Yesterday I attended an interesting talk by Dr. Martin Dresler from the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, who came to Oxford (at the seminar organized by the Oxford Martin School) to speak on the topic “Behavioral Neuroenhancement: Brain Training and Mnemonics”. His talk covered a wide range of procedures we can use to enhance capacities like perception, attention, creativity, memory (the capacity on which Dresler focused most of his presentation) and even intelligence (which apparently can be enhanced through practice on certain working memory tasks). The techniques mentioned by Dresler included computer training, sleep, and meditation.
The main part of Dresler’s talk was devoted to memory enhancement through behavioral techniques. He presented empirical data showing that sleep plays a key role in the consolidation of memories, but added that we don’t know the details of how sleep benefits memory (even though we once thought we knew). He mentioned the role of the “testing effect” in improving future performance on memory tasks: the very process of testing, if intensive enough, improves the retention of information by the subjects being tested. But the key point I will take away from Dresler’s talk is that behavioral methods of memory enhancement achieve much more spectacular results than psychopharmaceuticals, even though the latter figure more prominently in the Bioethics literature on the enhancement debate. Dresler gave as an example the world record for the number of digits memorised when spoken at 1 per second: 240. (The untrained usually cannot memorize much more than 7 digits for such a task!) The mnemonic techniques Dresler mentioned, such as the well-known method of loci, all fundamentally involve the translation of abstract material like numbers into items that are easier to remember, such as images and words. I would just have liked to hear a bit more about the extent to which these techniques can enhance long-term vs. short-term recall.
Dresler concluded by asking us to consider whether behavioral methods of neuroenhancement should be regarded as raising the same problems as the more commonly discussed pharmacological means, especially given that they seem to be much more effective. It is sometimes objected to the use of pharmaceutical enhancers that they constitute “shortcuts to excellence” and that they are a form of cheating. The first charge clearly does not apply to the use of behavioral techniques, which require a sustained effort on the part of the agent to produce their benefits. The worry about cheating, on the other hand, seems more relevant in the case of behavioral methods than in that of pharmaceuticals, given the former’s superior effectiveness (at least today). But this worry only arises in the presence of a system of regulations (e.g. in relation to examinations) that forbids the use of such methods. Typically there is no such system in place, and even if there were one, the worry could be removed by simply changing the regulations (as would seem advisable given the potential benefits at stake). Finally, concerns about fairness arise about both sorts of procedures, yet they seem less acute in the case of behavioral techniques, given that these only require access to appropriate information at little to no cost, followed by appropriate practice – while pharmaceutical enhancers would require regular purchases and might thus be less accessible to the worse-off.
Professor Julian Savulescu, who acted as Dresler’s respondent, asked him whether those behavioral techniques could be of benefit to people beyond the narrow scope of “memory championships”, and if they could for instance be used within the educational system to improve children’s learning. He also asked whether such means had any known side effects, one of the main sources of worry with pharmaceutical enhancers. Dresler replied that the so-called ‘memory athletes’ who used those techniques did report finding them beneficial in their everyday life, for instance allowing them to learn a language more easily. He added that they had no known side effects, though he also mentioned that little research had been so far on those techniques. His presentation thus left me with the impression that a quasi-miracle memory enhancer is already available to us in the form of those behavioral methods: they have spectacular results, much more so than psychoactive drugs, and contrary to such drugs, no known side effects. Some pharmaceutical memory enhancers have been observed to involve certain trade-offs, e.g. improving long-term retention to the detriment of working memory. By contrast, the effect of behavioral techniques appears, as far as we can tell, to be a pure benefit! For those interested in learning more about those techniques, Dresler recommends the book Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer.