Reflections on “Normal behaviour”, and Neuro-Enhancement, according to the views expressed in the interviews recorded by NERRI Project

During the first part of NERRI project, the partners have interviewed different stakeholders. In this article a member of the Icelandic team explains one of the issue that have arisen during the interviews: what do we mean when we talk about “normality”?

The concept of “normal individual” came up repeatedly in the interviews collected for the NERRI Project by the Icelandic team, despite the fact that the term seems to have different shades of meaning. It also became apparent that this concept is quite fluid and has multidisciplinary applications.

During doctors’ or other medical practitioners’ interviews, it emerged that the idea of a normal individual is rather vague concept, or, quoting one of the interviewed «there is a relatively well defined spectrum that we use when taking decisions on what treatment to use». But, if this can be assumed to be true when treating a physical ailment it is not often the case when treating a mental or psychological illness. Nonetheless, even if the criteria used are less stringent, the application of the concept of “normality” did not seem to pose problems when communicating with the participants. The idea of “normality” is clearly well rooted in the speakers’ imagery as well as it is in medical applications.

Greater uncertainties emerged when it came to deal with the concept of neuro-enhancement (NE) and “normality”. Several producers expressed a concern that could be summarized this way: «science will be in the position to decide what is feasible, and what is not, therefore such a decision shouldn’t be a science matter.» (quote of an interview with a scientist doing research having to do directly with NE). There were two major reasons for this concern. One is that the concept of “normality” is not defined well enough to stand alone. This is perceived as a consequence of the fact that “normality” has only a “negatively” shade.

The second reason for this concern was that the idea of “normality”, when applied to single individuals, is influenced by cultural, social and other factors (e.g., our knowledge of the human body and brain). So it will not be useful when trying to decide for example who should benefit from advancement in NE technology. If this is true then, it seems that, especially in cultures where NE is accepted as memory booster and concentration enhancer, the concept of “normality” is likely to adjust under the influence of technical advancements, and fail in restricting the use of NE to ailment treatment. This has some resemblance to the concerns about what is considered to be “normal length of human life”, and what should and shouldn’t be regarded as a normal life span.

The way of thinking about “normality” as something rooted in health has also had an influence on how participants thought about what NE should be applied to. Almost none of the participants saw any problems with applying NE to any of the human functions, such as memory, concentration or to the sensorial system, but it was commonly agreed that NE shouldn’t be used when “personality change” is involved or it should at least carefully regulated. It is interesting to note that, these two understandings of NE seemed to differ completely for the participants, being feasible one of them, unacceptable the other, despite there is no scientific evidence about such a real distinction of effects.

“Normality” also came into play when interview participants were asked on the possible social impacts of NE. The major concern was that NE could (or would) increase social inequality, advantaging “users” compared to non-users. In this context, “normality” is always seen as an abstract concept indicating an average normality. Nonetheless this concept fails when used to describe single individuals and cannot be used in social analysis since “normality” is a concept that applies to a set of characteristics and abilities that all individuals have in common.

Here are some relevant questions that emerged from this round of interviews about the ethical implications of NE: How does NE influence the concept of “normality”, compared to other medical technologies or drugs? Is the concept of “normality” as used so far useful when trying to map the ethical and social issues concerning NE? According to the interviews a strong answer does not emerge on this point. Special attention should be applied to the understanding of the difference between social (average) normality and individual normality (respecting difference of personality).

In this first stage of the study we can say that the concept of normality need further in deep investigation to create a common ground for NE studies.