In October, I’m participating in ‘an interdisciplinary workshop for young scholars‘ at the University of Lübeck, organized by the Institute for the History of Medicine and Science Studies at the University of Lübeck, in cooperation with the Institut für Mensch, Ethik und Wissenschaft in Berlin.

The workshop title is “Good life better – anthropological, sociological and philosophical dimensions of enhancement” – which fits nicely with my project on the history of ‘successful aging’ and its relation to ideas about human enhancement.

Here’s my abstract for the workshop:

Good old brains — How concerns about the ageing society and ideas about cognitive enhancement interact in neuroscience

Discussions about human cognitive enhancement are in different ways based on assumptions about neuroscientific knowledge production and applicability of neuroscientific results. But what is it in neuroscience that relates to discussions about human enhancement? How has the production of knowledge within the neurosciences anticipated or dismantled the hopes and wishes for cognitive enhancement? Have neuroscientific practices related to such notions as ‘successful ageing’ offered new perspectives to the human enhancement debate? Drawing on a historical analysis of the concept of successful ageing in neuroscience publications from the 1980s till today, this paper will discuss how the aims and the production of knowledge within age-related neuroscience are connected to ideas about cognitive enhancement.

Neuroscientific research on ageing is a particularly relevant field for investigating this connection, since the brain is in the focus of both enhancement debates and research (and politics) concerning ageing. In the context of ageing research, the notion of ‘successful ageing’ has been influential in emphasising individual lifestyle choices and preventive measures as means to ageing ‘successfully’ (Rowe & Kahn, 1987). Instead of viewing ageing as something defined by inevitable physiological and cognitive decline – a growing concern for the ‘ageing’ Western societies from the 1980s onwards – this notion stresses that individuals themselves have the possibility to avoid such decline by maintaining and improving themselves through healthy lifestyles, etc. Concerns about ‘the ageing society’ and the individualised solutions offered by ‘successful ageing’ might even be considered an underlying driving force in discussions about cognitive enhancement: Both individuals and societies, it seems, have reason to improve cognitive functions and prevent neuro-degenerative diseases.

At first glance, neuroscientific research seems to corroborate with these concerns and wishes. As an article in Neurobiology of Aging states: “these findings suggest ways in which biological aging can be manipulated to promote good function in aged individuals.” (Collier & Coleman, 1991: 685). Publications such as this one discuss how use of substance intake and certain behaviour (e.g. diet and exercise) might in different ways ‘promote good function’; scientific perspectives that enhancement-proponents have picked up on and turned into notions like ‘smart drugs’ and ‘brain training’.

However, neuroscientific ageing-research also offers other perspectives on enhancement. Neuroscience may suggest ”that the aging individual has the potential to enhance or maintain intellectual functioning” (Staudinger, Cornelius & Baltes, 1989: 44). But what most of such suggestions implicate is not that it is possible to improve function beyond the ‘normal’, instead it refers to treating functional decline that has already taken place. On the other hand, preventive measures may work by improving the cognitive function of otherwise ‘normal’ individuals through lifestyle interventions or substance intake. But is this really ‘enhancement’? The notion of enhancement seems to refer to measures that moves us beyond the limits of human bodies (whatever they are), but the plasticity of the human brain complicates such notions as normal or enhanced. In addition, the difficulty of distinguishing ‘normal’ ageing from pathological ageing (what is normal at age 20 or 80?) makes the whole issue even more complicated.

As this is a work in progress, any comments and perspectives will be much appreciated!

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