Many people are seeking to enhance their cognitive abilities through a variety of methods. Here's a quick survey of some of those methods.

Better Learning Through Chemistry? Current Efforts to Expand Human Horizons

Optimized Selves, one of the major drivers of change explored in our most recent comprehensive ten-year forecast, The Future of Learning: Education in the Era of Partners in Code, explored trends and developments around increasing the performance of our bodies and minds. We defined that driver as follows:

Scientists are unlocking new insights into our brains, emotions, and biological systems even as wearable devices, sensors, and complex computation tools are enabling people to understand themselves in new ways. In tracking and analyzing behaviors such as sleep, exercise, nutrition, work, and social interactions and in using cognitive and affective tools to optimize performance and overcome biological limitations, we will deepen our self-knowledge and expand possibilities for human accomplishment and purpose. What follows is an expansion of individual and collective human identity, with broader awareness of how we construct and manage our digital, gendered, emotive, and biological selves. Expanding human horizons will usher in the potential for greater focus on individual development in education.

While the Optimized Selves driver of change explored the implications that an expansion of human horizons could have over the next decade, there are many people who are today seeking to enhance their cognitive abilities through a variety of methods. A quick survey of some of those methods includes:

  • Nootropics: Also known as “smart drugs” or cognitive enhancers, nootropics are supplements that claim to improve cognitive function. We first explored the implications of nootropics in our 2020 Forecast, and it seems as if the wave of interest in nootropics seems to have died down in recent years. However, Onnit’s Alpha Brain is still quite popular and was the subject of two double-blind placebo tests from the Boston Center for Memory in which it showed solid efficacy.[i] The prescription drug Modafinil is also a leading nootropic that has been shown to increase cognitive function.[ii] It should be noted that the long-term effects of these drugs are unknown and that they should only be used under the supervision of a physician.
  • Coffee: Coffee, or more specifically the caffeine in coffee, is considered a brain stimulant, helping to enhance overall mental function and improve attention.[iii] In recent years “bullet proof coffee,” also referred to as butter coffee, has also been shown to be effective. Bullet proof coffee is coffee that has had a fat source added it,, specifically those derived from medium chain triglyceride (MCT) oil (). The MCT oil helps with the caffeine delivery in the body and has also been shown to boost cognitive function.[iv]
  • Diet: Beyond the brain boost that a cup of coffee provides, diet can make a difference in cognitive function. Over the past few years, there has been research showing the link between the flora inside our bodies, known as the microbiome, and our overall health. The microbiome has been shown to affect neuroplasticity, cognitive function, and behavior.[v] Diet is a great way to help cultivate a healthy microbiome, giving new meaning to the phrase, “You are what you eat.”
  • Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation: Transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS) is a method where a small electric current is applied to the head, stimulating the brain to give a boost in cognitive performance, with the  strength and duration of the boost varying depending on the frequency that a person engages in TDCS and the desired effect of the treatment.[vi] The military is very interested in TDCS,[vii] and companies such as Thync offer the benefits of TDCS through consumer-level products.[viii]
  • Mindfulness: The practice of mindfulness has enjoyed a resurgence as of late, due in part to its widespread embrace by Silicon Valley executives. Mindfulness mediation has been shown to improve cognition and regulate emotion. Mindfulness has also been seeing an uptake by schools in recent years, with educators seeing improvements in student performance, engagement, emotional regulation, and compassion.[ix]

While the prospect of using these or other methods to enhance our intellect and ability to learn may feel exciting, it is important to remember that the science around the positives and the negatives of cognitive enhancement is still emerging. Beyond safety concerns, educators will have to decide whether cognitive enhancement might be a boon for learners, potentially helping them to learn at accelerated rates, and whether some of these methods for boosting mental performance might be considered performance-enhancing drugs that constitute cheating. Lastly, the equity considerations are profound. Might methods to enhance cognitive abilities widen achievement gaps due to access to substances such as nootropics? Are we already seeing an achievement gap in part due to differential access to healthy foods?

Efforts to expand human horizons and optimize performance will not stop. Education stakeholders should have an awareness of what methods learners have access to and what the implications of cognitive enhancement might be for learning.

Read more about Optimized Selves and the other drivers of change explored in our most recent comprehensive ten-year forecast, "The Future of Learning: Education in the Era of Partners in Code."Read more about Optimized Selves and the other drivers of change explored in our most recent comprehensive ten-year forecast, “The Future of Learning: Education in the Era of Partners in Code.”

Sources:

[i] Clinical Studies | Onnit. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.onnit.com/clinical-studies/

[ii] Urban, K. R., & Gao, W.-J. (2014). Performance enhancement at the cost of potential brain plasticity: neural ramifications of nootropic drugs in the healthy developing brain. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience8, 38. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnsys.2014.00038

[iii] Caffeine and a healthy diet may boost memory, thinking skills; alcohol’s effect uncertain – Harvard Health Blog – Harvard Health Publications. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/caffeine-healthy-diet-may-boost-memory-thinking-skills-alcohols-effect-uncertain-201406187219

[iv] Medium Chain Triglycerides | GreenMedInfo | Substance | Natural. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.greenmedinfo.com/substance/medium-chain-triglycerides

[v] Leung, K., & Thuret, S. (2015). Gut Microbiota: A Modulator of Brain Plasticity and Cognitive Function in Ageing. Healthcare3(4), 898-916. doi:10.3390/healthcare3040898

[vi] Bennabi, D., Pedron, S., Haffen, E., Monnin, J., Peterschmitt, Y., & Van Waes, V. (2014). Transcranial direct current stimulation for memory enhancement: from clinical research to animal models. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience8, 159. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnsys.2014.00159

[vii] 9-Volt Nirvana – Radiolab. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.radiolab.org/story/9-volt-nirvana/

[viii] Science. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.thync.com/science

[ix] Research on Mindfulness in Education | Mindful Schools. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.mindfulschools.org/about-mindfulness/research/

Jason Swanson

Written by: Jason Swanson

Jason Swanson is the Director of Strategic Foresight at KnowledgeWorks. He has a strong passion for studying the future and believes that studying the future is empowering.

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