Re: Risk, Reward, and Human Enhancement

From: Adam Safron (
Date: Fri Jan 04 2008 - 07:24:49 MST

Here's my take coming from "main-stream" cognitive/clinical psychology
and neuroscience. In a nutshell, legal drugs–you won't be exhibiting
very much intelligence if you get arrested–can be useful for a
singulatarian when used in moderation. However, I don't think drugs
will be responsible for producing super-intelligent people that will
be capable of bringing on the singularity. We're going to need to
rely on old-fashioned science and elbow-grease for that one. Please
correct me if I get anything wrong:

Stimulants: There is a distribution of configurations for various
cognitive functions. Some people have much greater attentional
abilities than others. Some people have larger working memories than
others. At the extremes, such as in experiments comparing people
diagnosed with ADHD and non-ADHD controls, you can identify
differences in brain function/morphology in regions that you would
expect to show differences (e.g. frontal cortex). Mind you, these
brain differences cannot be used for predictive/diagnostic purposes,
but they'll give you reliable group differences in controlled
studies. ADHD-type deficiencies can largely be overcome by giving
patients drugs that increase the availability of dopamine/
norepinephrine in the frontal cortex. However, the effectiveness of
these drugs decreases over time and the effects are greatly reduced
after ~3-years. This is probably due to a combination of factors
including down-regulation of dopamine/norepinephrine receptors: in
order to maintain homeostasis, neurons tend to undergo changes that
prevent hyper/hypo-activity. I don't think many studies have been
done on the long term effects of the drugs in non-ADHD diagnosed
individuals, but among the studies that have been done, stimulants
increase performance on IQ/cognitive tests. However, it seems like a
bad idea to become reliant on stimulant drugs for two reasons: 1)
eventually the effectiveness will fade as your brain down-regulates
receptors; then you're just stuck with the negative side-effects like
increased heart-rate; 2) you become dependent on neural networks that
are dependent upon a certain level of the drug for optimal
functioning; if you go off of the drug, you are likely to experience
some degree of impairment. Thus, while stimulant drugs may be useful
on a short-term basis, they are not a viable solution for long term
intelligence enhancement.

Depressants: Some drugs tend to decrease cognitive function and are
used in order to create the pleasant effect of relaxation. Moderate
use of these has not shown reliable differences in tests of cognitive
functions when tested on longer time-scales. With Cannabis–which
isn't quite a depressant–there are some short term effects in terms of
reduced performance. In terms of positive performance, these drugs
may help to facilitate creativity by reducing inhibitions. They can
act as mental laxatives. Depressants may also be valuable in treating
episodes of acute stress. Chronically elevated stress levels tend to
lead to memory impairments and overall poor health. If your health
goes to crap, it becomes more difficult to display intelligence.
Unfortunately, we also seem to develop adaptations to depressants over
time, such that a given dose is no longer sufficient for inducing
relaxation. So you can get dependence and then you have all of the
nasty side-effects with reduced treatment effects.

Psychedelics: These drugs tend to act on the serotonin system in
whacky ways. When using these drugs, individuals may make disparate
associations that they would have usually dismissed. The majority of
these associations are going to be spurious, but occasionally one may
strike gold. Most likely, the gold will not be a solution to a
technical problem but some sort of personal realization. Hence you
hear about a lot of famous artists using drugs, but not as many
scientists. Among scientists who do use drugs, there is no evidence
that the drugs contributed to their creativity. They may have been
intellectually adventurous and that's why they explored drugs in the
first place. Considering the low hit-rate, you'd probably get greater
insights from reading books during the time you'd spend high.

Exercise/Yoga/Meditation: Through mental training, it may be possible
to achieve many of the desired effects of drugs, but in more
sustainable ways. This is still an emerging science, but some of the
initial results look promising. Most forms of meditation seem to be
good for stress relief. While less certain, meditation may be capable
of increasing cognitive control and attention. Interesting results by
Sarah Lazar have shown that long term meditators have increased
cortical thickness in frontal cortical regions associated with
attention. Further evidence may bear out behavioral differences in
age-related cognitive decline. There is already good evidence that
regular exercise has neuroprotective effects. Best of all, meditation
is easy on the liver (unlike drugs).

Conclusion: Drugs will not bring on the singularity. Intelligence
relies on building up mental structures that allow you to find
patterns in the world. Non-stimulant drugs tend to decrease the
efficiency of this process, hence they are likely to make you less
intelligent than you would be if you studied. While stimulant drugs
may help with learning, they do not constitute a long-term solution.
Our brain did not evolve to be hackable and it certainly isn't
hackable using such crude interventions (i.e. hijacking the brain's
neuromodulatory systems). If you're stressed or having trouble
concentrating, you should probably take up exercise/yoga/meditation.


On Jan 4, 2008, at 8:23 AM, Stathis Papaioannou wrote:

> On 04/01/2008, Robin Gane-McCalla <> wrote:
>> Does anybody think that psychedelics might be the drug that acts
>> randomly upon intelligence, either increasing it or decreasing it?
>> Some people go crazy and others have great insights.
> I know it is sometimes claimed that psychedelics provide artistic
> inspiration, but I am not aware of any claims that they have brought
> about significant scientific insights. I'd be happy to be contradicted
> if anyone knows of any trippy science stories.
> --
> Stathis Papaioannou

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