Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Normalization of Enhancement: Recap of September’s The Future Now: NEEDs

By Nathan Ahlgrim

As I sit down to write this post, I have just consumed my first Nerv shot. It actually tastes quite nice, the penetrating citrus sensation gone in a couple gulps. The taste, however, is secondary; it’s marketed as “Liquid Zen.” At September’s The Future Now: Neuroscience and Emerging Ethical Dillemas Series (NEEDs), Dr. Michael Jiang presented his motivation for co-founding and developing Nerv. His presentation began just how his company did, with a simple question: “Who here drinks coffee?”

A One-Sided Market

Nerv is a consumer-oriented supplement designed to “manage occasional anxiety and stress, allowing you to focus and be your best self.” In designing this product, Dr. Jiang hopes to counterbalance the mind-boggling array of consumer stimulants, and in the process, normalize the place for relaxants in society. The first part will be easy – be it coffee, soda, nicotine products, or energy drinks, consumers are inundated by stimulants. Not only do they exist in every grocery store and gas station, but they are normal. No one bats an eye at a coffee habit until someone’s daily consumption reaches double digits. In contrast to the shelves of ‘uppers,’ where are the ‘downers?’ Dr. Jiang’s audience gave the few examples they could think of: chamomile, alcohol, antihistamines, CBD oil. As we discovered, the list didn’t get very long before we reached pharmaceutical and controlled substance territory. There was Dr. Jiang’s inspiration: we have plenty of products designed to amp us up, but none to wind us down. He, along with co-founders Holly Ash and Graeme Warring, developed Nerv to do just that.
Lax regulation has prompted the U.S. Military
to warn its members about the potentially
harmful side effects of dietary supplements.
Image courtesy of the Malmstrom Air Force Base.

At its heart, Nerv is a neurotechnology. Even though it is packaged in a two-ounce bottle and is available at a store near you, it merits the same consideration that any other neurotechnology does. It belongs to a class of supplements called nootropics, also known as cognitive enhancers or smart drugs. Like the rest of the supplement industry, nootropics are notorious for unregulated products, unsubstantiated health claims, and marketing that convinces people to forgo standard treatment with disastrous consequences. To break into this market, Dr. Jiang and Nerv must navigate those possible uses and abuses as well.

Normalization:

In the context of calming supplements like Nerv, Dr. Jiang believes normalization is the key to appropriate and beneficial use. Normalization is a tricky effect to engineer, and a fascinating one to observe. As Dr. Jiang said, normalizing a supplement, drug, or behavior typically corresponds with a cultural shift. One of the most recent shifts comes from stimulants as performance enhancers. Within my lifetime, stimulants like Ritalin have transitioned from a source of shame that no parent would willingly give their children to a hot commodity in schools and the workplace. People now talk about their supplier of Ritalin with the same terminology as they talk about their supplier of marijuana; although both products are illicit (at least in some jurisdictions), they are firmly rooted in our culture.

Taking Ritalin as the primary example clearly has its baggage. Proponents of stimulants now have to contend with accusations of overmedicalizing children and normalizing drug use. Yet the children with ADHD symptoms who used to be ostracized and outcast are now raised alongside children considered to be “typically developing.” Whether the modern strategy is a net positive or net negative is often determined by personal ideology.

Criticisms of Dr. Jiang’s solution to the problem of over-stimulation are obvious. By introducing Nerv, he is proposing to solve one chemical dependence with another chemical dependence. That could be worse than a band-aid fix, because in this case the band-aid could be a wound in and of itself. Our world seems primed for these problem-as-a-solution strategies, like the smartphone apps designed to cure you of your smartphone addiction. With Nerv, the major concern is that people with serious anxiety or stress-related problems will take a swig to tamp down larger, chronic problems. Coffee and energy drinks are susceptible to the same criticism. Although they are designed to pick you up when you are acutely tired, people misuse them to the point of generating sporadic reports about of energy drink overdoses and permanently altered sleep schedules. Who’s to say Nerv won’t just be the other side of a destructive coin?

