Nootropics: The Human Brain and How to Improve It

Squishy Thinking Machines

Transhumanists are united by the view that we should use advances in technology to improve the human condition; to overcome the genetic baggage of our Darwinian origins. Natural selection got us here, but we’re going to need to thoughtfully redesign ourselves from here on out. Like recursively self-improving AI, we use the smartest minds available to us to pinpoint what improvements can best be made, and then seek to implement those changes. But progress here massively depends on the limits of our cognitive abilities.

The jump in intelligence between chimpanzees and humans is – on the universal scale – pretty minor, but it is born out in practice as the difference between chimpanzee civilization and human civilization. Imagine a step up of the same magnitude between humans and AI, or humans and our post-human descendants, and their culture will surpass ours just as we surpass chimpanzees. For us, developing as a species entails developing our intelligence.

So — how can we increase our intelligence? The traditional view is to go to classes and study hard, but we mean more than that, so answering the question needs a definition we can satisfy. A 2007 survey on definitions of intelligence presents a convergence on this one: “Intelligence measures an agent’s ability to achieve goals in a wide range of environments.” And this applies to decision-making engines of all kinds, from machine-learning algorithms to human brains. For us, understanding the mechanisms of thought allows us insights into how we can make advances in our cognitive faculties.

The Cognitive Approach to Intelligence Enhancement

Nobel prize recipient Daniel Kahneman outlined his celebrated thesis in Thinking: Fast and Slow. In summary, there are two broad systems of thought, System 1 and System 2. Instinctive responses and immediate reactions are the domain of System 1, which is emotional and agile, but ultimately pretty short-sighted. We can however reflect upon our instinctive responses by utilising System 2, which is responsible for our deliberate and conscious processing. Updates to our System 2 allow System 1 to receive new directions, resulting in an agent-wide update, whether this involves lessons learned, biases overcome, or new insights gathered. And whether explicit or not, we do this throughout our lives (though, irrational as we sometimes are, updates are not always for the better!).

Overcoming biases is another valuable process towards improved decision-making, and tribute is due to the rationality community at LessWrong (named so because, where it’s not possible to be right, you can at least be less wrong.) Transhumanists who take overcoming bias and irrationality extremely seriously may also wish to attend workshops held by the Center for Applied Rationality who turn the cutting edge of cognitive neuroscience into a set of best practices for living and thinking.

Each of these represents a way that we can turn the spotlight of our attention inwards, and shine a light on the methods by which we decide to do the things we do. But in a sense, the brain is fairly inaccessible to thought: emphasising the power of positive thinking does little for an acute depressive for whom the root cause is brain chemistry. SSRIs and other antidepressants were developed as a result of this recognition. And so it’s reasonable for the budding futurist to ask: can we improve our intelligence at the biological level?

Nootropics and the Chemistry of Thought

Under the definition of intelligence as goal-achieving capability, the answer is yes, our cognitive capabilities can indeed be biologically improved. Nootropics are a class of synthetic compounds that in healthy individuals show clinical evidence of improving cognitive functioning. That is, they have shown to provide better focus, stronger motivation and improved recall, amongst a range of other improvements. It’s not surprising that NASA provides nootropics to the International Space Station, or that some have wondered whether in exams they should be treated as “a form of cheating that should be banned.”

And beyond intelligence, nootropics allow us to — in a small but substantial regard — unshackle ourselves from the chemical commands of our genes. And the scope is extraordinary, from reduced anxiety and stress to increased social capabilities, from improved sleep quality, to better mood and higher energy. For most of history, our mental and cognitive states have largely been a result of genetic factors over which we have no control. Nootropics represent a first tentative step in taking control of our cognitive abilities and emotional states at the chemical level.

Some fellow transhumanists and I are fully convinced by the ability of nootropics to improve the world, and we’re taking it seriously. We’ve launched a store on nootropics.com in order to make them more accessible, to supply them to those with shared values, and to spread our perception of nootropics as legitimate, dependable and valuable.

But nootropics, like antidepressants, are not magical cures. Our current best treatment for depression is medication to treat the faulty biology, combined with therapy and life-improvement to treat the faulty habits. In the same way, nootropics won’t transform you into a productivity-monster, but if it’s productivity you need, then whatever motivation you have will be bolstered and boosted. If it’s concentration you need, nootropics can help block out the distracting mental background noise. Nootropics won’t make all your goals come true, but they can help you become the kind of person who can achieve them.
Finally, we must ask: what goals ought we have? And this is a question that has been debated by philosophers for ages. In a skeptical, scientific age, there are at least some reasonable answers: to be capable of discovering the truths of the world, to be more like the ideal versions of ourselves, and to be increasingly capable of steering humanity – and all conscious beings – in the direction of progress. As transhumanists, if we wish to bring our vision to fruition, we are going to need the best possible versions of ourselves to get there. Over the past 40 years, we as a species have developed the ability to improve our cognition at the neurochemical level for the first time in history. And although nootropics cannot change who we are, they represent a powerful first step.

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