‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth’ – Jess Ennis

 Jess Ennis is a graduate from UoB, interested in film, journalism and publishing. She currently writes for VultureHound and tmrw magazines. 

Doors of Perception cover art by  Pat Steir (1970)

‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth’: Representations of authenticity in pharmaceutical and neural enhancement narratives.

In ‘The Critic as Artist’, Oscar Wilde ruminated upon whether or not a man, completely unaffected and in his own true mind, could truly speak freely and authentically. Indeed, the notion of authenticity continually raises philosophical and social arguments as to the true understanding of what it is to be authentic, and Jacob Golomb argues that ‘it may very well resist definition.’[1] Whilst Jean-Paul Sartre defines authenticity in perhaps more straightforward terms, as ‘having a true and lucid consciousness of the situation, in assuming the responsibilities and risks that it involves’, many others might take authenticity to be far more morally complex than Sartre initially makes clear.[2]

For Somogy Varga and Charles Guignon, authenticity is defined by the belief that ‘one should strive to lead one’s life according to one’s own reasons and motives’ – in short, to be authentic is to be not just autonomous, but candidly moral.[3] Guignon’s ideas on what it is to be authentic in a contemporary moment are best suited for the discussion in this essay. In On Being Authentic (2004), he claims that ‘for the modern outlook, your sense of self-worth is based on the dignity of being a self-directed, effective actor in the world.’[4] Whilst we might approach the use of the term ‘actor’ in regards to authenticity with some trepidation, Guignon’s belief in the authentic self represents ideology most applicable to our historical moment. For the purpose of this essay, to be an authentic human in our lifetime is to be self-regarding, to have a true understanding of what you feel and believe, and to unashamedly ‘[express] those beliefs and feelings in what you do’ with ‘clarity, courage and integrity.’[5]

These questions of ‘clarity’ and ‘integrity’ are of course then inducted into the cultural debates surrounding neural enhancements, pharmaceuticals, and whether or not one can be a truly authentic subject whilst using them.[6] This essay focuses in particular upon authenticity with regards to two sub-categories of these; therapy drugs enacting on already neurotypical subjects, and nootropics. In both respects, the focus of their use is upon elevation rather than a therapeutic return to typical levels of neural function.

Using The Effect (2012) by Lucy Prebble, and Limitless (2011), directed by Neil Burger, this essay intends to argue that it is difficult for literature to reach a definitive stance on whether or not a subject is capable of having an authentic experience whilst using neural enhancements. Instead, we might develop richer readings of the texts when we examine the ways in which they argue both for and against an authentic enhanced experience. Using Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1954) to stake a claim for authenticity in drug use, alongside medical, psychological, and literary studies that both support and problematize the idea, this essay hopes to challenge whether or not it is even possible to ascribe a simple answer to the questions of authenticity, and argue that the texts are more nuanced for being read ambiguously. Ultimately, however, the essay will conclude that the humanist idea of authenticity might no longer co-exist with transhumanist texts that begin to redefine what it is to be human.

We might first approach the argument from its logical extreme; that drugs and neural enhancements are incapable of producing an authentic experience because their artificiality means that the experiences they bring about are conceived through ‘a technical device’ rather than ‘truth and labour’.[7] This artificiality is referenced formally in the structure of The Effect as well as through Dr. James’ use of clinical language. The upping of protagonists Tristan and Connie’s dosages throughout functions as a divisive marker. Not only does it isolate the journeys of the characters into stages, forcing them to become symptomatic responses rather than a continual experience, but it separates the play itself into acts of sorts, forcing the reader or audience member to be continually reminded of the medical nature of the play in an almost Brechtian manner.


Dosages are administered.[8]

This moment is not only textual, but visual, as the words appear on a screen when the play is performed. With it, the scenes are separated and the narrative flow of the story is interrupted – in effect, reader and audience member are both reminded that the play itself is artificial, that in its fictionality, it lacks authenticity as a piece of art. By quantifying the experiences of Tristan and Connie with ‘dosage increases’, their emotional states and relationship with each other can be explicitly tied to the dosage level of the play they reside at. In this respect, then, a reader or spectator is continually aware that what Tristan and Connie perceive as an all-encompassing experience is merely ‘administered’ by Dr. James.

