Book Review: David Adam’s The Genius Within is smarter than your average book

A lot of us are now aware that the brain is plastic and has the ability to change and adapt. A new area of neuroscience that looks to take advantage of this phenomena is  cognitive enhancement. This is a field that sees individuals alter the way their brain and mind works in order to make it sharper, more focused and intelligent through the use of performance-enhancing drugs and/or brain stimulation. The Genius Within is a compelling account of this fledgling field, boasting scientific research and anecdotal evidence from an intrepid journalist who decides to use himself as a human guinea pig.

Dr. David Adam is an editor at Nature, the world’s leading scientific journal, and the best-selling author of The Man Who Couldn’t Stop, which is about his experiences living with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Adam first became acquainted with the notion of cognitive training while undergoing treatment for his OCD. For this latest book, he decided to go one step further and ingest a drug that has been shown to increase alertness in narcoleptics, but is also one whose long-term affects remain largely unknown to the scientific community. He also performed (with the assistance of his wife) some DIY electrical stimulation of his brain, specifically his anterior temporal lobes; these are ones that are associated with lateral thinking.

Adam’s aim was to try and boost his intelligence through these experiments (readers, please don’t try this at home!). Adam did find that he had some positive results after taking the drug, and performing the stimulations, prior to sitting the Mensa entrance test a second time. Though Adam acknowledges that these improved results cannot be directly attributed to the drugs, nor the brain stimulation, as there could also be a myriad of other reasons behind the improvements to his scores. But one should also not discount these encouraging findings, because what it mostly proves is that there needs to be more rigorous and scientific research and studies undertaken in this field, especially if you want to make judgement calls with respect to the efficacy of the claims.

This thoughtful book also provides readers with a history of the phenomena of intelligence. It includes sound commentary on Charles Spearman’s two-factor theory of intelligence, and Alfred Binet’s work in developing the first intelligence tests for children. The study of intelligence and IQ testing itself can be contentious because of the cultural biases that exist, and because some of our intelligence is directly influenced by our genetics (thankfully, there are still some factors that are left to nurture and experience as well.) This is controversial territory but it is also incredibly important when you consider how widespread the application of using IQ scores to make decisions is, for example: whether an employee is hired, what classes a child is assigned to and even if a prisoner on death row will receive the death penalty or not.

This account by Adam grapples with the series of moral quandaries that cognitive enhancement poses, something that will become increasingly important as this field develops further and becomes more mainstream. Adam considers things like whether everyone should be eligible for cognitive enhancement or just those with below-average intelligence. His commentary is sensible and logical and it is a joy to read, even when he is covering quite complex subject matter.

The Genius Within is an intriguing volume that includes varying accounts and voices, including research and history, as well as the author’s own personal anecdotes and questions about the ethics of his endeavours. Dr Adam’s book is a clever one that presents a fascinating area of different topics in an easily digestible and engaging way. The Genius Within is ultimately a fascinating title that proves it is smarter than your average book.

Dr David Adam’s The Genius Within is available now through Picador.