Why discussing Neuro-Enhancement?

Dr. Helge Torgersen tries to explain why a debate on Neuro-Enhancement is required. Helge Torgersen is a Biologist from ITA (Institute of Technology Assessment) in Vienna. In 1990, after having held research and teaching positions in molecular biology at the University of Vienna, he joined ITA where he worked on the safety regulation of GMO releases, technology controversies and biotechnology policy. Since the mid-Nineties, he contributed widely to a considerable number of EU-funded projects on ethical, legal and social aspects of biotechnology including various Eurobarometer surveys.

The simple answer: because it is an exciting new field. Novel methods in brain research, so the argument, will produce powerful technologies to enhance cognitive functions. Frankly, I doubt this, but I think the idea should be discussed – though not for the sake of technology.

In general, publicly debating new technologies is difficult because they do not exist in a form non-experts have taken notice of. There are no radically new products or practical processes. From a societal point there is no subject. Does it make sense to discuss such thing? Are people interested in hypothetical stuff detached from the real world? It seems an odd idea.

If you nevertheless decide to trigger a debate you have to render the issue interesting. To do so, the default way is to draw analogies to well-known practices linked to the everyday lives of people. With neuro-enhancement, this falls easy since the idea is not new – on the contrary.

We have been modulating our brain’s functions for a long time, from having a cup of coffee to learning poems by heart (well, coffee may be more popular). Other methods involve, for example, methamphetamine, a Nazi development to keep soldiers awake, now illegally sold as crystal meth. Similarly old but less dangerous is methylphenidate, taken (not only) by students to pass exams.

However, none of the drugs currently (mis)used is a proven safe and reliable cognitive enhancer. The same applies to other technologies. Invasive deep-brain stimulation is a last resort for treating devastating diseases. Non-invasive magnetic or electric brain stimulation is easy to apply and seems effective sometimes, but nobody really knows when and why. Today, there is little more than energy drinks or education to boost forms of cognitive performance.

Regarding tomorrow, progress in the neurosciences rendered theoretical insights but few practical applications so far. The brain performs many functions, and experts say the more one function gets stimulated the more another will suffer; there will be no net gain. At least, reliable enhancers without detrimental side effects will remain elusive for a long time.

In contrast to other fields sporting a DIY community like synthetic biology, there is no runaway technology development. This surely is a message for public debate, but nothing to write home about. With a lack of powerful technology, what else could be discussed?

I think it is the idea of neuro-enhancement, not the technology. This means performing thought experiments with imagined technologies along the lines of existing practices, governed by today’s wishes, fears and aims. In fact, many NERRI events held this year seem to have – implicitly or explicitly – taken this approach.

Issues deliberated were highly salient beyond the immediate context: do we want more competition or is there already too much? Where do we want to draw the boundary between a normal healthy state of the mind and a pathologically impaired one? How much leeway do we want to give to individual self-alteration without putting at risk the cohesion in society?

No doubt, these questions (and others addressed) should be subject to public debate. To be provocative: it would perhaps not be necessary to discuss neuro-enhancement to address them, but it helps. Deliberating hypothetical consequences of non-existing technologies is a way of gaining insight into the trends and forces driving our world. It may be a mirror that ‘contorts to recognisability’ societal trends, to paraphrase Brecht.

To be even bolder: only when imagining future worlds we can recognise today’s trends to decide whether we want them to continue and gain in momentum or not. Neuro-enhancement as rooted in today’s practices is an idea well suited to highlighting trends that will shape our future world to the better or the worse. Once they become recognised it is ours to decide.