Can we change who we are? For millennia we eagerly bought potions and medicines that promised to make us smarter and wiser, and for just as long we had been bitterly disappointed. Yet we kept coming back; there was something irresistible about improving ourselves without any effort.
And then the promises came true.
Today we might pity those who never had access to personality reconstruction, desire modification, and metacognitive mapping, but it's easy to forget that mind-altering substances have for a long time brought a cruder kind of relief and variety to our lives. From alcohol and caffeine to cannabis and amphetamines, we've never lacked ways to both stimulate and relax our minds.
It was much trickier, however, to create drugs that would increase elements of our intelligence, such as improved attention or linguistic abilities, without harmful side-effects. It wasn't until the teens and 20s that we had the tools to produce the first true cognitive enhancers, or 'smart drugs'. Unprecedented in history, they caused quite a stir.
I have a range of samples lined up here, provided generously by Professor Arienne Niyonshuti from the Kigali Museum of Medicine. All of them are from the first wave of consumer-grade smart drugs that hit the market in 2019. On the left here, we've got an orange pill called Mnemosyne, which improves memory formation and recall; next to it, there's a square chocolate, Tricity, that helps with language translation; a green pill, Numony, that reduces tiredness and stress; and finally on the right I have a pill of the most well-known smart drug: Ceretin, a broad-spectrum cognitive enhancer.
So, let's try one out! Here's a glass of water... and I think I'll take the Ceretin. Now, I've been told that we're not supposed to take these drugs any more since they get automatically expunged by our neural laces, which can give you a terrible headache, but I've had Professor Niyonshuti's team temporarily disable my lace's usual functions aside from recording. Professor Niyonshuti will explain exactly what's going on in my brain right now:
"We can see quite clearly that the active components of Ceretin are entering your bloodstream, crossing the blood-brain barrier, and altering the behaviour of your synaptic neurotransmitter receptors in the frontal cortex and cerebellum, the effects of which will temporarily improve your attention and analytic abilities. It takes a few minutes for the drugs to take effect, though, so we'll wait a little while before giving you the cognitive tests I've prepared."
What's extraordinary about these drugs is that their inventors actually had very little idea about how they operated. Scientists in 2019 could observe their effects and check for any harmful side-effects, and they had hypotheses about their method of action, but they would lack anything even approaching a complete model of the brain for at least another decade.
It feels like the Ceretin has taken effect, so I'm now going to perform a few old-fashioned tests to assess my memory skills, along with reasoning and attention. I won't bore you with the details, but they basically involve tasks such as predicting the next symbol in a series, and distractor tests.
...And here are the results! Across the board, my cognitive performance has increased by 14 to 20 percent compared to the tests I took beforehand. These results don't prove anything in themselves, of course — I'm just one person, and this wasn't a double-blind experiment — but I definitely feel a fair bit sharper. I can only imagine how exciting it must have felt when they were invented, having your mind improved for an entire day after taking one pill.
Ceretin, Numony, Tricity; these weren't the first smart drugs on the market — modafinil, an 'alertness' drug, was released in the 2000s — but they were the first to gain widespread popularity, particularly in China, Japan, and Singapore, where they were heavily advertised on Starcraft and ZRG casts (the US and the EU lagged behind due to safety concerns).
Smart drugs gave students an edge in the all-important university entrance exams, and they helped corporations eke out another percentage point of so-called 'productivity'. However, their high cost prompted violent protests from those who argued that they should either be made freely available or banned — with mandatory drug testing before exams. In response, one South Korean chaebol, NSK, provided Mnemosyne for all of its 30,000 employees.
Of course, it was impossible to stop smart drugs from being illegally imported from Asia and sold in Europe and the US at inflated prices. This caused further tensions in highly unequal countries like the US, where they became another symbol of the power the rich had to simply 'buy' success. In 2024, President Alexander addressed the issue head-on by legalising not just smart drugs but also recreational drugs, and allowing for the production of cheap 'generic' smart drugs just five years later.
Smart drugs had their downsides. Though it was difficult to tell at the time, researchers later discovered the benefits conferred by any given first- or second-generation smart drug often came at the long-term expense of other cognitive functions like creativity, long-term memory formation, or empathy. The drugs also contributed to the damaging 'speed-up' culture of the time, increasing the pressure on already frantic workers.
It's time to turn my lace back on now, and that means the Ceretin will be flushed out of my system within a few seconds. While that’s happening, it's fascinating to look back on how smart drugs, however crude they were, paved the way for our laces. Not long after the first generation, researchers were testing ways of combining targeted and tailored drugs with portable transcranial magnetic stimulation to truly enhance people's mental capacities and even personalities. But it all started here, with these four pills.