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Redefining the X and Y-Axes of Cognitive Enhancement

By Somnath Das

This post was written as part of a class assignment from students who took a neuroethics course with Dr. Rommelfanger in Paris of Summer 2016.

I am a Senior at Emory University and am currently pursuing a double major in Neuroscience and Chemistry. Currently, I am applying to medical school. My interest in healthcare lies primarily in understanding the behavioral motivations of patients as they navigate through various healthcare systems. I also wish to study how to effectively translate innovations powered by biomedical research into accurate health information for patients and optimized healthcare delivery. Neuroethics allows me to focus these interests onto patient dignity and rights when considering the role of novel therapeutics and interventions in treatment. Studying this fascinating field has given me a perspective on the role that deontological considerations play in both neuroscience and medicine as a whole. It is with this perspective that I hope to approach my patients with a balanced worldview, taking into account both individual rights as well as stakeholders and developers participating in a rapidly changing field.

Hearing from leading scholars at the Neuroethics Network was a once in a lifetime moment for me. Participating in a wide-ranging, multi-faceted discussion about frontiers in the field proved to be really engaging and fostered my development as a student. Each seminar challenged my understanding of various topics both within and beyond the field of neuroscience, and each speaker gradually enhanced my appreciation of what is a growing field.

One session that I particularly enjoyed focused on Science Fiction and Neuroethics. During the session, we viewed the movie Limitless. In the movie, Bradley Cooper takes NZT, which allows him almost unlimited cognitive abilities. He gains fame, fortune, and myriad positive and negative consequences. The movie asks us to consider both the benefits and drawbacks of cognitive enhancement; Cooper’s character eventually realizes that the drug not only enhances cognition, but this enhancement is to the detriment of his physical health. Compounded with the drug’s side effects are looming parties attempting to get their own fix, which put Cooper’s life in significant danger throughout the movie. In the end, the movie aims to balance out its own plot by blessing Cooper’s character with this drug followed by having him discover and contend with his own Achilles heel.

After the movie, the panel delved deeply into discussion about the movie’s themes, particularly what we can learn from science fiction when understanding science. The movie shows a young white male winning victories through the Western lens of success – i.e. an individualist and capitalist society’s perspective on what it means to truly win. Eventually, a member of the audience noted that the current debate on cognitive enhancement is Western-oriented, and thus provoked an intense discussion on how the movie and different societies perceive enhancement and success. One of the panelists noted that if a person from a collectivist society were to be offered cognitive enhancement, they would be concerned about whether their own social networks have access to enhancement as well. The fact that the drawbacks of NZT affected Cooper only physically could also be taken into consideration as a uniquely Western portrayal of enhancement. A movie from a collectivist society could have easily defined the drug’s side effects to include hampered ability to connect emotionally with others (or to be excluded from a group) and thus affect their ability to actively participate in society despite their newfound intelligence. Therefore, Limitless is a uniquely Western (perhaps even uniquely American) portrayal of the benefits of drugs that enhance our cognitive abilities. Yet, cognitive enhancement has the potential to affect all societies, not just our own.

Image courtesy of Flikr

Another fascinating idea that repeatedly came up during the panel focused on how cognitively enhancing drugs would shift or flatten a society’s own bell curve. Ethical considerations ranging from universal access to drugs to how these enhancers may change our definition of disability were brought up. However, throughout the discussion I gradually realized that before we begin discussing the bell curve’s distribution, we must also consider what exactly is on the y-axis; the panelists had a discussion about what exactly these drugs are helping, and one noted that cognitive enhancers strengthen already established neuronal networks that enable the user to be better at what they already knew was beneficial towards their self-gain. The movie, for example, did not discuss Cooper’s ability to predict and understand what others were thinking; yet a user’s theory of mind is part of their cognitive ability, too. Cooper’s sensory abilities and emotional intelligence were also not profoundly enhanced, but these abilities, too, are cognitive in nature. I went up and spoke to the panelist about this thought, and he told me that he felt that “cognitive” enhancement is a misnomer. These drugs do not enhance all cognition, but rather they strengthen already existing cortical networks to perform tasks that were previously learned such as typing on the computer, learning a new language, or computing a math problem. They are not creating a new person per se, they are rather bettering the old one.

Ethical considerations such as drug access for all and drug safety were repeatedly brought up during our Neuroethics debates in class as well as during the conference. However, there is a critical need to reassess our own perspective on how this debate really should be structured. Cognitive enhancement’s effects have already made deep inroads into our society [1], so a debate representing its efficacy across multiple parameters is necessary in order to safely control the regulation of this neurotechnology. Increasing globalization also means that cognitive enhancement is likely to affect societies other than our own, and thus there is a need to reframe the debate to have a global lens as well. As I learned from the Neuroethics Network, if we reframe the debate to reflect the reality of cognitive enhancement’s potential and limitations of the current technology and the multiple stakeholders affected by these neuroscientific developments, we will be more able to propose more fruitful uses of such neurotechnologies.


1. Mehlman, Maxwell J. “Cognition-Enhancing Drugs.” The Milbank Quarterly 82, no. 3 (2004): 483-506.

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Das, Somnath. (2016). Redefining the X and Y-Axes of Cognitive Enhancement. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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