Memory function, cochlear implant, and the basic right to enhancement

A two day workshop on the chances, risks, and visions of neuro-technological enhancement in Germany.

At the beginning of October the German NERRI teams from Stuttgart and Mainz hosted an interdisciplinary expert-workshop on cognitive enhancement at the University of Mainz.

The workshop was comprised of contributions from twelve scholars with various backgrounds related to neuro-enhancement. The first presentation dealt with cognitive enhancement while being asleep. Dr. Diekelmann explained the different ways one could influence the brain's memory function throughout the slow-wave sleep phase. The memorization of specific information can especially be enhanced by linking information to auditory signals. While a lot of the questions surrounded the background of the study or the sustainability of the results, some of the participants also asked - not very surprisingly - how these results could be translated into their everyday lives. One example was that learning vocabulary in the morning isn’t as successful as learning the same vocabulary in the evening since the memory consolidation doesn’t work as well after a whole day of new experiences.  

Another very rich contribution was made by Enno Park, founder of Cyborg e.V., an organization tasked with furthering the rights of people using body enhancement technologies or medical implants. Mr. Park wears a cochlear implant and spoke about his inspiring personal experiences. His stories about his life as a ‘cyborg’ described his own empowerment and joy about his increased empathy due to his regained hearing capacities. He also shared the more negative aspects of new technologies: the dependency on medical experts and companies as well as the increased pressure on the deaf community to ‘normalize’ – even if the cochlear implant only works if the patient was able to hear as a child.

A completely different perspective was given by Helena Bebert who asked if there is a basic right to neuro-enhancement. Based on the German Constitutional Law she argued that there is a right to neuronal self-determination. Consequentially there is the right to enhance oneself, a right that cannot be diminished by arguments referring to human authenticity or some presumed human nature. But although there is a right to neuro-enhancement, there cannot be any imposed neuro-enhancement as the right to physical integrity would be breached. In the following discussion, the very controversial example was given: in the Netherlands, a person developed mania due to an implanted neuro-technological device, but enjoyed his condition. Is the doctor’s obligation to remove the neuro-enhancement to fulfill his care responsibilities more important than the patient’s autonomy?

Those are just a few examples of the various questions and problems we discussed throughout the workshop. We look forward to presenting our findings within the NERRI project.