Importantly, Dr. James’ language raises questions about the tension between authentic experience and drug use because of the way that, in many instances, her dialogue fuses medical terminology with emotion that we might traditionally categorise as authentic. As she tells a story about a couple at a medical conference, she tells Connie that ‘he [the medic] knows dopamine is the initial trigger in falling in love’.[9] James’ story removes the emotive perspective of ‘falling in love’ by equating it with a release of ‘dopamine’; she reduces the authentic experience (perhaps, arguably, the most authentic experience) of being in love down to a chemical reaction. Whilst we might alternatively perceive this – as we will later – as an acknowledgement of the body’s own chemical construction, the line might instead argue for the artificiality of the most truthful seeming moments in a human life. She argues that ‘the agent’s designed to increase levels of dopamine’ in Connie, affirming the belief that Connie’s affection for Tristan can be simplified down to a prescribed release of a neurotransmitter.[10] From this angle, then, we might not see Connie and Tristan’s fledgling relationship as truly authentic because it relies upon a ‘technical device’ to catalyse it. Connie goes on to recite this back to Tristan when they fight about their feelings, as she notes that ‘well it’s fake, it’s a chemical that feels like. Like falling for someone.’[11] Connie traces her attraction to Tristan back to a source point – when she finds that it has an external chemical compound at its heart, she believes it to be inauthentic, to be ‘fake’.

Just as we see Connie and Tristan’s personality alterations as inauthentic if we view them under the ‘dosage increase’ act divides, we might see Limitless protagonist Eddie Morra’s complete personality switch as artificial because of its direct cause-and-effect link to the drug he ingests, fulfilling the same ‘pre-and-post’ drug narrative we might read in The Effect’s structure. The viewer is given a very clear idea of Eddie before and after he first tries NZT; before, Eddie is an unkempt, motivationless and struggling writer.[12] Then, as he claims, ‘I felt it.’[13] He notes that ‘I knew what I needed to do, and I knew how to do it.’[14] His fundamental personality – creative, but under-inspired – is replaced by that of a man with clear direction and focus. The film makes a point of dividing its tone and protagonist’s character into two parts.

We might perceive this as merely the effect of a neuroenhancement, the ‘increased intelligence and heightened cognitive aptitude’ an intentional result of NZT rather than such an inconsistent split. However, the movie later goes on to reject this with Eddie’s unforeseen success on Wall Street; something we are never made to consider before the drug’s ingestion.[15] The viewer is presented with a psychedelic montage of Eddie having his hair cut, getting in shape, purchasing a new suit, and finishing his book in under a week due to ‘an unprecedented surge in motivation’.[16] We are unable to quantify this new, hyper-successful Eddie with the Eddie of before because of the lack of continuity between the two. His creativity is replaced with being able to discuss at the length the ‘short term spike’ of ‘rapid expansion’ and its effect on ‘stock value’ – he moves from a struggling artist to the Hollywood ideal of the corporate capitalist with absolutely no adjustment period for the audience.[17] Eddie himself separates his mind as a result of his drug use, as he continually seeks out ‘that little clear pill that would bring back Enhanced Eddie’.[18] He identifies the person he is after ingesting NZT as entirely separate from himself, and it therefore forces the audience to question whether they too are capable of reconciling the two versions of Eddie into one man. As Eddie’s girlfriend, Lindy, says of her actions after being forced to take the drug: ‘they weren’t me.’[19]

Eddie’s newfound abilities, then, become tied to his ingesting of NZT because of the way, despite the ‘it was in you all along’ discourse the film tries to appeal to, Eddie’s personality represents a complete shift between two separate spheres of thought, activated only by his enhancement. We might perhaps compare this to analysis of the discussion surrounding the use of ADHD medication and stimulants for better performance in American colleges. In ‘Illicit Use of Prescription ADHD Medications on a College Campus: A Multimethodological Approach’, a test subject named Scott notes that ‘You pop that pill’ and ‘you are really into that subject’.[20] The correlation between the pill and his sudden ability to comprehend what he once perceived as ‘boring’ is potentially very comparable to Eddie’s response to NZT – though dramatized, for the sake of the movie narrative, Eddie manifests the same sudden abilities that Scott notes.[21] With this, we could read all of Eddie’s later accomplishments – and indeed, Scott’s – as inauthentic, as an effect of NZT rather than being achieved through the earlier mentioned ‘truth and labour’, or by it awakening some long-dormant ability within him. Were we able to reconcile the creative Eddie with his corporate counterpart more closely, we might argue that it would present a more authentic story, an unlocking of untapped potential rather than a division of character.

