19 March 2005

Progress in neuroscience may soon make possible an age of neurocosmetology: the use of drugs to let people affect the way their brains work, so as to make them more effective, more attractive, and more like their "cognitive ideal."  A world where all the women are beautiful and all the men handsome might be bearable if boring. But would a society full of type-A's work at all?  Can it be rational to choose to change in ways that may change who you are?  Should there be moral or legal prohibitions against healthy people messing with their own brain chemistry?

Our Roving Philosophical Reporter, Amy Standen, asked, "Is neurocosmetology a word?  The only two entries for it on Google are from Philosophy Talk."

Well, that suggests a topic for another day, when does something become a word?  We'd have to ask Geoff Nunberg for his opinion.

I first heard this particular candidate for wordhood used by tomorrow's guest, Sam Barondes, at conference last Fall on neuroscience, bioethics and personal identity sponsored by Johns Hopkins' Pheobe Berman Bioethics Institute. Philosophers and neuroscientists talked about a few case studies which involved Alzheimer's patients, steroid addiction, frontotemporal dementia, and severe apathy, and the questions the diminished rationality such cases involved raised problems about personal identity. 

Barondes a UCSF neurogeneticist and the author of Molecules and Medical IllnessMood Genes, and Better than Prozac, was a panelist with lot of interesting things to say.  In the free-wheeling discussion at the end, he and Michael Gazzaniga, another panelist, talked about the coming possibilities of neurocosmetology. Gazzaniga, as I remember, was worried that there was sort of a wisdom of nature, that had led to such things as the distribution of type-A and type-B personalities across populations.  What if everyone wanted to be a type-A?  What would a world with all type-A's be like? Cosmetic surgery is now pretty commonplace.  Maybe someday men my age will be without wrinkles.  Wierd, but no great threat to the
functioning of society, I suppose. But a world with only type-A's? Somewhat frightening.  Barondes, as I remember, was a bit more sanguine.  It seemed to me a topic that had some interesting
philosophical angles.  Here are some that come to mind:

  • Some philosophers make a distinction between first-order freedom, which means being able to base your action on your own desires, and higher-order freedom, which means actually having responsibility for the desires that motivate you. But of course these choices would themselves be based on desires about what sort of desires one wants to have.  Is neurocosmetology then basically an extension of human freedom, giving us the ability to choose not just what to do, but what kind of person to be?
  • Our ordinary repertoire for dealing with each other involves such concepts as character traits and personality. We tend to assume that once one has reached adulthood, if not before, certain personality and character traits have become deep-seated.  We use these to form our expectations about what others will do.  We don't trust dishonest people.  We don't want absent minded careless people to be airline pilots. The way we treat such personality and character traits is not unlike the way we treat traits of appearance.  We don't rule out change, but we expect it to be gradual, except as a result of physical or emotional trauma. Will neurocosmetology undermine these expectations, and the ways we deal with one another, and perhaps our very concept of a person?
  • Would it be such a bad thing if our very concept of a person was undermined?  Derek Parfit argues some years ago that our ordinary conception of personal identity locks us into a sort of dangerous fiction.  Better to think of people as processes various temporally close parts of which can be expected to have similar desires, goals, beliefs, and consciousnesses linked by memory, but longer stretches of which may
    be as unlike one another as stetches drawn from completely separate lives.
  • Lots of things we do when we are young lock us into things we may not want when we are old: tatoos, debts, professions, educational opportunities taken and not taken. Neurocosmetology may radically increase such opportunities for the young to screw up the lives of the old --- or, by careful choices, to improve them.  Is there any new principle involved when one is choosing the basic parameters of one's personality?
  • Employers now sometimes feel the need to make sure that people don't use certain sorts of drugs.  Will there be pressure for people to avail themselves of neurocosmetology.  Will "big-league" executive take the neurocosmetological equivalents of steroids, so they can be super type-A's. 

These are some of the issues we may be to tomorrow, or we may not. You may have a more interesting angle.  Call or email.  We don't usually get to all the calls, or read all of the emails, for lack of
time.  But we appreciate them all.

Comments (8)

Guest's picture


Sunday, March 20, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

In your show on happiness with Prof. Solomon his t

In your show on happiness with Prof. Solomon his thought experiment involved a device which gave the continuous sensation of pleasure and the conviction that all you desires where being satisfied. It seems that with the latest developments in:
-Neuro-surgical implants (
-Neuro-stimulating implants
-Targeted drug delivery implants
-Genetic therapy
that this may be achieved in our lifetime and that it will all be built right into us without having to get into some cumbersome device. We will still get to experience reality though unless we are already brains in vats.

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Friday, July 4, 2008 -- 5:00 PM

I just found your site. I am intrigued by this dis

I just found your site. I am intrigued by this discussion about neurocosmetology as I have had a learning difficulty my entire life. The problem is with reading and retaining the information. I do not remember what is read and have great difficulty reading for pleasure and maintaining focus on study and reading is an ordeal if not impossible. One time when I experimented with cannabis for 'fun' I found that I was much more able to retain information that I read and focus on reading. This led me to believe that there might be some chemical reason for my inability to focus when reading and retain information (comprehension). Because of this dilemma my entire life (I am now 47) I became a graphic designer/visual communicator.
I am on a quest to find out if there are prescription medicines available that are known to help with concentration and comprehension. I feel this is a 'normal' request and don't feel it is 'cheating' - it is like a basic right that others's not like I expect some great intelligence from it, I simply want to be able to read, enjoy what I read, retain information, and hopefully impart the information. An example is when I taught graphic design I had to ALWAYS re-read and re-write notes and rely on notes to teach because I can not retain what has been read before.
Any thoughts? My doctor scratches his head and doesn't offer any clues...says I do not have ADD (which I wondered about) or wonder if there is some neurological problem underlying this delimma of mine.
Any new developments in this area???

throughoutimmature's picture


Tuesday, March 5, 2024 -- 12:17 AM

Once, when I used cannabis

Once, when I used cannabis for recreational purposes, I saw an improvement in my ability to remember knowledge and focus on reading. This made me suspect that there may be a basketball stars chemical explanation for my difficulty in concentrating when reading and remembering information (comprehension).

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cirevo8452's picture


Tuesday, March 12, 2024 -- 4:55 AM


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Tuesday, April 9, 2024 -- 4:02 AM

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orabelle's picture


Friday, May 10, 2024 -- 12:24 AM

Our aesthetics are not always

Our aesthetics are not always good io games

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bekean23's picture


Monday, June 3, 2024 -- 12:22 AM

Should there be restrictions

Should there be restrictions on the use of neurocosmetic drugs by healthy individuals? There is a need for regulations to prevent misuse and protect individuals from potential wordle harms. These regulations would have to balance personal autonomy with societal welfare.

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