"Do we want a super brain?" A science café in Iceland

From the Icelandic NERRI partner University of Iceland

On Saturday 29th March, the Centre for Ethics of the University of Iceland, the Icelandic NERRI participant, hosted a “science café” with the heading: “Do we want a super brain?” The focus of the talks was on what kind of technology is on the near and distant horizon in brain/neurological science. The target group of the science café was the general public, interested in neuro-enhancement and the venue where the science cafe took place was chosen with that in mind. The City Library is in the down town area in Reykjavík and attracts many visitors every day. The science café was well attended, with around 60/70 participants and it drew some media attention, at least two interviews on the NERRI-project were aired on local Radio 1 and Radio 2, which is the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service.

The science café started with a brief introduction of the NERRI project followed by four short scientific presentations on neuro-enhancement. The first introduced the development of the human brain with a focus on what it is that we can/want to influence when something goes wrong. The second presentation was on brain-machine interfaces, from Cochlear implants, to thought-controlled machinery external to the thinker. The third speaker discussed what kind of ethical questions we should be asking when it comes to brain/neurological technology, and asked if these questions were different from ethical questions that come up in relation to other medical fields. The forth and the final talk introduced cognitive studies in literature and the interplay between brain research and studies in humanities.

The speakers at the science café were highly educated professionals that in one way or another work in fields that have direct relations to neuro-enhancement, either as academics or working with practical applications.

The talks varied in topics, but the underlying theme came through in them all. There seemed to be an agreement between the speakers that neurological science will in the future affect, to greater extent than it already does, the way we think about individuals, and about our interaction with the world. It was agreed that the possibilities opening up in the field of brain research and neurological enhancement are almost limitless from the perspective of what is technically possible and that advancements within these fields will most likely be misused, just as drugs and other medical advancements in other fields have been abused. This does not mean that we can just give up on regulating, rather it means that we have to have a clear idea of what and how we want to regulate brain/neurological enhancement.

The public dialogue that followed the talks revolved to a large extent around the concept of the “individual” and the different social and ethical implications that changing ideas about this concept would lead to. Many of the questions also had to do with the aim of brain/neurological research, such as: Will happiness be achieved with a bigger or better brain? Should brain research focus on making the individual happy, rather than something else? The dialogue was lively and the speakers responded well to the questions from the audience. One could sense some urgency in both the questions and the answers, indicating that people think this field is worth a serious discussion, and that neuro-enhancement is a topic that is on the agenda right now.

After these lively and informative discussions it was good to go out into one of the first nice spring days in Reykjavík.