If there were a pill that made you smarter without studying, stronger without exercising, and happier without trying, would you take it?
That's the premise of the 2011 movie, Limitless, in which actor Bradley Cooper plays a struggling writer who is offered a drug that promises him access to the full capacities of his brain.
Soon enough Cooper's character has finished writing his book, acquired a wide range of new of skills, and is on his way to becoming one of the richest and most powerful people in the country.
The fictitious scenario is farfetched, but the idea of using drugs for self-enhancement is completely grounded in reality — and it's possible you're participating in self-enhancement without even knowing it.
When thinking about LSD, your mind probably conjures up images of the Beatles or untethered hallucinations.
But there are also people — some of them prestigious jobs with high stakes — who are using LSD to boost their performance at work. Microdosing involves taking small doses of LSD — far less than you would use to have a full on hallucinatory trip — in order to boost productivity and focus.
PJ Vogt, host of the hit podcast Reply All, and show producer Phia Bennin decided to put microdosing to the test, all while hiding their social experiment from their colleagues to see whether anyone would notice.
The tales of the paranoia, accidental 'macrodosing,' and the very mixed results that ensued are all documented in a hilarious Reply All episode that you can listen to here.
Of course, regular LSD doses, however small, may not be everyone's cup of tea.
But there's also a legal, relatively safe drug that has been proven to make athletes perform better. It can also make you more alert and focused, and there's a pretty good chance some of it is already in your system right now.
If you haven't guessed yet — it's caffeine.
Caffeine was a tremendous stimulant to exercise endurance and performance. - Terry Graham, professor emeritus at the University of Guelph
Terry Graham, professor emeritus at the University of Guelph, spent years studying the effects of caffeine. After Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was disqualified for doping at the 1988 Olympic games in Seoul, Graham asked for funding to study whether caffeine affects athletic performance — with the hypothesis that its positive effects would be inconsequential.
"I was absolutely, 100 per cent wrong," he said. "Caffeine was a tremendous stimulant to exercise endurance and performance."
The boost provided by caffeine occurs within the muscle itself. Muscles are made up of motor units — groups of muscle cells that contract all at once. When caffeine is present, each of those units produces a little more tension than usual, making the entire muscle contraction stronger.
"Many of the substances that athletes can use to promote a better performance only act within a certain window, it could be strength, sprinting, or a prolonged activity. But caffeine seems to be able to influence all of these types of activities, so it's quite universal," he explained.
If tiny doses of LSD, and big doses of coffee don't appeal to you as means of self-enhancement, there's always transhumanism — a broad movement that aims to overcome our human limitations.
People involved with transhumanism believe that humans can be improved through things like smart drugs and gene editing. The three major strands are superintelligence, superlongevity, and superhappiness.
As explained by David Pearce, a philosopher and prominent figure in the transhumanist movement, this re-alignment of the basic human conditions hinges on something called the hedonistic imperative.
"If suffering were a recipe for mobility of character perhaps there would be some kind of case for obtaining it, but typically prolonged suffering tends to embitter. - David Pearce
"Each of us has this approximate hedonic set point, some people are very, by today's standards, fortunate. They're pretty cheerful and they vacillate with a relatively high hedonic set point. Other people are more depressive and gloomy, and seem to fluctuate around gradients of ill-being."
"Nature didn't intend us to be happy, at least permanently happy, And we're just starting to decipher the particular genes and alleles associated with having either a high or low hedonic set point. I would very much hope that every future civilization would be based on everyone enjoying a high hedonic set point."
If you're trying to figure out your hedonic set point, Pearce says to imagine a time in your life where you were happier than usual — then imagine if you could feel that way all the time.
"If suffering were a recipe for nobility of character perhaps there would be some kind of case for obtaining it, but ... typically prolonged suffering tends to embitter. So we can argue what it actually means to be human. If we abolish suffering, would it have taken away our essential humanity?"
"Nature is exceptionally miserly with pleasure, an I see the challenge ahead is delivering an extremely rich quality of life for everyone, but doing so in ways that don't compromise social responsibility or intellectual progress."
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