Cognitive enhancement: Human advancement, degradation or pseudo-problem?

For many years, the public debate over the ethics of so-called cognitive enhancement was dominated by somber prognoses of a Brave New World rapidly approaching, as more and more people came to use psychopharmaceuticals such as Ritalin or modafinil to improve their intellectual performance. More recently, however, better-disposed attitudes toward non-medical uses of neuroenhancers have been voiced by those in prominent positions across national contexts. In the journal Nature, a group of eminent Anglo-American scientists advocated responsible consumption by the healthy (Greely et al, 2008). In the United States, the Academy of Neurology sanctioned the prescription of cognitive-enhancing drugs to patients without diagnosed mental disorders (Larriviere, 2009). And, at about the same time, a high-ranking interdisciplinary panel of German experts called for a more liberal regulation of such non-medical applications (Galert et al, 2009).

In the Books Forum of this year's first issue of BioSocieties, pharmacopsychologist Boris Quednow (2010) dismissed the entire normative controversy over cognitive enhancement as a ‘phantom debate’, calling into question its empirical foundations. In a review of the volume Neuro-Enhancement: Ethik vor neuen Herausforderungen (2009) edited, among others, by members of the German expert panel mentioned above, Quednow contested neuroscientifically that effective cognitive enhancement was possible. He also questioned whether the use of Ritalin, modafinil and other psychotropic drugs for enhancement purposes was really on the rise.

In this issue, the Books Forum follows up on this provocation by presenting responses of BioSocieties readers to Quednow's review. Two of the editors of Neuro-Enhancement: Ethik vor neuen Herausforderungen, Bettina Schöne-Seifert and Davinia Talbot, also respond.

We are fortunate that Schöne-Seifert and Talbot also agreed to step into the role of reviewer for this Books Forum. As medical ethicists they read two books on the history of amphetamines, Nicolas Rasmussen's On Speed: The Many Lives of Amphetamine and Hans-Christian Dany's Speed: Eine Gesellschaft auf Droge, both of which they critique for giving insufficient thought to the possibility of ‘rational neuroenhancement’. We hope readers appreciate these efforts to push cognitive enhancement beyond predictable binary arguments.


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Langlitz, N. Cognitive enhancement: Human advancement, degradation or pseudo-problem?. BioSocieties 5, 476 (2010).

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