Genius, at What Cost?

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The Genius Dilemma Cover

Dustin Grinnell's sci-fi thriller, The Genius Dilemma , is a cautionary tale about the use of smart drugs in a rapidly advancing world

June 6, 1944, World War II. A young soldier presses his back against the rough interior of the war boat, bracing himself as violent waves rock the small landing craft. Clutching his rifle to his chest, he scans the anxious faces of soldiers huddled around him. Neighboring his boat are hundreds more, packed with thousands of terrified soldiers ready to storm the beaches of Normandy.

The captain screams over the boat's engine, "Two minutes!" He grips the wheel that will lower the front door, a slab of metal held up by two massive chains. The soldier's mind swirls. His stomach turns from the turbulent ocean. A man next to him vomits, causing others to do the same.

The young man looks toward the beach and watches a boat's front door lower. A machine gun sprays the boat with bullets, tearing the men apart. Rows of soldiers drop to their knees, dead before they hit the floor and roll into the choppy water.

"One minute!" The soldier's teeth are chattering. He closes his eyes and tries to hold an image of his wife and child in his mind's eye. But he can't focus-the present is too overwhelming. As the captain begins his countdown, the man's friend leans over, reaches into his pocket, and opens his hand to reveal a tiny white pill. "Take it," he says, "No way we're getting through this on our own."

Bigger, Faster… Smarter

During WWII, the Defense Department distributed millions of amphetamine tablets to US Forces, including the soldiers who stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. From tank operators to F-16 pilots, soldiers on "go pills" reported greater mental sharpness, enhanced focus and faster, more effective decision-making. It was the age of the Warrior 2.0.

The focus enhancers eventually migrated out of the military and into American homes, offices and schools. Students, entrepreneurs and athletes sought amphetamines to get an edge. From the 1930s to the 1950s, everyone from writers to housewives began using the stimulant Benzedrine recreationally. Closely related to methamphetamine, "bennies" increased clarity of thought, mental quickness and motivation. Users were better, more enhanced version of themselves.

The use and abuse of such stimulants demonstrates a common desire we all have to improve, be more productive, and feel better about ourselves. When we hit the limits of our potential, when our fascination-perhaps addiction-to enhancing our human capacities cannot be met naturally, we turn to science and technology.

Could vs. Should

A recent study showed that one in five college students have taken Adderall or Ritalin for studying. Statistics show that 10% of students take Adderall regularly for such purposes, and many believe this is an underestimation. In a study by the journal Nature, the journal asked how many of its readers, which includes scientists, researchers and academics, if they had ever taken cognitive enhancers, or "smart drugs". Results showed that as many as 20% had supplemented with cognitive-enhancing drugs.

In a society that demands productivity, there will be ever increasing desire for stronger supplements. But how powerful can smart drugs become? How far can we push our mental performance, memory and production? Can we heighten intelligence exponentially? Perhaps the better question is: should we? As Ian Malcom said in the movie Jurassic Park, "It's not whether or not we could, it's whether or not we should." The Genius Dilemma is a cautionary tale about the unintended costs of using science and technology to better our bodies and minds. It explores questions that will become more relevant as the age of smart drugs fast approaches.

Dustin Grinnell 1

It is well known that users of amphetamines suffer from nervousness, irritability, tremors, dizziness and excitation, even aggressiveness. Many build up a tolerance, and when they stop using will crash in the form of mood swings and depression. Users of the newest smart drugs, nicknamed "steroids for the mind," claim there are no ill effects. But maybe it's still too early to tell. Zack Lynch, executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization, says, "People need to realize these drugs haven't been clinically tested on healthy individuals. It could be that serious side effects don't show up until 20 years down the road."


Dustin Grinnell , author of The Genius Dilemma, is a science writer for a biomedical research institute in Cambridge, MA. His travel essays and articles have appeared in such publications as Narratively and The Expeditioner. His feature-length screenplay ("Play") was a finalist in the 2013 Acclaim Scripts Film Contest. He received his bachelor's in psychobiology from Wheaton College and his master's in physiology from Pennsylvania State University. He is currently working on his second novel, Without Limits. See more at www.dustingrinnell.com.

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