I am repeatedly thrilled by news of events arranged by the European Neuroscience & Society Network (ENSN). If it does not clash too much with my planned research stay at BIOS in London in September, I will definitely find my way to Groningen for this conference as it fits very nicely with the next part of my ph.d.-project. See the conference description below.

In a museum context, I am also curious to see what kinds of objects the conference will contain. I have been thinking that it is very difficult to make neuroscience tangible, but maybe this will give some clues as to how it might be done. Neurodevices could be seen as very powerful objects in the sense that they literally touch upon (or mess with) the merging of self and materiality. Interesting stuff!

BRAIN GEAR – Discussing the design and use of neurodevices in neurosocieties

University of Groningen, the Netherlands, September 15-16th, 2011

European Neuroscience & Society Network; The Theory & History of Psychology Group

Scientists, sociologists of science, philosophers, and artists explore the emergence and implications of new ‘brain gear’ to repair and enhance our emotional and cognitive abilities.

What are the implications of brain-changing instruments that change our individual and collective self-image? Does their rise imply a fundamental change in the meaning of human life and should societies rethink fundamental concepts of justice and responsibility?

Various kinds of braindevices are in the making or already available. Firstly, there are implantable ones such as instruments for deep brain stimulation (DBS), epidural cortical stimulation (EpCS), vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) and on a molecular leven neuronanotubes.

Secondly, there are external devices including apparatus for electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) or repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS).

And, thirdly, there are digital tools like ambient intelligence (wireless microprocessors integrated in the body or the environment like clothes and walls), ‘digital drugs’ (audio files giving people a high) or software programs for neurobio-feedback built into computers as well as ‘neury bears’ (teddy bears training children’s brainwaves through sounds).

While many welcome this kind of apparatus as ways to eradicate the woes and inconveniences of human life, others fear they will cause a loss of human dignity and freedom. Do such devices blur old distinctions between ‘human beings’ versus ‘things’ or ‘nature’ versus ‘nurture’? Or were these untenable distinctions anyway? Do they imply fundamental changes because they operate directly on the brain or are they not that different from more traditional means of enhancement like cars, contact lenses, or microphones?

Chemical technologies inducing neurobiological changes are already widely in use. Maybe arguments about psychopharmacological changes of our selves can be directly applied to non-chemical molecular technologies. The analogy brings debates to mind about safety and efficacy, and the regulation of admission to the market. In addition, fundamental issues about individual freedom and responsibility also rise. Will the same social pressures that encourage people to use psychopharmacological drugs from childhood on make them use brain changing apparatus from childhood on? What to think of electric devices to boost children’s learning abilities?

Such debates unavoidably revolve around questions about the nature of responsibility. A number of neuroscientists argue these days that such concepts are superseded notions from the past, since the mind is nothing more than what the brain causes us to do. If so, it would not make a difference if the already material mind is extended with material hardware or software.

If ‘my brain made me do it’ my technologically enhanced brain made me do it no less. Legal philosophers however, argue that neurobiology can never have an impact on our notions of free will and responsibility since such notions do not need a non-material basis. Would that imply that we remain as responsible for our enhanced brain as we are for our non-enhanced brains?

These and related questions will be discussed during the workshop from various perspectives. Each in their own way scientists, sociologists, ethicists and artists will express their views and expectations.

The conference takes place on September 15 and 16 (departure September 17) 2011 in the artists’ center at The Palace in Groningen (www.hetpaleisgroningen.nl). The University of Groningen offers a satellite program on Monday September 12 and a debate on Wednesday September 14 (http://studium.hosting.rug.nl).

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