A spotlight on Neuro-Enhancement - Future business educators examine the chances and consequences of brain interventions over a four-month period

One of the mutual learning events organized by the Austrian NERRI teams took place at the University of Linz. The experience was special because it consisted of a long-term adventure, lasting from March to June 2014.

The activity organized by the University of Linz was coupled with a university class on social research methods, enrolling 26 students. For these students the semester started with a film screening of “FIXED – the Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement”, followed by some further information on neuro-enhancement offered by the NERRI team and a lively and engaged discussion. Many of the enrolled students will be future teachers of business education, so a number of different perspectives emerged when discussing the topic: what becomes important when we address the topic as individuals and students, as future teachers and educators, as citizens, and as researchers and social scientists?

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Later during the semester the students were asked to form research groups and to formulate research questions that are of interest to themselves: all groups chose to work on the topic of neuro-enhancement. This came as a surprise to the NERRI team as students were free to suggest alternative topics to work on and this was often the favourite option in the previous years. From then on the spotlight of the weekly meetings was on neuro-enhancement. Students started researching the literature and other sources of information, and discussed the topic with their families, colleagues and friends. Importantly, when conducting interviews and focus groups, students also reached out to people whose voices are rarely heard in ongoing discussions.

What are their day-to-day experiences and practices? What do people working night shifts - such as factory workers or staff in hospitals – think about the possibilities of neuro-enhancement? How do young medical doctors perceive the topic? And what differences might be important when it comes to students and neuro-enhancement: Is gender relevant? Does it make a difference to study at a small regional university or at a major university in the capital? What are the experiences of students in different faculties and how does this relate to their views of neuro-enhancement?

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Altogether, our students interviewed nearly 60 people in very different contexts about their experiences, perceived hopes and risks, and societal and ethical issues. Over time, the discussions in our weekly meetings became more and more nuanced and the NERRI team was looking forward to the “focus group discussion week” scheduled for June. Students were mixed across research groups to participate in one of three group discussions, each lasting for about two hours. Participants exchanged an impressive variety of reasoned arguments and perspectives, strongly influenced by what they had learned from talking to other people. Their visions of future scenarios addressed all sorts of societal aspects and consequences for individuals. When finally on June 30 the class met for an end of term discussion, students not only presented their research projects but also were curious to learn what had happened in the other discussion groups. Both the students and the NERRI team looked back to a wealth of insights and experiences assembled over the last four months. Was something surprising? Indeed many thoughts came up that we had not expected. We also were taken by the involvement with the topic we observed. In a written feedback the most often mentioned surprise to our students was the opinion of others - to learn how varied the views on a topic such as neuro-enhancement can be. Despite very much looking forward to the upcoming summer holidays, the NERRI team felt that it was a real shame that at this point the mutual learning exercise had come to an end.