Will we all voluntarily drug ourselves to be smarter in the future?

We hear a lot in the modern world about Artificial Intelligence – but what exactly is ‘intelligence’, and what counts as ‘artificial’? What happens when we use technology to enhance the intelligence of humans, as opposed to machines? In this article Dr Keno Juchems explores the implications of some of these questions.

How can we make ourselves smarter in 50 years’ time? When psychologists talk about a question like this, they usually refer to this as “cognitive enhancement”. You can broadly think of this as improving one’s abilities (not necessarily just intelligence) using “external” means. When you hear this, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Many people will likely think that we can improve our thinking using certain drugs, much like a professional athlete may increase performance using (illicit) chemical substances. Or, perhaps, in the good tradition of many science fiction movies, you think of brain implants, which we can use to simply “upload” knowledge; for example, we could instantly learn how to speak any language without having to spend hundreds of hours practicing.

You might call this the Quick and Easy way. We simply take an artificial substance or device and are instantly the wiser. But what is perhaps less apparent is the fact that we already use cognitive enhancement all the time in a more Slow and Lasting way. For example, changes in general nutrition and health over the last seven or eight decades has led to an increase in general intelligence across most developed nations. This is known as the “Flynn effect” and you can read more about it in the links below.  Similarly, the way in which we teach has changed drastically, moving away from lecture-style teaching to styles that encourage direct participation.

Projecting ourselves into the future, which of these two ways will bring the greatest benefit? Will we all take pills to function properly at work and in school? Or will we have our own AI assistant that is best able to teach us a new skill? As you can probably imagine, researchers and private companies are actively working on all of these aspects. But who currently has an edge?

To find out, researchers use a technique called “meta-analysis”, in which they analyse the results of a great number of studies to find if there is a consistent effect across all of them. Looking at a number of drugs, the effects are clear: several substances, including coffee, but also those used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, have a clear effect on concentration. However, many of these substances are medically controlled, because they can have serious side effects and our knowledge about their function in non-clinical populations is still limited. Nevertheless, it is estimated that anywhere between 7% and 25% of students in colleges use controlled drugs to cope with exams without prescription. In this sense, the Quick and Easy way is already a reality.

The Slow and Lasting way, however, is more difficult to measure, in part because it is almost impossible to experimentally manipulate. But if we think of something a bit easier to measure, like how good your memory is, then there are several companies that are active in this area. This is commonly termed “Brain Training”. Recent studies have shown that there is little reason to believe that these training apps work as advertised. While they probably improve your performance on the exact game that is used in the app, there is little to no evidence that they “transfer” to other settings. In other words, you might get really good at remembering random sequences of letters, but you will likely not remember material for your exams any better. Despite this lack of practical solution at this time, many researchers believe cognitive enhancers that work as “trainers” to improve learning have the potential to profoundly change the way we learn and work.

No matter who wins – the Quick and Easy or the Slow and Lasting – the prospect of these future enhancement opportunities will raise thorny questions about fairness. What if rich people can buy their way to looking more intelligent? What if everyone uses (and is allowed to use) a certain drug during exams, but you happen to be allergic to it?

But there is also a more general problem here. Most of the measures we use in psychology are comparative in nature. That is, for most tests of intelligence, memory, etc., all we can say is that someone is better than others in the same group of people. For example, intelligence test results are corrected for age (the same score will give you a different IQ when you are 16 than when you are 60), and they are regularly updated to adjust for the “Flynn effect”. Without this, the average intelligence would have slowly drifted from 100 to 115 and we would have difficulty comparing a test taken now to one taken fifty years ago. But what good is this measure at all if anyone can, for a short time, boost their intelligence? Where do we draw the line to this cognitive “doping”? Most of us would probably drink some coffee before an important test, but why is caffeine allowed and not other substances with bigger effects?

From today’s perspective, cognitive enhancement is at a very early stage. But we can already clearly see massive challenges to the way we test, compare, and learn in the future, and psychology and the wider society will need to address these challenges very soon.

Dr Keno Juchems is a Junior Research Fellow in Psychology at St John’s College, Oxford


  1. What do you think might be one of the causes behind rising IQ scores? Are there any ways you could test your hypothesis either in a lab experiment or through data analysis?
  2. Imagine for a moment that cognitive enhancers were widely available and safe to use. What rules and regulations would you set for their use during exams? Should everyone be given free access? Or should they be highly restricted as is the case in doping in sports? How would you justify your view?
  3. If you had to design your ideal app-based “Brain Training”, what would it do? What ability would you improve and how would it help you achieve this improvement?

Further Reading

Have we been doing cognitive enhancement for thousands of years?

How well do commercial Brain Trainings work these days?

Making sense of rising IQ scores:


Is exercise a cognitive enhancer?

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