Have you seen Limitless? It’s good; I highly recommend it.
In Limitless, there’s this drug called NZT-48, which, if you’re Bradley Cooper, it unknots your scraggly hair and turns your eyes startlingly blue, like someone like Bradley Cooper with really blue eyes, startled. No, seriously, it focuses your mind like a triple-shot Italian dark-roast with a side of meth less the shakes, and allows you to know exactly what to say to that gorgeous out-of-your-league neighbour if you’re Bradley Cooper and haven’t showered in two weeks– I mean, to write that book you’ve been sitting on for ten years in one night and see patterns in business and politics: the business of politics and the politics of business, whoa.
Well, supposedly NZT-48 is based on some real-life nootropics: drugs or supplements that enhance cognitive function. You may have heard of the effects of Ritalin or Aderall when used by ‘healthy’ individuals, or perhaps modafinil, the use of which is reportedly on the increase. On top of that, these days there are swarths of supplements on the market accompanied by more swarths of insane reviews and testimonials that are, expectedly, mostly just paid advertising. My favourite is Addium, because I like the name.
But regardless of the potential efficacy of currently available nootropics, all of this does raise an interesting issue, because one day, and soon, a real ‘Limitless’ pill, a pharmacologically efficacious and safe equivalent of Bradley Cooper– I mean, NZT-48 will exist, and then certain questions will need to be answered, or at least juggled.
Questions like: What do you do if fellow students start taking nootropics and their grades improve and they leave you behind like the intellectual equivalent of a doped-up track star (or that friend who hit puberty a year before you) and now it looks like you won’t get the grades you need to get into the course you want and become rich and successful?(1)
One solution is, of course, you start taking them too. If you’re going to chew gum in class, you have to bring enough for everybody. But what if it’s not you, but your child that’s falling behind in school? Would you let them take it? Would you make them take it?After all, it’s for their own good. Or maybe it would be better to ban nootropics in school (and other educational institutions), just like with performance enhancing drugs in sport, maintain the so-called level playing field(2) (that fairytale meadow unfortunately still full of all those friends bigger and stronger than you, puberty or no). This would, of course, involve massive oversight, testing, litigation, etc., certain to carve a substantial chunk out of education time (easily made up for if we just gave everyone some brain meds).
And what about after school? If nootropics can help improve performance in school, why shouldn’t they help at work too? You started taking them to compete with fellow students and maybe get that job you desperately want, then suddenly it’s a contractual requirement of your job, to ensure your best performance at all times. Wait, is that… fascist? What if you’re job is helping people? There would be a strong argument that doctors should be made to take a drug that allows them to think faster, concentrate better, make less mistakes and, ultimately, save more lives. After all, that’s why we make them go through seven years of med school, make them wash their hands with soap. And it’s not just doctors. What about long-haul truck drivers or commercial airline pilots? What about those scientists, decades on, still working on a cure for cancer? What if nootropics allowed police officers to assess situations more clearly and quickly, to remain calm and resolve conflicts without resort to violence?(3)
Once you start down that road, there really aren’t (m)any jobs that don’t favour competence, where you don’t have a responsibility to others to perform your duties well. Would you then be lax if you weren’t on nootropics? Would you be negligent if something went wrong? And why should negligence be restricted to work hours at all? If there’s a drug that helps people concentrate, why wouldn’t you be at fault if you’re driving and cause an accident because you weren’t ‘high’?
In a world where reliance on nootropics has lost its stigma, and perhaps even gained in prestige, what reason would there be not to take it?
Many will see it as simply being the best humans we can be. We already value learning; education remains one of the most important endeavours in human life and unabashedly directed at improving our mind. What’s the difference between a drug that allows us to reach 100% of our potential, and studying hard? Is it just the work? Of course, you could argue that if everyone is on nootropics then it’ll still be the ones who work the hardest or are more naturally gifted who become more successful, and we’d be right back where we started.(4) Except we won’t be, because with everyone at their best society as a whole will get more done and better, and why wouldn’t we want that?
On the other hand, some may oppose nootropics as taking the ‘human’ out of being human. If what we want is to eliminate human error, we may as well just replace everyone with robots. Of course that’s exactly what is happening anyway, with advances in factory automation, self-driving cars and, ultimately, AI. Soon the only thing machines won’t be able to do is doing things poorly and complain.(5) This reminds me of a story about aliens who come to Earth and, witnessing our seemingly irredeemable struggle with the failings of our basic humanity, resolve to secretly help us to ‘perfection’. Seeing us always running late, they tweak our brains so we can be on time; seeing us procrastinate, they boost our motivation; seeing us afraid, they take away that fear, etc., until finally we are nothing more than living, breathing automatons.
Doesn’t it suck that the one thing that makes us human is that we suck? Maybe not. Because in the end, that may be the only thing that saves us from this future of constant and compulsory achievement: our laziness. In Limitless, the comedown was devastating. Knowing that he could be Bradley Cooper, he had to be Bradley Cooper. But for the rest of us, maybe we would rather not. In the nootropic-fueled world of tomorrow, maybe it won’t even be enough, or even possible, to just stop taking the drugs. Maybe what we’ll need then is something to counter the nootropics, something to bring us down, something called, perhaps, Subtractium™?
(1) What we should really be doing is fighting–and not just in footnotes–society’s preconceptions of worth, and teach people that wealth should not be the only, or even main, indicator of success. Besides, as everyone knows, if you really want to be rich, the answer is not good grades but YouTube.
(2) A part of me has always wondered what the human body can do if you just gave it the keys to the drug store. How fast could we run? How much could we lift? Similarly, what are the limits of our brainpower? How smart could we be? Or would we just end up a giant amorphous blob like at the end of every anime movie ever made?
(3) There is a more sinister side to nootropics. Did you expect any different? Just because nootropics can make you smart doesn’t mean they will make you good. Helping people is likely to be only half the story, and the smaller half, at that. Imagine nootropics in the hands of criminals, conmen, cult leaders and terrorists. Just as terrifying, imagine them in the hands of the rich and powerful, of corporations and presidents. In such a world, how can any of us defend ourselves, be it from being duped in the street or being oppressed by government, without making nootropics a permanent fixture of our own lives? And so it would seem inevitable that restricting access to nootropics will become the central battle to maintaining the current social order.
(4) This is not unlike the educational arms race where you used to be exceptional if you finished school or went to university, but then more and more people got undergraduate degrees and you needed a Master’s to find a job, and soon no one will even be able to get an interview unless they have a doctorate or post-doctorate.
(5) Originally, I also included ‘learning’ and ‘having fun’ as things machines won’t be able to do for us, until I realised that ‘learning’ probably will be done by machines, uploading knowledge into our brains ‘Matrix’-style (except they won’t even need to, since machines will be taking care of everything for us by then anyway). And as for ‘having fun’, it will be just like the olden days when it was the court jesters who were in charge of the monarchs ‘having fun’, with machines (in the form of computers, etc.) being the jesters of our future.
[Ed.: This article was not written under the influence of nootropics. If it had been, it would have been better, and finished sooner.]