Do an Internet search for “memory boosters,” “smart pills” or “cognitive enhancers” and you will get 2 million to 3 million hits. “Ginseng” or “ginkgo
biloba” yield more than 50 million hits, each linking
to pages offering products to improve memory. At the
supermarket, dozens of products touted as “brain boosters”
are offered for modest prices. Cognitive enhancement is
now a billion-dollar industry.
The belief that various herbs and potions improve
memory and cognitive functioning dates back to antiquity.
But it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that scientists,
drawing on new models and techniques, began to make
serious progress toward unlocking the mystery of memory.
In 1968, surveying the burgeoning literature in the
field, University of California, Berkeley, experimental
psychologist David Krech, PhD, optimistically claimed
that by the 21st century, educators and parents might very
well have a new “psychoneurobiochemopharmacopia” of
elixirs that would improve learning, memory and perhaps
even intelligence. However, the ethical concerns of such
treatments tempered Krech’s optimism.
What fueled Krech’s optimism and wariness?
Before 1955, one would be hard-pressed to find
labs dealing with the relationships among the brain,
biochemistry and behavior. One exception was the enriched
environment research initiated in 1951 by Krech and his
colleagues at Berkeley that, in some form, continues in
other labs today.