In The Effect, Connie also problematizes the idea of a separation between enhanced and unenhanced personalities – something which Tristan argues back against. Upon discussing the nature of their attraction, Connie notes that ‘I don’t feel like what I’d feel like in real life.’[22] To her, the usage of the drug creates some kind of alternate existence for herself and Tristan, in which she is aware that she is not operating at her own neural level. Cosmetic psychopharmacology – ‘the use of drugs to improve one’s psychological condition in the absence of a clinical disorder’ – creates two Connies, one of whom is able to evaluate the other’s behaviours against the side effects of the drug.[23] In the same way that Eddie separates himself from ‘Enhanced Eddie’, Connie separates herself from the woman that doesn’t exist in ‘real life’, equating the drug enhancement with inauthenticity.

We can also consider Eddie’s experiences on NZT to be inauthentic upon considering the ephemeral nature of the drug’s effect, and his continual need to source more in order to operate at his new neural level.[24] Kaisa Puhakka notes that a drug-induced experience ‘fades away in a matter of hours or days, and with it the insights and illuminations, however profound at the time, fade as well.’[25] As Eddie’s talents grow, so does his need to sustain himself upon increased doses of NZT – this might make his abilities when neuroenhanced seem even more artificial, as they ‘fade’ once the chemicals in the drug have worn off and he is returned to his typical level of mental function. As Anna Friel’s character Melissa notes, and as Eddie experiences upon his withdrawal from NZT, his mental function is actually worsened as it wears off; ‘I got lazy. Slow, so slow.’[26]

In The Effect, however, we are presented with the idea that even after Connie stops trialling the anti-depressants, she might still be in love with Tristan, allowing us to consider her experience more authentic because of its longevity. As Tristan recovers from transient amnesia, she tells him ‘I love how you’re funny.’[27] The play argues that, regardless of the drug’s design to ‘increase levels of dopamine’, its effects might actually surpass its usage, thereby adding authenticity to the feelings Connie experiences. Puhakka goes on to make the same claim, arguing that ‘knowing is not a state of consciousness but an activity of awareness that can bring about shifts’ – whilst the drug itself might not have been authentic, the emotional response it brings about after its use may well be.[28] In this respect, the neural enhancement, or ‘technical device’, as catalyst might be inauthentic in itself, but its results in the neurotypical consciousness are ‘self-directed’. This is something that Tristan picks up on earlier in the play’s action, but Connie is unreceptive.

TRISTAN: […] Let’s say we’re attracted to each other and that’s been kicked off by these…
CONNIE: The dopamine.
TRISTAN: Drugs or whatever. So what?
CONNIE: What d’you mean?
TRISTAN: What difference does it make?[29]

To Tristan, regardless of the catalyst’s artificiality, the end result – their feelings towards each other – remains authentic. The questioning of ‘what difference does it make?’ forces us to consider whether or not a manufactured source really affects the authenticity of the outcome. He notes that ‘people meet each other and fall in love all sorts of ways, doesn’t matter what starts it.’[30] Just as with Connie’s words to Tristan at the end of the play, Tristan deconstructs the association of inauthenticity between drugs and their feelings. Their actions are not a side effect, but a shift like Puhakka describes, merely ‘kicked off’ by something they might construe as artificial.

It is here that we can then refer back to the overarching idea that the texts present complexities within their representations of authenticity, and might conversely argue that the characters are in fact capable of having an authentic experience whilst enhanced. Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception claims that drug use (whilst recreational in Huxley’s piece) actually brings about an experience far more authentic than our everyday lives. Before this, however, Huxley familiarises us with the same concept that The Effect touches on – that the body itself is comprised of chemical reactions. While we might consider Dr. James’ medicalisation of the body’s ‘dopamine’ responses as isolating, we can instead argue that they create an equation between the drug and the body that removes its artificiality, its otherness. Huxley ruminates on this, remarking on the ‘close similarity, in chemical composition between mescalin and adrenalin […] each one of us may be capable of manufacturing a chemical, minute doses of which are known to cause Profound  changes in consciousness.’[31] The body and enhancement are comparable, and fundamentally constructed in the same way.

