The Ultimate Thought Experiment Part III: Flowers for Algernon

In Part II of this series, we considered artificial intelligent in the context of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel and Stanley Kubrik’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Space Odyssey, intelligence is arguably seen as an end in-and-of itself, rather than a means to an end. Flowers for Algernon, a short story later turned into a novel by author Daniel Keyes, questions that assumption while considering the ethical implications of artificially manipulating a person’s intelligence.

The protagonist of Flowers for Algernon is Charlie Gordon, a janitor who begins the story with intellectual disability, or mental retardation as it was referred to at the time when Keyes wrote the story. Gordon’s intellectual disability is a result of phenylketonuria, a real life metabolic disorder resulting from mutations of the gene encoding phenylalanine hydroxylase, an enzyme that breaks down the amino acid phenylalanine. An inability to metabolize this amino acid causes its toxic build up in the brain, often resulting in a low IQ and other problems, such as mental disorders.

In both the short story and the novel, Gordon participates in an experimental surgery to treat his intellectual disability. After the surgery, Gordon’s IQ increases from 68 to 185. Just what does an IQ of 68 or 185 mean? To better understand this difference, an average IQ is 100, with roughly 95 percent of the population having an IQ between 70 and 130. For reference, Einstein’s IQ, though never directly measured, is often estimated as 160. Gordon, once a humble janitor, is now smarter than mighty Einstein.

After acquiring new intellectual abilities, Gordon finds difficulty maintaining existing relationships due to new perspectives offered by his increased intelligence and, furthermore, an inability to relate to people of considerably lesser intelligence than himself. Far from having his life made easier, Gordon is quickly estranged from friends and disillusioned with the doctors behind his treatment. What’s more, Gordon’s treatment has only short-term efficacy, and his mental abilities soon regress back to pretreatment levels. The impermanence of Gordon’s new intelligence seems to symbolize the futility of medicine in meaningfully changing fundamental aspects of the human condition such as relational problems and unhappiness.

“Might CRISPR one day be recklessly abused to increase the potential intelligence of human embryos, resulting in hyper-intelligent designer babies?”

Asking broad questions such as, “What is intelligence?” and “How does intelligence define one’s identity?”, Flowers for Algernon is a thought experiment that feels just as relevant today as when it was first published as a 1959 short story. Underscoring its lasting influence, Keyes’s story has been adapted into films and televisions dramas several times, including the 1968 film Charly and the more recent television movie of the same title as the book that aired in 2000. Yet Keyes was not the only science fiction author to write about manipulating human intelligence. In Thomas M. Disch’s 1968 novel Camp Concentration, conscientious war objector Louis Sacchetti is imprisoned in a military installation and infected with a fictional strand of syphilis that transforms him into a genius. The newfound intellectual abilities of the prisoner inmates inspires the play on the word “concentration” in the novel’s title. As with Gordon in Flowers for Algernon, Sacchetti’s new intelligence comes at a high price. The theme of human intelligence is also explored in the dystopian story “The Death of Socrates” from the Thomas M. Disch story collection 334.

Were Keyes and Disch to write today, it is likely that the manipulations of intelligence in Flowers for Algernon and Camp Concentration would be depicted as gene therapy rather than surgery or an imaginary strand of syphilis. Gene therapy seeks to treat genetic disorders like phenylketonuria by fixing bad genes or directly addressing genetic deficiencies. In fact, gene therapy techniques have already been used to treat phenylketonuria in animals with the phenylalanine hydroxylase mutation.

While offering undeniable medical promise, newer, more precise gene editing techniques such as the ‘molecular scissors’ of CRISPR have raised important ethical concern. Might CRISPR one day be recklessly abused to increase the potential intelligence of human embryos, resulting in hyper-intelligent designer babies?

Less dramatically, so called smart drugs or nootropics are chemical substances that might soon allow people to temporarily increase their own intelligence through their effects on attention and memory. Viewing CRISPR and nootropics in the context of Flowers for Algernon and Camp Concentration, these thought experiment asks us to consider whether altering intelligence — be it through surgery, gene editing, or drugs — can really alleviate suffering or improve the human condition.


Science Fiction as Thought Experiment

This three part Knowing Neurons series has considered the relationship between science fiction, thought experiments, and “real” science. Beyond the authors and works considered in this series, many other pieces of science fiction help us better grasp the concrete implications of abstract scientific theories. The next time you enjoy a new science fiction story, ask yourself whether the story can be understood as a thought experiment. You might be surprised how blurry the lines between science, literature, and philosophy can become.

The Ultimate Thought Experiment Part I: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 

The Ultimate Thought Experiment Part II: 2001: A Space Odyssey

The Ultimate Thought Experiment Part III: Flowers for Algernon


Image by Jooyeun Lee

Translated by Estefany Ochoa



Harding, C. O., Gillingham, M. B., Hamman, K., Clark, H., Goebel-Daghighi, E., Bird, A., & Koeberl, D. D. (2006). Complete correction of hyperphenylalaninemia following liver-directed, recombinant AAV2/8 vector-mediated gene therapy in murine phenylketonuria. Gene therapy, 13(5), 457-462.

Joel Frohlich

Joel Frohlich is a postdoc studying consciousness in the lab of Martin Monti at UCLA. He is interested in using brain activity recorded with EEG to infer when a person is conscious. Joel earned his PhD from UCLA in 2018 studying EEG markers of neurodevelopmental disorders in the lab of Shafali Jeste. You can also check out Joel's blog Consciousness, Self-Organization, and Neuroscience on Psychology Today. For more about Joel's research and writing, please visit Joel's website at