Brave New Brains

Brave New Brains

Scientists are discovering new ways to boost the brain's natural abilities, but ethicists are concerned.

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“The Battle for Your Brain” by Ronald
Bailey, in
Reason (Feb.
2003), Reason Foundation, 3415 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Ste. 400, Los Angeles,
Calif. 90034–6064.


If drugs were available not only to repair defective
brains but to “enhance” normal ones, would humans lose sight of
what it means to be human? Bailey, science correspondent for
class="text9">Reason, sees no cause for alarm,
so long as decisions are left to the individuals whose brains would be
upgraded.


Francis Fukuyama, author of Our
Post­human Future
(2002), has called
for close regulation of biotechnology. He would direct research toward
therapy while putting severe restrictions on cognitive enhancement:
“For us to flourish as human beings, we have to live according to our
nature, satisfying the deepest longings that we as natural beings
have.”


But personality is not an unchanging quality, Bailey
argues: “Fukuyama has a shriveled, stunted vision of human nature,
leading him and others to stand athwart neuroscientific advances that will
make it possible for more people to take fuller advantage of their
reasoning and learning capabilities.”


The common objections to the prospect of using pills to
improve mood, memory, and intelligence are unconvincing, Bailey maintains.
Instead of making people less “authentic,” drugs can make them
class="text9">more authentic, as happened
with the Prozac user who said it was “as if I had been in a drugged
state all those years [before], and now I’m clearheaded.” Nor
will neurological enhancements undermine personal responsibility or good
character, says Bailey. Aren’t people with attention deficit disorder
who take Ritalin to change their behavior acting responsibly? Even if
taking brain-enhancing drugs were made easy, there would still be plenty of
challenges in life to aid in the formation of character.


Why, Bailey asks, should it be considered better to
induce a behavior change by altering a child’s environment than by
giving the child a brain-altering drug for the same purpose? If Ritalin and
the Kaplan SAT review each “can boost SAT scores by, say, 120
points,” observes Michael Gazzaniga, a neuroscientist at Dartmouth
College, “I think it’s immaterial which way it’s
done.”


“Fukuyama and other critics,” concludes
Bailey, “have not made a strong case for why
"text9">individuals, in consultation with their
doctors, should not be allowed to take advantage of new neuroscientific
breakthroughs to enhance the functioning of their brains. And it is those
individuals that the critics will have to convince if they seriously expect
to restrict this research.”


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