When we think of Tristan and Connie’s ‘agent’ as merely recreating and amplifying their bodies’ own capacity to induce ‘Profound changes in consciousness’, we are forced to consider that either the drug can lend itself to authentic experience, or that the body’s entire ‘chemical composition’ is inauthentic. Mark Fisher asks ‘if our emotions are manipulated by chemicals, does that make them less real, less valid, less an expression of who we are?’[32] If we consider that our emotions, on a basic level, are in fact all manipulated by the body’s composition, the answer to this question becomes more ambiguous. In a humanistic society where we believe in the ‘autonomous life’ that allows us to shape our own morality, it might feel unnatural to consider that every decision we make, our ‘self-identity’, is in fact a result of infinite chemical reactions.[33] When we refuse to reduce our existences down to these ‘manipulations’, should we then be arguing that enhancements, which only mimic and amplify our body’s own reactions, are therefore inauthentic? It might be more productive instead to argue that these enhancements – pharmaceutical, nootropic, or in Huxley’s case, recreational – heighten our already ‘authentic’ neurotypical human state and allow us to ponder ‘the place of mind in nature, and the relationship between brain and consciousness.’[34]

In this respect then, the symptoms that Connie and Tristan exhibit that were previously attributed to the ‘dosage administered’ can instead be read an elevation of their cognition, allowing them to have an even more authentic experience than before. Huxley laments that ‘there is little or no common ground of memory to serve as a basis for understanding or fellow feeling.’[35] Rather than isolate them, Connie and Tristan’s enhancement allows them to achieve some kind of greater mental connection to one another, as is demonstrated with their interviews with Dr. James that are held in tandem.

TRISTAN: Connie.
CONNIE: Tristan. Gosh, my heart.
TRISTAN: My heart.
CONNIE: Feels like it’s going –
JAMES: Going?
TRISTAN: Going –
CONNIE: Going, you know?[36]

Their experiences, while not being undergone together, present a fusion of their sel`ves, a transcendence of the ‘mutually exclusive realms of experience’ that allows them to connect to another in a way more fundamental than any non-enhanced subjects.[37] They cry each other’s names, almost as call and response despite the scene’s split-screen effect, and the repetition of ‘going’ as they both attempt to define their emotional state aligns their experiences and creates a tie between the two through the verbal similarities. Placed in opposition to Dr. James’ confused ‘going?’, the pair are demonstrated as being ultimately connected in a way incapable of being understood by someone non-enhanced. This raises the question of perception; though to the external eye (i.e. Dr. James) the pair might appear non-authentic or merely symptomatic, to them the experiences surpass the ‘measly trickle’ and allow them to connect on a level far more authentic to themselves.[38] Enhancement is here not a movement away from authenticity, but towards truth, and to altering the ‘ordinary mode of consciousness as to be able to know’.[39] Tristan and Connie are, in effect, ‘transformed to become “better than well”’, to see above and beyond typical human experience and reach the clarity that Guignon sees as paramount to authenticity.[40]

We can also identify some correlation between the idea of perspective in Limitless and Huxley’s experiences. When Eddie remarks ‘I felt it’ as the NZT takes effect, the cinematography mimics his move into a higher ‘mode of consciousness’ with an intense visual saturation of colour.[41] Eddie’s apartment, where it had been a wash of greys, is filled with a vibrant autumnal palette – the film picks up on Eddie’s altered perception of the world and visually manifests this through the richness of colour. Huxley’s experience attests to what Burger attempts to show, noting that mescalin allowed him to ‘perceive supernaturally brilliant colours […] in the objective world around them.’[42] The film, then, might not use a cliché visual motif to render enhanced experience, but instead seeks to corroborate Huxley’s ability to ‘precisely and completely’ understand the world around him. As Eddie says of his cognition when using NZT; ‘I wasn’t high, wasn’t wired. Just clear.’[43] If Sartre argued that authenticity was ‘true and lucid consciousness’, and the essay’s amalgamative definition stresses true understanding, then both Eddie and Huxley can be seen to have fully attained a vivid authentic experience, however ephemeral.

When defining authenticity, through the myriad of existing ideas, what becomes immediately apparent is the overwhelmingly humanistic overtones of the definitions. It ascribes value to the human ideals of clarity and courage, asking the ‘self-directed’ person that Guignon prizes to be the most truthful version of themselves. We might, however, call this into question when we deal with texts that present us with neuroenhancement and cosmetic psychopharmacology, and that, ultimately, begin to redefine what it is to be human. We can consider both The Effect and Limitless to be transhumanist – a movement to which ‘human enhancement is a crucial notion’, that believes in humanity’s ability to move beyond its current state.[44] Once we consider these texts to be transhumanist, then, it becomes harder to assign ideas of authenticity, an undeniably humanist ideal, to works which exist within a movement that ‘problematizes the current understanding of the human’.[45]

To those who support authenticity as a construct, its attainment is ‘tied to the role of suffering as part of the human condition’.[46] If transhumanism begins to conceive of a future in which the human is fundamentally improved, neuroenhancement and nootropics might therefore begin to eradicate such suffering – whilst The Effect and Limitless never fully realise this, the heightened ardour of Tristan and Connie, along with the enhanced mental capabilities of Eddie, hint at a movement away from the human whose struggles define their agency in the world. Consequently, rather than presupposing that all enhancement is irrevocably inauthentic because it speaks to improving the human condition, it would be more beneficial to redefine authenticity as a term so that it reflects the ‘different contexts’ of which it is part.[47]

