Calculator on a maths textbook

Better brains?

How should we react to the potential to enhance our brain’s abilities?

New drugs are appearing that act on the brain. Initially developed to tackle medical problems, they also have the potential to be used by the healthy to enhance brain function.

A good example are ‘cognitive enhancers’. Developed to protect against memory loss in Alzheimer’s disease, they can also boost normal memory.

Some people fear we are heading towards becoming ‘super-humans’, with everyone feeling pressured to enhance themselves or their children for fear of falling behind in a competitive world. The gaps between the haves and have-nots could widen. And what does it all mean for our view of what it is to be human? We all have our flaws – are we chasing an impossible dream of perfection?

On the other hand, the whole point of learning is to expand the mind, and we think nothing of providing extra school or educational activities, or pumpimg children full of vitamins to boost their IQ. And we use drugs like caffeine all the time to boost mental performance. What is so different about pharmacological approaches, if tried and tested?

You are the parent

Read through the following two case studies and decide for yourself where you stand. You might also want to debate and discuss these topics in the classroom.

Case study 1

Your son wants a ‘cognitive detector’ chip implanted in his temple so he can interact better with his immersive virtual reality computer game.

  • Do you let him have the implant?
  • What if it aided learning as well as gaming?
  • Is there any reason to limit the use of such technologies?

Case study 2

You find packets of modafinil, a memory-enhancing drug, in your daughter’s bedroom. She says she needs them for her exams – everyone else is using them, and she’ll be at a disadvantage without them.

  • Would you allow her to take them?
  • Should people be free to use enhancing drugs or technologies?
  • What limits, if any, should be placed on their use?

Lead image:

Steven S./Flickr CC BY

Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Neuroscience, Medicine
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development