Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Support NHPR's local journalism that brings clarity, context, and community!

Is Being Smarter Just A Drug, Chip Or Gene Away?

There’s an old myth that humans only use 10 percent of their brains. While that’s been proven to be an old wives’ tale, what is true, according to scientists, is that human beings can better harness their brain power.

Researchers are already looking at a number of technologies they think will make people smarter, starting with drugs and moving all the way to chips implanted in our brains – chips that would have constant access to the Internet, and maybe to each other, as well.

Other research focuses on genetics, such as creating individualized drugs based on our genes, or tinkering with genes in utero to implant so-called smart genes into embryos. Of course, much of this could take decades or longer to develop.

Science writer Maria Konnikova looks at the future of the brain in her Atlantic article “Hacking the Brain.” She discusses her findings and her personal attempt at brain stimulation, with Here & Now’s Robin Young.

Interview Highlights: Maria Konnikova

On the possibility of brain chip technology

“This is something that a team at Oxford University is looking at. They have this dream that everyone will be always connected to the Internet, and potentially even to each other. So you can take it a step further, and what if your chip were connected to someone else’s chip, and you could kind of get a collective brain power. And on the one hand, you can see why someone would want a chip in their brain. It’s like instant memory, instant Internet, you have all of this information at your disposal. On the other hand, it’s the same as with all these technologies. If we’re having privacy concerns about the NSA checking on our phones and our emails, imagine what happens when we now have brain chips in our head, and the government, medical institutions, whoever it is, has access to that data.”

“You can see why someone would want a chip in their brain. It’s like instant memory, instant Internet, you have all of this information at your disposal.”

The future of gene manipulation

“There’s now for the first time a technology that’s being developed at Harvard and MIT that can take one single gene and change it before someone is even born, at least in theory that’s what we can do. And people are thinking, ‘Oh, well why can’t we just do this to create super people? Why can’t I have a designer baby?’ And it I think that is a long way off, because intelligence is incredibly complicated, and there’s no such thing a smart gene. There’s lots of genes that interact with each other, and they have a different function at different points in our development, so that’s a very distant possibility. But we’re going to have to figure out a lot more before we can do that.”

The ethics of brain enhancement

“It’s a question of health, because we don’t actually know what will happen to us in the long term if we do manage to rev our brains up. Our brains have been enhanced over millennia. And so what if they’re already running as they should be? And if we make them try to run more efficiently, faster, become better at something, what is the long-term effect? Are we going to die sooner? Are we going to get dementia sooner? All of these health questions, we haven’t answered those yet.”


  • Maria Konnikova, author and contributor at The New Yorker. She tweets @mkonnikova.
  • Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

    You make NHPR possible.

    NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

    Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.