Ep. 27: Dr. Martha Farah — Can Manipulating the Brain Make You Smarter?

Many people are looking for ways to gain a mental edge—students, artists, professionals, or just anyone trying to get through their day. My guest this week is psychologist Dr. Martha Farah, who has thought a lot about ways to enhance our cognitive ability. Martha is a brain scientist and pioneer in the field of neuroethics, which as the name suggests, explores the ethical issues in neuroscience.

Martha and I explored some of the main ethical questions in the field of cognitive enhancement, such as the responsible marketing of products intended to increase your mental capacity, the potential dangers of drugs and devices that might provide a cognitive edge, and a possible “arms race” (or brain race) that would require people to use cognitive enhancement products or fail to keep up. We also discussed:

  • What cognitive enhancement is
  • How to boost brain performance naturally
  • How stimulants like methylphenidate (Ritalin) affect the brain
  • Whether stimulants enhance the cognitive ability of an otherwise healthy brain
  • Non-medical use of stimulants by high school and college students
  • Whether stimulants actually make the average person’s brain work better
  • Effects of stimulants on motivation and confidence
  • The prevalence of non-prescribed stimulant use on college campuses
  • Potential downsides of non-prescribed stimulant use
  • Caffeine as a cognitive enhancer
  • How caffeine works
  • The powerful addictive effect of nicotine
  • Using the acetylcholinesterase inhibitors like Aricept (prescribed for Alzheimer’s Disease) as cognitive enhancers
  • The wakefulness-promoting drug Modafinil (Provigil) as a potential cognitive enhancer
  • Direct brain stimulation
  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation
  • The problem of basing conclusions on a few studies with small sample sizes
  • Transcranial direct current stimulation
  • Whether cognitive training programs like Lumosity actually work
  • The brain protective effect of meditation, especially as we age
  • Whether the “Mozart effect” in babies is real

Martha mentioned an article by sociologist Scott Vrecko called “Just How Cognitive Is ‘Cognitive Enhancement'”; this link will take you to the full text for the article, which is pretty fascinating.

Here are links to other studies that Martha and I discussed:

Does Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation Improve Healthy Working Memory?

The Unknowns of Cognitive Enhancement

Prescription Stimulants’ Effects on Healthy Inhibitory Control, Working Memory, and Episodic Memory: A Meta-Analysis

Martha J. Farah, PhD, is the Walter H. Annenberg Professor in Natural Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed her BS at MIT and her PhD at Harvard, as well as postdoctoral work at MIT and the Boston University School of Medicine. She quickly rose to the rank of full professor at Carnegie Mellon University before joining the faculty at the Penn.

Martha has received numerous honors throughout her career, including a Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution to Psychology from the American Psychological Association, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a William James Fellow award for lifetime achievement from the Association for Psychological Science, and the Society for Neuroscience’s Science Educator Award. Martha is a fellow of the Cognitive Science Society, the Society of Experimental Psychologists, the Association for Psychological Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Hastings Center for Bioethics.

You can learn more about Martha and her work at her Penn website.

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