Neuroenhancement – A Primer

neuroenhancement (plural neuroenhancements)

  1. Any of several techniques or systems intended to enhance the ability to think either by use of prosthetics or by use of electrical or chemical stimulation.
Neuroenhancement is quite the hot topic these days among several important and influential circles.  As you will find if you go seeking, there is no shortage of long, didactic expositions of neuroenhancement.  Instead, the goal of this article is to give a brief overview of the concept, with an eye toward practicality.
Neuroenhancement is not a new idea.  As long as humans have had access to nature’s bounty of mind-altering substances, we have experimented with ways to enjoy new and better experiences.  Archeological evidence dating back more than 10,000 years ago reveals the use of psychotropic substances, and the historical record documents cases as far back as 5,000 years ago.1  Popular culture is absolutely built upon a framework of escapism and the high of media- and substance-induced euphoria, dating back many centuries.
More recently, the widespread use of cocaine, methamphetamine, and designer drug “bath salts” (mephedrone, methylone, and naphyrone) speak to the desire of certain segments of society to perform at a higher level.  As misguided as these efforts may be, they still signal an underlying drive to change the existing “state” to a different one, ostensibly a better one, to escape the pain, drudgery, or boredom of routine life.  And because of the direct mechanism of action through modulation of the central nervous system, these substances exert what could be considered neuroenhancement.  So again, this is not a new concept.
But what is new is the emergence of truly mainstream mind-altering substances that have come through the conventional pipeline of the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry. The underlying motivation persists – that is, the desire to change the mental or cognitive state.  But when you break it down to its essence, the most fundamental difference is that these modernly designed, FDA-approved, purified pharmaceutical agents that amplify human ability are manufactured and distributed through a different, “legitimate” chain.
So where dissonance arises is within the notion that our medical system is not ready to come to terms with the idea that it has become a drug cartel.  When we look at the parallels that arise when comparing the legitimate, regulated system to the black market cartel network concept, we see:
1.  Pharma instead of illicit clandestine laboratories.
2.  Salesforce instead of dealers.
3.  Doctors instead of drug pushers.
4.  Patients instead of addicts.
5.  Hierarchy of a pharmaceutical distribution network ( instead of a drug cartel (
At some level, the cognitive dissonance that is created by the parallel in the two models leads doctors to feel uncomfortable with prescribing and thus rebel against the idea of treating a “normal” patient.  After all, if it ain’t broke…, well, why incur the liability of side effects in your patients when they really did not “need” the drug.
But this is not about “need.”  It is about “want.”  And there is quite a marketplace for neuroenhancement.  Literally, at some level, it is made up of every adult who might be so motivated as to have purchased a computer.  Indeed, Steve Jobs in 1980 made the point that his Apple computers were simply tools to amplify human ability.2  And what else is neuroenhancement, other than a process of amplifying human ability?
Many arguments have been put forth that suggest neuroenhancement is unethical.  The idea that it is a slippery slope to a Neuromancer dystopia is not to be dismissed.  But, if a foot were to be planted on that slope, it has already been done.  Indeed, there is a gaining momentum and popularity of neuroenhancement, particularly within the “Do-it-yourself” movement of self-entitled “Biohackers.”
These creative and self-caring characters are fastidious, disciplined and motivated by the underlying principle of self-improvement.  Biohackers epitomize the DIY mentality; they are not inclined to sit around waiting for their doctor to come around and finally prescribe their desired pill; they will simply buy it on the black market, through any one of the many avenues in existence.  We can argue till we’re blue in the face about whether it is right or wrong – just as we do incessantly about cannabis – but ultimately the market is setting the course, direction, and velocity of the movement.
And honestly, it’s not surprising.  Our Healthcare “system” does a bad enough job taking care of the ill, why should a healthy and fit individual expect any better for him or herself?  We may settle on the idea that abetting neuroenhancement is neither medically prohibited nor compulsory, tacitly stamping the practice with our seal of approval.  But it is unreasonable to think the the medical system’s opinion really matters, since it doesn’t seem to add much to the safety argument at this time.
Now, we can envision a more utopian version of the future wherein neuroenhancement-focused Neurological practices evolve in such a way as to not only support but actually accelerate the development of the field – with safety as the primary focus, and using knowledge of modern network distribution and sales methodology.  Coupled with business intelligence to provide insight into trends, successful strategies, and epidemic behaviors and side effects, an entirely new era of human achievement might be a very pleasant outcome of such an approach.
And when you factor in the evolving Neuroeconomy (see with the every-accelerating move into the fast part of the exponential curve of technological evolution, then it almost becomes a must to engage in neuroenhancement.  Consider that by 2020, most mainstream computing will match the processing power of the human brain.  What is going to guarantee our continued supremacy as the rightful masters of Earth, if we ourselves do not accelerate our own evolution, to keep up with technological change and avoid extinction?  Through that lens, neuroenhancement becomes a biological imperative, and anything less would result in a maladaptive species destined to rapidly go extinct.
But for now, as with any revolution, the pioneers out in front are likely to take arrows in the back, until the herd feels it is safe to follow.  Let us make the path a good one, then, so that we do not lead astray countless migrators but instead blaze a way into a brilliant and exalted future, one that we can all appreciate.
1. Merlin, M.D (2003). “Archaeological Evidence for the Tradition of Psychoactive Plant Use in the Old World”.Economic Botany 57 (3): 295–323. doi:10.1663/0013-0001(2003)057[0295:AEFTTO]2.0.CO;2.
2.  Grothaus, Michael. Seven Rare Steve Jobs Videos That Show How To “Think Different.”  7 Aug 2013. (
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