Super Human Me, discussing Neuro-Enhancement with High School Students in Denmark

High School Students are one of the targets of the NERRI Project. Hearing their voices is important to understand what people, and especially the future European citizen, think of the Neuro-Enhancement debate. - From the Danish NERRI partner Experimentarium

“Super Human Me” was an MML activity held by Experimentarium, the Danish Science Centre and partner in the NERRI project. The event was held at the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller Centre for Talents of Science, from Monday the 24th to Thursday the 27th of February 2014.

The aim of the MML exercise was to engage high school students and their teachers in the debate and dissemination of Neural Enhancement and Responsible Research and Innovation.

The MML was arranged in collaboration between the Danish National Centre for the Talents of Science – who hosted the 4 day event - and the NERRI partner Experimentarium.

The resulting work of the high school students on each of their specific disciplines was presented to the public in form of an open and accessible poster collection displaying the work of the 19 groups of high school students in a learning environment at the 2014 ESOF event in Copenhagen in June 2014. The students were on stage for two days during the event, ready to answer questions about the science of neural enhancement. The results of the February MML exercise and the ESOF 2014 events will be used for the future work of the NERRI project

The outcomes of the event were somehow expected. The groundwork was based on a small pilot done 6 months in advance, so it was clear that the Students would be interested in engaging with the subject. What stood out in this larger sampling size was a clear difference between the accepted and rejected areas of neuro-enhancement. The students were from 6 different areas of Denmark and this was perceivable during the debates in several different ways: attitudes towards “cheating”, personal liberty, legislative reach etc. seemed to reach distinct geographical consensuses. The pilot study’s group of students was much more aligned. At the end of this event the students were able to reach an agreement on the broader issues, but clearly even a group as uniform as these High School Students should not be considering as one voice when it comes to the subject of NERRI.

One of the key events was an interesting debate that involved 4 prominent UK scientists and the 80 participants. This debate was hosted by Mr Bard, PhD-student, London School of Economics, who had contacted the scientists/experts, arranged the time and the order of the internet based video conferences, and prepared a presentation and a facilitation of the debates.

The Scientists/experts involved were:

§  David John Nutt (DM, FRCP, FRCPsych, FMedSci), the Edmond J Safra chair in Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College, London, a prominent neuropsychopharmacologist;

§  Brian D. Earp, Research Fellow, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, B.A. (distinction), M.Sc., an outspoken proponent of moral enhancement featured in the recent New Scientist magazine;

§  John Morley Harris, FRSA, FMedSci, Lord Alliance Professor of Bioethics and Director of the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation at the University of Manchester, an influential and pro-enhancement philosopher;

§  Dr Elena Antonova, BSc PhD, Templeton Positive Neuroscience Award winner and Research Fellow at Kings College London, leading expert on the neuroscience of mindfulness.

(The debates were recorded and transcribed and will be added to the resource section of the NERRI webpage.)

Establishing and facilitating the debate between such prominent scientist and the high school students was in many ways one of the pivotal moments of the MML. Students and scientists both enjoyed the debate and many interesting points were brought up. The debate continued in the following days – on as well as off hours.

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Another interesting point was some of the experiments done by the students (see pictures for more).  A group of students decided to verify the base science of deep brain electro simulation by challenging the ability to produce measureable currents inside a brain, when current was administered externally through the skull (it is indeed possible, at least when tried on pig’s heads).

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Another group worked with “enhanced” sensory input by literally borrowing each other’s eyes. A pair of students exchanged vision for a couple of days and it was clear to observers that this engendered a really special kind of bond between the two students. A clear example of the new types of emotional connections than can arise through NE technology.

Finally groups of students worked with some of the possible effects on surveillance and personal space. Their thesis: “Near future developments of cochlear implants as well as advances in artificial sights would diminish the ability of humans to interact privately in a public area”. The students used sound amplification devices to eavesdrop on their fellow students and observe their actions. Over a two-day period the open areas of the science centre became more or less vacant – a striking difference from the norm, where student and staff usually co-mingle in groups at small tables, couches etc. Since the surveillance equipment used was less than conspicuous, the actions of all the many users of the science centre were noted. This observed discomfort was not something we had discussed previously, nor is there much literature on the subject.

At the end of the event the students all answered eager to learn more about NERRI issues and all felt more able to engage in debates about the future of NE.

It is clearly possible for high School Students to tackle even the thornier areas of NE and RRI and to get to grip with some of the issues that might very well come to fill their future. Much of the scientific literature is within the grasp of the students, if not individually then in groups. Still – there seems to be a lack of literature oriented towards high school as well as the “informed public” level and many of the scholarly articles are pay walled and hence unreachable for students and their teachers.

It is easy to setup experiments’ that assays the impact of NE technologies. NERRI could be a part of the curriculum at high school level in several areas eg. biology, physics and bio technology.

The NERRI issues are easy to identify with – who doesn’t want easier access to better grades when in school? But even more are the ethical and esthetical issues. These high school students wanted to be heard and wanted to be allowed to vote for their options, for their bodies and their futures. The students felt the issues were important enough to fully embrace the work at hand and the level of activity and engagement was high – perhaps at times too high: One student noted: “This was the most I had ever worked in four days, ever. It was great, I learned a lot but I am so tired!”. Perhaps in future MML’s the agenda should be reduced from 14 hours a day to 10…

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