|March 23, 2011|
Can a Pill Make You Limitless? The Ethics of Cognitive Enhancement
While the new film Limitless is a familiar Hollywood treatment, it also shines a light on important and unaddressed neuroethics challenges
“I was blind, but now I see.”
Eddie Morra (played by Bradley Cooper) is a typical struggling writer: unemployed, behind on his book and his girlfriend just moved out. He just can’t seem to muster up enough oomph to turn things around. All this changes when Eddie’s drug-dealing brother-in-law gives him a dose of a new smart pill, “NZT-48.” The drug offers powerful abilities: perfect memory recall, flawless decision-making skills, charisma, and the ability to be 10 steps ahead of everyone else. These powers, coupled with a newfound drive for success, allow Eddie to finish his book in four days, learn several languages, and develop algorithms that predict the stock market. One scene even has Eddie fighting off a group of men with karate moves he recalls from a Bruce Lee film he watched as a child. A seductive scenario indeed, one that might have viewers in the audience asking themselves, “Could such a drug really exist?” And if so, would it be possible to unlock the full potential of the human brain, whatever that might be?
Maybe. There are many types of pharmacological cognitive enhancers already on the market, as well as substances—caffeine and nicotine being among the most common. In other words, humans have used enhancers for millennia. The drugs most similar to NZT, however, belong to two categories: ones that target executive function (amphetamine salts such as Adderall or Ritalin), and ones that target memory consolidation and recall (Modafinil). Neither class is as effective as the fictional NZT, but the drugs have gained a reputation for enhancing alertness, arousal and memory among those who don’t have a clinical need for them.
These effects have resonated strongly with college students, especially in the United States, who often do not use the drug for its intended medical purpose—to treat ADHD—but to gain an edge on exam prep. At present, these drugs probably won’t replace a good work ethic. But it is not unreasonable, and perhaps even expected, that drugs similar to the potential of NZT will be available in the near future.
Say we ignore, for now, that a drug like NZT isn’t out there yet. Limitless creates a world where audiences can imagine what a world with a powerful enhancer would affect a healthy person, and if that’s something we would want. The film, although hyperbolic at times, does raise important questions that demand meaningful discussion: What are the safety concerns related to using new pharmacological substances? Do cognitive enhancers change the traditional conception of what it means to be human? Is it wrong to be able to achieve success without any hard work?
“When it finally stopped, I couldn’t account for the last 18 hours of my life.”
The most paramount concern is safety. In other words, should we give people access to a highly addictive drug with potentially dangerous side effects for which they have no medically diagnosed need. “Do no harm” is often cited as a guiding principle for the medical profession, and it seems unlikely doctors would prescribe a drug that had severe negative side effects. But this would not stop drugs from being sold on the street. The film does address safety concerns, showing what can happen when experimenting with unproven drugs. NZT has severe side effects that range from short-term amnesia to possible death. It is also highly addictive, forcing Eddie to increase his dosage to get the same effect. A drug with such side effects could cause widespread harm in society, as it does in the film.
“I would do anything I could do to get my hands on that little clear pill that would bring back ‘enhanced’ Eddie.”
Another concern is what ethicists refer to as “coercion.” Once individuals start using such a drug, they might find it difficult to do anything without it. Meanwhile, those around the users who have thus far abstained may find it hard to keep up—so they feel pressured to take the drug, too. The film depicts an underground world thirsty to acquire NZT at all costs. Eddie is stalked by gangsters and businessmen alike, and barely manages to keep his stash safe. A drug as powerful as NZT could have a domino effect in society, forcing those who wish to perform on par with their “enhanced” peers to take extreme measures.
“You have not earned those powers … you haven’t had to climb up all the greasy rungs.”
Is it wrong to gain overnight what takes many people years to achieve? Is it cheating? The film’s depiction of Eddie is a sympathetic one. He is able to ultimately remain on top without having to bother with old-fashioned sweat equity. Although a drug like NZT might cause one to question the value of hard work, society is full of examples of people effortlessly achieving success. That the film doesn’t exactly discourage an easy shortcut is one good example of how it raises a provocative point worth serious discussion.
“I’m still the same person.”
Pharmacological cognitive enhancers have the ability to permanently change the brain. The film’s conclusion forces audiences to question whether Eddie is the same person on and off the drug, and whether this irreversible state has created a super-human of sorts. A society where cognitive enhancement is widespread would certainly raise questions about whether we are extending the limits of traditional human ability. That said, many strategies we currently accept and promote—education, mind-training and even nutrition—cause permanent “enhancements” to the brain. Humans are constantly redefining the limits of their abilities. Could pharmacological enhancers be the caffeine of tomorrow?
“How many of us ever know what it is like to become the perfect version of ourselves?”
Although the film largely ignores many ethical questions regarding enhancement, its depiction of a world with legitimate cognitive enhancers is rich with thought-provoking examples. Many may find the movie’s ultimate endorsement of enhancements troubling, or even radical. But the notion is nothing new for philosophers and academics, some of whom have argued that non-therapeutic neuroenhancement can be done responsibly.
Solid arguments have been made in support of the use of cognitive enhancers among the healthy. What remains to be seen is how the public at large thinks about it. Studies show that people often fear what is not the status quo, until it becomes the status quo. Maybe enhancers will one day become as status quo as vitamins, maybe not. Regardless, bioethics should embrace—not dismiss—movies like Limitless as opportunities to discuss questions that would benefit from more public discussion.
Other recent films, including the Oscar-nominated The Kids Are All Right, Never Let Me Go, and the upcoming HBO-Harpo Productions adaptation of the bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks all bring core bioethical issues to the big screen as well. Stay tuned.
~ Ishan Dasgupta, B.A., is a research program coordinator at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. He is interested in the enhancement of human traits and the implications this has for society