Now it appears that simple electrical devices that stimulate the brain are able to enhance human cognitive performance.
An Essay in a recent issue of Current Biology describes recent advances in “non-invasive brain stimulation” (NIBS). One approach in particular—“transcranial direct current stimulation” or TDCS—is described in detail. According to the essay, TDCS is a simple tool that is “portable, painless, inexpensive, apparently safe, and with potential longterm efficacy.” It may be used to help those suffering from impaired cognitive abilities.
More to our point, however, is that TDCS shows remarkable potential for human enhancement. Simply put, this device seems to have the power to make normal children and adults smarter than they would normally be. To quote the essay, TDCS has the potential “to enhance fundamental human capacities, such as motor and sensorimotor skills, vision, decision making and problem solving, mathematical cognition, language, memory, and attention—improvements that seem to persist without apparent cognitive side effects.”
The main point of the essay is to invite broad discussion about the neuroethics of cognitive enhancement. A good deal of attention is focused on whether TDCS or similar techniques should be used on children. The authors argue that having smarter children will benefit everyone. Their conclusion: “If it is handled judiciously, TDCS could prove to be an inexpensive and widely-deployed technology with substantial benefits to individuals and society.”
Anyone following the debate about human enhancement will see this as further evidence that in terms of the technology, “the future is here.”
Sure, there’s a lot to think about here before we rush out and strap TDCS devices on our heads. Anyone worried that mobile phones pose a health risk will probably not think this is such a good idea.
But many of us human beings value our cognitive abilities above everything else. If TDCS is a safe way to become smarter, then why not?
According to the Christian tradition, human beings are created in the image of God. One way we resemble God is through the power of intellect, which we share with the animals but which we alone exhibit to such a lofty degree that we can be compared to God. According to Gregory of Nyssa, one of the great theologians of the fourth century, “The Deity beholds and hears all things, and searches all things out." No surprise there. But then Gregory adds: "You too have the power of apprehension of things by means of sight and hearing, and the understanding that inquires into things and searches them out.”
How expected that by inquiring into all things and searching them out, we now seem to be learning how to enhance the very power of thought and discovery.
If we enhance our intelligence will we become more like God? Not quite. Intelligence may be one way we can and should resemble God, but it's not the only way. In fact, intelligence by itself can be worrisome.
Much to his credit, Julian Savulescu (a co-author in the TDCS essay) is one of very few who has urged us to pay attention to the question of “moral enhancement.” Quite simply, smarter people who are not also morally better people may turn out to be very dangerous people. So after reading the essay on how to enhance cognition, let me suggest you look at a 2008 paper by Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu, entitled "THE PERILS OF COGNITIVE ENHANCEMENT AND THE URGENT IMPERATIVE TO ENHANCE THE MORAL CHARACTER OF HUMANITY."