“Humanity will not wait millions of years until Mother Nature will eventually hand it a functionally better new brain, like an anniversary gift. On the contrary, man himself will directly, openly, and consciously partake in evolution. Enhanced biological knowledge as well as social and ecological endeavors will be its tool to maximize the efficacy of inborn, genetic potentialities. It is within this broad, humanistic framework, although being quite aware of how dramatically limited we are, that I think the nootropic effort finds its place.“
-Corneliu Giurgea (1981 Fundamentals to a Pharmacology of the Mind)
This is a quote from an extremely rare book on nootropics by the father of the nootropic concept, Corneliu Giurgea and is one of the places where the otherwise modest scientist was able to fully express himself. I recently posted the above picture on social media and reddit, and it stimulated conversation about the philosophical nature behind the nootropic concept, and in answering those questions I wrote a fair amount so I will share it here.
My perspective comes from being in the process of writing a book on the history of nootropics, titled History of Nootropics, Part I: From Plants to Piracetam and I am also the founder of nootropics company, Nootroo. In the years running the company, I have read nearly every paper Giurgea has written and those he sourced from, as well as much of the science that has come out in the intervening twenty plus years since his passing (RIP).
So here I will be re-posting those replies here for posterity sake and for those who want to follow the trail as well down the nootropics rabbit hole:
Someone asked if by evolution and genetics he was talking about a form of eugenics, which is very far from the evolutionary perspective from which Giurgea was drawing. This above quote is most closely inspired by Wilder Penfield, by the way of Pierre Tieldhard de Chardin as described below:
Giurgea cites Wilder Penfield who cites Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (who coined the term “noosphere”) and was very interested in the physical evolution of the brain. Penfield recognized a major difference between the brains of lower level mammals and humans is the size of the area he termed the “uncommitted cortex” and his research on the physical structures of the brain, especially in epileptics, led to many discoveries in consciousness.
Whereas animals like rats have inborn connections hardwired to sensory and motor function and very little “uncommitted,” in humans, a major part of the brain, specifically the neocortex (the area between the auditory and visual areas) are organized and functionally connected during the first decade of life. That is we have an ability to shape our brains, whereas other animals are hardwired. In the second paragraph of this quote, you can see where Giurga draws from to create his quote:
Man is different from lower mammals. He has a language that is spoken and written, and he is therefore part of an evolving society. He has in his brain more extensive areas of undefined and uncommitted cerebral cortex. The connections of the uncommitted cortex that will function are determined only during childhood. To this extent, one might well say that the brain of man is molded by his mind. At any rate, brain organization alters according to the content of the stream of consciousness early in life. The brain is subject to alteration by the teaching that comes to a child and the personal effort that he makes.
Man has no need to wait for a bigger, better brain to come to him by means of the slow process of evolution. How slow the process is, was pointed out by Teilhard de Chardin, when he claimed there had been no measurable change in man’s brain since the Ice (Pleistocene) Age, although evolution has “overflowed its anatomical modalities.” Evolution of civilized society has been brief, but it is swift and brilliant. This achievement of the mind was made possible when men learned by teaching to mold the human brain. But there is something else that is continuously creative in our society. Men’s thoughts live on and go on breeding other thoughts-beliefs, faiths, slogans, propagandas”
Consciousness is directly related to the integrative activity of the brain, which brings us to nootropics which increase this higher-level integration and is one of the reasons, I too believe nootropics have a great potential as a tool to help society improve itself.
The other question I spent some time answering was more of a statement about how “nobody in those days could have expected The Internet.” What is interesting is that the term nootropics has a related correlate to Teilhard de Chardin, who I had mentioned in the above response, and in relation to his use of the term noosphere. In the page directly prior to the one the original quote comes from, Giurgea actually mentions the noosphere (and in one other paper but, with little context), in discussing how humans are shaped by their interactions with the environment and how that environment then shapes humanity back. Giurgea goes on to say:
It is at this ‘inter-phase’ that the nootropic approach aims: to enhance, harmlessly, without side effects, the efficiency of CNS-plasticity, particularly of those mechanisms that are directly related to cognition, to the “noosphere.”
