Contributor corner: Marek Kohn

mkohn2013BMarek Kohn writes about the implications of scientific thinking for ideas about human nature and society. His books include A Reason for Everything: Natural Selection and the English Imagination, Trust: Self-Interest and the Common Good, As We Know It: Coming to Terms with an Evolved Mind, The Race Gallery: The Return of Racial Science, and also Dope Girls: The Birth of the British Drug Underground. His most recent book, Turned Out Nice, explores how a changing climate could reshape national identities and relationships across the British Isles and Europe as a whole.

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What is your feature about?

Are 'smart' drugs really smart, and what are the prospects for smarter ones? Rather than assuming that 'smart' drugs really do enhance cognition, and heading off into a discussion of whether their use is 'cheating' or not, I wanted to find out more about the science, and what cognition actually is.

What did you learn that you didn't expect?

That we have been in the Amphetamine Age of cognitive enhancement since the 1930s, when the effects of amphetamines on mental performance were first observed, and we look like we'll be remaining in it for the foreseeable future!

I also found my storyline taking an unexpected turn: I ended up writing about fairness after all, but posing a very different question to the usual one about whether students should be allowed to use drugs as aids to study.

Experiments by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir show how worrying about money degrades cognitive test scores, severely. Drugs that enhanced concentration or attention might counter those effects, helping enable poor people to lift themselves out of poverty. In the future, ethical questions about 'smart' drug use might shift from those about elite performance to those about equality and social justice.

Read Marek's feature on Mosaic from 29 July 2014