve attention span.
But should it be used? Returning to the opening scenario, is it cheating to use a cognitive enhancer if you are naturally unimpaired (whatever that may mean)?
Some scientists argue that, given the societal benefits of enhanced cognitive performance, the concept of cheating is irrelevant as long as everyone has equal access to technologies like TES. In this view, using TES is morally equivalent to sleeping enough and eating well: You are taking advantage of available resources to be healthy and productive; you are not passing off another person’s work as your own and your performance still requires self-discipline and dedication.
In practice, access to TES cannot be easily guaranteed for the entire population, and it may even widen the performance gap if intelligent individuals benefit more from its use.
The issue is most concerning because it relates directly to our concept of human worth. In targeting capabilities to enhance, we implicitly assign them value. Focusing on enhancing specific qualities such as mathematical prowess may devalue other qualities like emotional intelligence that are perceived as less marketable or productive.
Herein lies the danger: Do we understand enough about the way people think, how different skills are used, and how society as a whole is shaped by individuals to be able to discriminate between useful and useless skills?
On one level, we don’t, as evidenced by the continuing debate on the value of a liberal arts education in an increasingly technologically focused society. Yet on another level, we know very well which skills are useful and which useless.
The heart of the matter is the distinction between two types of skills: abilities and traits. Abilities are tied to pursuits: mathematical ability, artistic ability, linguistic ability. Traits enable pursuits: dedication, determination, responsibility. Traits are expressed as behaviors, such as work habits, and at least some of the neural connections governing them are learned. (That’s why the more you procrastinate, the harder it gets to stop procrastinating.)
If we use TES for cognitive enhancement, then we need to consciously target traits, not abilities. Rather than changing what individuals are good at, we would make individuals better equipped to do what they do. That way, we could maintain a population with diverse abilities to draw on in times of crisis, when no one can predict exactly what fields of expertise will contribute to the solution.
Which isn’t to say that individuals should not be well rounded; everyone should have a certain level of proficiency across the board. But if we’re going to tap human cognitive performance with commercial technology, we should value the skills that will allow people to excel — the skills they can transfer across fields.
There is a nontrivial chance that using TES to target traits will convert commendable skills like endurance and focus into commodities, or reclassify normal human cognitive function as a disease. It’s certainly odd to think that today’s brightest could be tomorrow’s handicapped if brain-stimulating technologies redefine what it means to be intelligent. Ideally we could minimize this risk as long as we see TES as augmenting proficiencies rather than compensating for deficiencies.
No regulations currently exist in the U.S. or EU regarding brain stimulation techniques. Any standards that are put in place will provide precedents for future regulation of human-enhancing technologies. Policy, however, is not equivalent to culture, and political lobbying and social rallying — while important — are not the only ways to instigate change. With regard to cognitive enhancers, the aggregate effect of individual uses will determine what skills we value and what role TES plays in enhancing them.
So think hard before you put on your thinking cap. It’ll be worth knowing that what you do — and how you do it — reflects what you believe in.
Contact Mindy Perkins at mindylp ‘at’ Stanford.edu.