Neuroenhancement a thought experiment

When we started NERRI, we planned to devise a ‘consolidated Shared Agenda on neuro-enhancement in Europe’. In our dialogue with hundreds of people from many nations, what we found is a patchwork of social wants and needs linked to ideas of what neuroenhancement can be. So what are we left with?

Some time ago, I wrote in this newsletter that so far, the technology of neuro-enhancement is either inefficient – the drugs applied are mostly old – or not yet sufficiently developed, as is the case with electric or magnetic brain stimulation.

What did that mean for the NERRI mutual learning events (MLEs) we have been conducting all over Europe for two years now? Have we maybe been dealing with a technology that does not really exist?

An interesting question, of course, but as it turns out, more important to the experts than to many people who participated in our events.  Because another goal I set out to achieve in my earlier commentary did indeed become reality: What the NERRI events most certainly managed to achieve is to perform thought experiments with imagined technologies along the lines of existing practices. These experiments included of course the human factor; people’s contributions were governed by their wishes, fears and goals in life. So now that the results are in, what are we left with?

Let me be clear about one thing right away: we have not encountered anything like a mainstream public opinion on neuro-enhancement in Europe. What we did find can be compared to a patchwork blanket – numerous points of view, interests, hopes and fears. Such a cacophony of voices, however, is not the best basis for the Shared Agenda we hoped to develop.

Of course, you might think: couldn’t we have known this before? Isn’t this issue prone to controversial debates?

Yes and no, depending on what we consider neuro-enhancement to be. The scholarly debate in general appears to be miles away from the everyday problems neuro-enhancement touches upon. Especially the transhumanist agenda of permanently improving the biological by merging it with the synthetic seems irrelevant for most. Talking to people of all ages groups and different affiliations – teachers, students, employees, etc. – in our workshops we heard many different stories. And we found that it is the everyday context of application – rather than abstract considerations – that counts.

The proposition of neuro-enhancement is a trigger for highlighting a number of vastly different issues such as the competition in the classroom and at work, the problems of night shift workers, anxieties from a potential job loss or the hopes that “grandma will regain her memory” and, ultimately, people will not suffer from memory loss anymore.

It was a trigger to ask the question whether we should spend taxpayers’ money on neuro-research or leave it to the private sector; to highlight the different regulations for drugs and medical devices; to emphasize risks before advantages or vice versa; to secure a safe space for experiments without ‘Big Brother’ watching you; to find ways to protect the vulnerable; to avoid foregoing benefits for those in need.

It gave rise to considerations such as where to draw the boundary between the normal and the sick; what ‘natural’ may mean and whether this always is better than what allegedly is ‘unnatural’; whether societies in the Anglo-Saxon world are fundamentally different from those in the East and South of Europe; and what kind of information would be needed to adequately deal with a new technology.

This is but a small choice of issues that came up. Now – how are we going to synthesize all this into a coherent ‘Agenda’? Frankly, I doubt this will be possible.

What will be possible, however, is drawing conclusions on the multitude of societal issues, considering the ethical aspects touched upon, and critically appraising the regulatory aspects. Last but not least, we now know more about how different MLE formats work, how to engage with different parts of the public, and which tools to apply to take on board stakeholders.

All these findings will be covered in four reports diligently drafted by four groups of NERRI project members. We will draw upon our experiences and propose how to deal responsibly with some of the most important issues addressed. As a conclusion, we will write a White Paper on neuro-enhancement in Europe.

A Shared Agenda is elusive. But there is much to say – and we will say it.


Helge Torgersen