Anjan Chatterjee is a neurologist and cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art. In answer to my questions, he shared his insights on cosmetic neurology, the potential of so-called smart drugs to harm our health and our sleep quality, and the habits that are truly good for our brains.
You've talked about "cosmetic neurology" -- what is this?
Cosmetic Neurology is the application of neurotechnologies (pharmacology, biologics, devices, etc.) to modify brain function in healthy people. Analogous to cosmetic surgery, the idea is to try to enhance the normal functioning of the brain. Most of these interventions are developed to treat disease but then get applied in non-diseased conditions or situations. Examples abound: students taking stimulants, athletes doping, anxiolytics for normal social anxieties, beta blockers for musicians.
What are the dangers of using "smart drugs"?
We often do not know the long term consequences of smart drugs. That is an obvious danger. A more subtle one is the issue of trade-offs. If we are successful in enhancing one domain, do we diminish others? For example, if we have a drug that makes us focus and concentrate better, and we take this all the time, would that have a general dampening effect on creativity? Most models of creativity propose that some down time, when the mind is not focused, is necessary to make creative links. Another danger is that if these drugs were effective (much more so than the current options) those of greater material means would have better access than those with fewer resources. It could end up being another way that exaggerates the unequal distribution of wealth -- in this case intellectual wealth.
What effects will this new "smart drug" technology have on how we sleep in the future?
Hard to know. Smart drug technology could be placed in the context of our fast paced competitive environments. In winner-take-all situations, incremental advantages can deliver disproportionate rewards. People often avail themselves of slight advantages, or even perceived advantages, in the hopes of receiving those rewards. This in my view is what drives the market for cosmetic neurology. With regard to sleep, one concern is that some drugs that have been developed to treat sleep disorders can be used to mitigate the effects of sleep deprivation -- such as lapses in concentration. One could imagine such drugs would be used to compensate for sleep deprivation. In the long run, the consequences of such use of medications in making people even more deprived of sleep than is currently the case is impossible to predict.
More generally, the best enhancing modifiers for the brain are the following -- education (not necessarily formal), adequate sleep, moderate exercise, and minimizing of chronic stress.