Once we apply this new complexity to the texts, which both problematize and support neural enhancement and nootropics, it becomes clear that The Effect and Limitless currently present us with arguments on authenticity that are infinitely indefinite. Were we to develop a new definition of what it is to be authentic that begins to consider transhumanism, however, we might find that these two texts do present a decisive stance – it may just be a version of authenticity with which we are not yet familiar. Ultimately, if the ‘mask’ that Oscar Wilde spoke of becomes nootropics and cosmetic psychopharmacology in the contemporary moment, then neural enhancement might allow us to experience the ‘truth’ of authenticity more keenly than before.



[1] Jacob Golomb, In Search of Authenticity from Kierkegaard to Camus (London: Routledge, 1995) p. 7.

[2] Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew, trans. G.J. Becker (New York: Schocken, 1965) p. 90.

[3] Somogy Varga and Charles Guignon, ‘Authenticity’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. by Edward N. Zalta (2014) <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2014/entries/authenticity/&gt; [Accessed 27/02/2016].

[4] Charles Guignon, On Being Authentic (London: Routledge, 2004) p. 77.

[5] Ibid.

[6] For the purpose of the essay, I shall be defining neural enhancement as any drug which elevates the brain above its typical function.

[7] James Reynolds and Zoe Zontou, eds., Addiction and Performance (Newcastle-Upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014) p. 159.

[8] Lucy Prebble, The Effect (London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2012) p. 27.

[9] Ibid, p. 22.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The Effect, p. 32.

[12] Limitless, dir. by Neil Burger (Relativity Media, 2011).

[13] Limitless.

[14] Limitless.

[15] Alan D. DeSantis, Elizabeth M. Webb and Seth M. Noar, ‘Illicit Use of Prescription ADHD Medications on a College Campus: A Multimethodological Approach’, in Journal of American College Health, 57.3 (2008) <http://dx.doi.org/10.3200/JACH.57.3.315-324&gt; p. 319.

[16] Limitless.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] ‘Illicit Use of Prescription ADHD Medications on a College Campus: A Multimethodological Approach’, p. 319.

[21] Ibid.

[22] The Effect, p. 32.

[23] Belinda Chiang, ‘The Pursuit of Humanity: Challenging Popular Notions of the Authentic Life Through Cosmetic Psychopharmacology and Transhumanism’, in Stanford Journal of Neuroscience, 2.1 (2009) <http://web.stanford.edu/group/co-sign/Chiang.pdf&gt; [Accessed 06/03/2016] p. 10.

[24] Limitless.

[25] Kaisa Puhakka, ‘An Invitation to Authentic Knowing’, in Transpersonal Knowing: Exploring the Horizon of Consciousness (New York: SUNY Press, 2000) p. 12.

[26] Limitless.

[27] The Effect, p. 94.

[28] ‘An Invitation to Authentic Knowing’, p. 13.

[29] The Effect, p. 35.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Aldous Huxley, ‘The Doors of Perception’, in The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell (London: Thinking Ink, 2011) p. 2.

[32] Mark Fisher, ‘The Effect Review – Lucy Prebble’s Compelling Play Asks What Makes Us Us’, The Guardian (2015) <http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/feb/26/the-effect-heart-of-hawick-lucy-prebble-review&gt; [Accessed 27/02/2016].


[34] ‘The Doors of Perception’, p. 2.

[35] Ibid, p. 3.

[36] The Effect, p. 50.

[37] ‘The Doors of Perception’, p. 3.

[38] ‘The Doors of Perception’, p. 8.

[39] Ibid, p. 4.

[40] ‘The Pursuit of Humanity’, p. 10.

[41] Limitless.

[42] ‘The Doors of Perception’, p. 11.

[43] Limitless.

[44] Francesca Ferrando, ‘Posthumanism, Transhumanism, Antihumanism, Metahumanism, and New Materialisms: Differences and Relations’, in Existenz, 8.2 (2013) <http://www.bu.edu/paideia/existenz/volumes/Vol.8-2Ferrando.pdf&gt; [Accessed 12/04/2016] p. 27.

[45] Ibid.

[46] ‘The Pursuit of Humanity’, p. 12.

[47] In Search of Authenticity from Kierkegaard to Camus, p. 7.

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