Is it time we got over the taboo against human enhancement?

Slate writer Will Oremus has put together a fairly revealing article about how easy it’s becoming to supercharge our brains, prompting him to wonder why there’s still so much push-back against the idea of technologically enhancing ourselves.

The focus of Oremus’s article is on the surprising benefits that can be gleaned from transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS). This is the technology where an electrode is attached to one side of the scalp (above the part of the brain that’s being stimulated) with the other placed on the opposite side to complete the circuit. All it takes is a milliampere or two to get noticeable results.

Is it time we got over the taboo against human enhancement?

And the results are quite remarkable. Depending on where the electrodes are attached, improvements have been chronicled in learning and working memory. It can raise a person’s threshold for pain and make their nondominant hand better. It can also facilitate language acquisition and improve numerical reasoning. Oremus points to several other cognitive benefits, and includes the remarks of a New Scientist editor who said it was “the most powerful drug I’ve ever used in my life.”

Despite his skepticism of tDCS being a “wonder tool” for cognitive enhancement, Oremus ponders the broader implications:

The fact that tDCS may pose unknown risks, that its benefits and drawbacks are not yet fully understood, that it can be dangerous in the wrong hands—none of these arguments should keep scientists from carefully exploring its potential. Having spent the better part of two months immersed in the vertiginous world of human enhancement, I’ve become convinced that societal and academic taboos against the use of technology to give healthy people extraordinary powers are, on the whole, counterproductive. College students are already popping Adderall in droves. Body hackers are implanting microchips in their bodies. Entrepreneurs are hawking tDCS kits for $99 online. Some athlete, somewhere, is probably experimenting with gene doping. The riskiness of some of these behaviors makes it tempting to simply outlaw them all and expect everyone to comply. But that’s as unrealistic as it is blinkered.

This isn’t a call to legalize everything and let God or Darwin sort ’em out. It’s a plea to lawmakers, the media, academics, and those who fund academic research to take seriously the growing availability of and demand for human-enhancement technologies. Only by acknowledging and researching their potential benefits as well as their risks can we hope to craft mature policies that promote public safety and welfare. If that means continuing to classify Adderall as a Schedule II controlled substance until we’re even more convinced that it doesn’t pose long-term health risks, so be it. But here’s where we’re going astray: One university professor who studies ADHD drugs told me he has learned that every public-health research paper “has to have a certain (cautionary) tone to it” in order to be accepted for publication. “I know what I have to write, and it has to be, basically, ‘Drugs are bad.’ ”

Maybe he’s wrong. But I’ve talked with enough academics over the past two months who flat-out refused to even discuss the potential use of various medical technologies for human enhancement—or to even have their name attached to an article that discusses them—to suspect that there’s some legitimacy to his paranoia. Too many people seem to think that humans are fine the way we are, and that the only proper use of these technologies is to restore “normal” human functions to people with disabilities.

There’s much more to this article at Slate, including lots of citations to the relevant research.

Image: Vasabii/Shutterstock; tDCS setup.