And here was my response to the comment:
You’d be surprised actually. The term nootropics was inspired in some part by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (who inspired Penfield, who inspired Giurgea to write the quote posted in the picture), who in 1922 coined the term “noosphere,” meaning the sphere of human thought.
It is a bit philosophical, but the concept encompasses the next phase of human development after the biosphere (biological life) and the Tertiary period (when humans emerged with self-reflective thinking). In Teilhards words: “A glow rippled outward from the first spark of conscious reflection. The point of ignition grows larger. The fire spreads in ever-widening circles, he wrote, ’till finally the whole planet is covered with incandescence.'” Thus, in his imagination, the noosphere can be be defined as a “thinking layer” and network that connects consciousness around the planet (sounds like the internet doesn’t it?), that “results from the combined action of two curvatures – the roundness of the earth and the cosmic convergence of the mind.”
It encompasses the entirety of human creation deriving from our consciousness, which includes our educational, religious, research, industrial, technological and other systems. The great, late John Perry Barlow described it well: “The point of all evolution up to this stage is the creation of a collective organism of Mind.”
Here are a couple of excellent interpretations that actually relate the Noosphere to the internet:
Teilhard imagined a stage of evolution characterized by a complex membrane of information enveloping the globe and fueled by human consciousness. It sounds a little off-the-wall, until you think about the Net, that vast electronic web encircling the Earth, running point to point through a nervelike constellation of wires. We live in an intertwined world of telephone lines, wireless satellite-based transmissions, and dedicated computer circuits that allow us to travel electronically from Des Moines to Delhi in the blink of an eye.
Teilhard saw the Net coming more than half a century before it arrived.
Teilhard’s complexity-consciousness law is the same as what we now think of as the neural net. “We now know from neural-net technology that when there are more connections between points in a system, and there is greater strength between these connections, there will be sudden leaps in intelligence, where intelligence is defined as success rate in performing a task.” If one accepts this power of connections, then the planetary neural-network of the Internet is fertile soil for the emergence of a global intelligence.
And from another article:
Humanity ended up building an actual Noosphere (or at least its first draft).
It was called the Internet.
Somewhere around the mid-1990s, a few people looked at the world wiring itself together and thought — “Hmmm, this seems a lot like what that de Chardin guy was thinking.” It was all pretty Utopian back then, as was most thinking about the Internet. When writing on the Noosphere and the Web, Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow, put it this way, “What Teilhard was saying … can easily be summed up in a few words. The point of all evolution up to this stage is the creation of a collective organism of Mind.” Definitely the pre-Snowden era of Internet thinking.
We don’t have to ask if planets literally become conscious in order to ask how their evolution changes when a dominant species develops certain kinds of technologies (like wireless information processing on a massive scale and access to low-orbit space). Just as the development of a biosphere can imply entirely new evolutionary paths for a planet (like an oxygen-rich atmosphere), maybe the development of a planetary Noosphere has its own concrete evolutionary implications. This is a particularly important point to consider as we enter the so-called Anthropocene, an era when humans become the dominant force on the Earth’s systems.
So, the question of the day is as simple as it is challenging: If we are developing a Noosphere, what comes next?
Bonus question that arose on that thread was related to the timeline and adoption of the nootropic concept by lay people. I believe we are in the midst of the second wave of nootropics, as I described in my reply there:
As for the mainstream usage, I currently define us as being in the “second wave” of nootropics. I am still sketching out the hard cutoffs, but I would say the following:
First wave: From the coining of the term in 1972 until the mid 1990s, maybe to 1995 when Giurgea passed away.
Second wave: Early 2000s as internet forums picked up where the researchers left off, with big spikes in mainstream attention to the concept of “cognitive enhancers” with movies like Limitless in 2011 (which can be seen as a spike in searches of nootropics starting in early 2011 google trends data), to the current renaissance we see with nearly every major publication writing about nootropics in the last few years.