Tinkering with the brain with high school students

Education is a potential context for the application of neuro-enhancement, and NERRI’s second mutual learning exercise (MLE) organized by Ciência Viva made visible some of the concerns and expectations of school students. - From the Portuguese NERRI partner Ciência Viva

The MLE “Mexer no Cérebro” (“Tinkering with the Brain”) was cast as an experiment of collision of ideas. On the morning of 12 May, 19 high school students arrived to the Pavilion of Knowledge, in Lisbon, and were divided in two groups. These boys and girls would spend the morning in separate rooms, where two researchers from NERRI partner IBMC prepared them to be “for” or “against” neuro-enhancement. The group was reassembled and reinforced with 11 more students after lunch, for a debate with an agenda: making the opposing views collide to see what new ideas would emerge. And indeed, the clash of ideas translated into a rich discussion about fairness, equity, personal autonomy, human identity and even on the ability of young people to discuss difficult issues.


NE can change society – in good and bad ways

Two major assumptions about NE were clear right from the beginning of the debate. First, therapy. or restoring normality, should be distinguished from the improvement of human capacities; therapeutic uses of NE technologies are non-problematic, while NE clearly demands wide discussion. Second, NE should be discussed as a thoroughly social matter.

“Either NE is forbidden [for students] or it has to be freely distributed door to door”, claimed a student who positioned himself “against” the use of NE. Assuming that NE is not prohibited, the fair thing to do is to guarantee universal access to these technologies, otherwise the gap between haves and have nots will only widen. Others elaborated: equity is a myth; society has many ways of creating inequality in education, for instance, putting kids in private schools with fewer students per teacher and better facilities. And even if NE is allowed and universally distributed, there will always be those with access to better NE. NE, then, is related to social inequality and competitiveness, even if as most participants agreed it doesn’t so much create these mechanisms as it reproduces and reinforces them.

Many students granted that improving individual cognition means improving the capacity of society to face humanity problems. NE can help individuals creating new ideas, and thus lead to more technical innovations that ultimately will be beneficial for all. Still others stated that innovation is not necessarily good for society and the work of really smart and good people, like Einstein, can produce terrible things even against their will: “Technology can be used for evil things! Look at nuclear energy and the atomic bomb!” Society cannot count on the good intentions of cognitively enhanced innovators, because technological advancements have a life of their own.

NE also changes what it means to be a person. The same student who worried about the distribution of NE: “I’m clearly against the use of neuro-enhancers, because I do value people who work hard, who work on their own, who work all alone without artificial ingredients, and these will be in disadvantage [against users of NE]”. But aren’t humans always “artificial”, others asked? For instance, is artificial intelligence bad, or can it be a way to develop our own natural faculties? There are lots of “artificialities” created by medicine already that develop natural faculties; but these are all changes of the body. The difference with NE is that not just the body but the mind is being changed, “and this is where we can a draw a line separating danger from what can be safely done...”

Assuming that NE means tinkering with the mind – with who we are –, then, raises the question of who can or should be responsible for the use of NE, especially in case of minors. In this matter, the answer was consensual: NE should be forbidden for small children regardless of their parents will. There are risks of parents forcing the improvement of their kids in accordance to their expectations and ambitions as parents. Use of NE by teenagers must depend on parents’ authorization but also on medical advice and be prescription only. Most participants agreed that for teenagers it should also depend on some sort of consent by the subjects being enhanced.

Finally, students reported their difficulty to have their voice heard and to be taken seriously. What exercises like these show is that near specific contexts of use and application of NE, young students are able to make use of incomplete and ambivalent information to produce articulate discussions based on their values. Young citizens must have a voice when dealing with controversial issues.