A mutual learning experience with school children in Iceland

Super-brains, the ability to fly and better eyesight are some of the enhancement school children mention.

One of the key interests of the NERRI project is to engage different kinds of audiences in a dialog on neurological enhancement. How this is done is determent by the audience that is being addressed in any individual case. The Icelandic team organized an event for school children age 11-12 years in cooperation with “Vísindasmiðjan” (University Science-workshop) in October, which turned out to be both challenging and incredibly interesting experience. The aim of the MLA was to introduce brain science in general, the possibilities and pitfalls of interfering in the workings of the brain in particular and get them engage in a discussion on their own understanding of the brain.

The MLA started with a short introduction of the brain by a professor in brain and neuro-science aimed at introducing how the brain functions, what we know about the brain, and introducing the possibility of changing or affecting the brain functions. Thereafter some of the students was testing and trying out a brain-scanner, while the others watched some part of the film Fixed and where engaged in a discussion of ability, disability and their understanding of enhancement. The hands-on-approach of being subjected to a brain scan, and seeing “directly” how the function of the brain changes with different sensory inputs, proved to be a very effective way to engage with the children. There were lively discussions both about the brain and about the science that enables us to understand, at least up to a point how it works. Introducing the ethical questions proved to be more challenging, although the children raised some questions, for instance there was a lively discussion about the possibility of mind reading or monitoring other people’s thoughts.

Before the end of the event the kids where given a questionnaire where they were asked about their understanding of neuro-enhancement, their view and super-brains and if they were interested in having one or their powers of abilities enhanced. 49 students responded and the answers varied greatly. Out of the 49 only 8 did not want to possess a super-brain. A further 10 were not completely sure if they wanted one, but the rest, 31 students, really wanted to have one. Almost everyone said they had no, or almost no knowledge about neurological enhancement before they came to the MLA, and 39 out of 49 said they knew a little or a lot more after the seminar.

One question was about whether everyone should be entitled to enhance his or her brain powers. This question got the most split decisions; 11 students simply said “I don‘t know”, “Maybe” or “I‘m not sure”. 23 answered with a yes, but the rest, 15 students simply said “no”, or even “no, not if you were a bad person or had bad intentions”, and one student answered cleverly: “Not Hitler”. Finally the children were asked about what abilities they would like to have and their answers were both amusing and very smart. Of the 49 answers only 6 chose not to answer, or were uncertain as to what ability they would want to have. Flying was most popular, 15 students wanted to be able to fly, and invisibility and/or seeing through something (walls) was in second place with a positive from 7 students. One student wanted to get super-long hands, three students wanted super-powers in some sport activity, one wanted to be able to take photos with her eyes, one wanted to be able to upload memories and thoughts to his or her computer. A few wanted to run faster and 4-5 students wanted to increase their eyesight in some way.

As can be seen from this short overview the idea of “super-hero” and super powers is, not surprisingly, well understood by kids but the idea of neurological enhancement is not at all known to them. Making some kind of a comparison or connection between these two things is tempting, but maybe unwarranted. The idea of the “super-hero” has its origins in comics, Sci-fi and other cultural phenomenon of that kind, and even if the outcome, that is, super abilities, is the same, or similar as the one hoped for in the case of neurological enhancement that does not mean that there is any direct relation between those two phenomena. Neurological enhancement is less related to fantasies and may be able to change the ethical and cultural context to a large extend.

The brain is a somewhat inaccessible topic, and brain science even more so. It proved to be a good and fruitful way to engage children in a dialogue on these matters to use hands-on-approach, and connecting it to cultural phenomena that are already part of their environment. All in all this event was a great success and a mutual learning experience, as the kids went away with new ideas about the future and we got insight into the attitudes of the people of the future.