Image courtesy of Pixabay.
Dr. Jiang says Nerv will never be marketed as a fix for chronic problems, and normalizing his product will actually prevent some chronic stressors from taking control. Once you can say, “I’m feeling anxious today, I’m going to take a Nerv” the same way you’d say, “I’m really tired today, I’m going to grab a coffee,” the experience of anxiety and stress is normalized. We all feel stress, but the stigma behind it still stops people from acknowledging their experiences. Refusing to face problems head-on is a recipe for seriously flawed self-medication. Normalizing stress and anxiety makes those experiences manageable because they’re not a disease if they’re something you can react to with a citrus-flavored drink. Most importantly, acute stressors cannot compound into unmanageable chronic problems when they are managed as they arise.

Problematic Expectation:

Consider the possibility of Dr. Jiang’s vision becoming reality: a Nerv store across the street from a Starbucks, to meet the equal and opposite need the coffee chain caters to. In this ideal vision, anxiety is not a taboo topic, and conversations among friends regularly acknowledge life’s stresses. Nerv is a quick and ready barrier against unexpected or unmanageable anxieties in the moment. Are there dangers even in this ideal scenario?

Normalization opens the uncomfortable possibility of creating a new and higher standard. Being tired is no longer an acceptable excuse now that energy drinks are so available. Similar pressures to push natural limits exist in sports and the workplace. With cognitive enhancers gaining traction, a growing minority argue that abstaining from these products is unethical when other’s lives are at stake.

The target, it seems, is balance between acceptance and expectation. Nerv itself is an ambassador for balance between stimulation and relaxation. The product itself cannot directly dictate how and if that balance will happen, but that does not excuse Dr. Jiang and his colleagues from addressing the larger consequences of their product. Nerv, like all neurotechnologies, exists in society. No neurotechnology can restrict its effects on society to the effects of its active ingredient. Luckily, as Dr. Jiang’s seminar proves, he is acutely aware of the wider implications of introducing Nerv into the marketplace. In the same way that he hopes to improve the problems of anxiety and stress by normalizing the conversations around them, he is bolstering his ethical argument by initiating conversations with consumers from the outset.

Nerv may not be mindfulness in a bottle,
but it did something to me.
Image courtesy of Pixabay.
What Nerv Has to Offer:

Even with the best of intentions, is it right to develop neurotechnologies, pharmaceuticals, or other products to fix problems that are inherently social or cultural? It may not be pretty, but it is not wrong. Integrating relaxants, stimulants, or anything in between into the wider culture facilitates more direct solutions to the root problems of anxiety and overwork. Normalizing the consumption of these products normalizes the existence of these problems, which is the first step towards fixing the problems themselves.

Of course, I have yet to answer what is perhaps the most pertinent question: how am I feeling? Did Nerv make me chill, find my Zen, and let me gracefully focus on writing? I do feel surprisingly at ease, for all my skepticism. I honestly cannot seem to muster up the gumption to stress out. I would never call Nerv mindfulness in a bottle (although I’m sure others will), but that is the closest experience I can compare it to. The chatty group in the corner, the loud chewer next to me – they’re all still here, but they fail to stress me. I feel nice. I feel in control. And yes, I am fully aware of the placebo effect and how it could easily be driving my subjective experience. But hey, most of the sugar rush is a placebo effect, too. Regardless of its scientific veracity, Nerv fills a gap in the market. Offering relaxants to an over-stimulated population does more than create a new problem, it offers balance. More importantly, it normalizes the need for relaxation, it normalizes the value of calm. We’ve prized busy schedules, little sleep, and constant stress for long enough; it’s time to try something new.

Recommended Readings:

Below is a list of sources provided by Nerv for those of you interested in the scientific data behind their product.

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 Nathan Ahlgrim is a fifth year Ph.D. candidate in the Neuroscience Program at Emory. In his research, he studies how different brain regions interact to make certain memories stronger than others. He strengthens his own brain power by hiking through the north Georgia mountains and reading highly technical science...fiction.






Want to cite this post?

Ahlgrim, N. (2018).  Normalization of Enhancement:  Recap of September’s The Future Now: NEEDs. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2018/10/normalization-of-enhancement-recap-of.html

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