Skip to main content

Cognitive Enrichment on Cognitive Enhancement at the Michigan Undergraduate Philosophy Conference

By Shweta Sahu

Photo Credit: Anne Trelfa

On February 19, the Michigan Undergraduate Philosophy Conference assembled for the 4th annual meeting at the Insight Institute of Neurosurgery and Neuroscience in Flint, Michigan. The program is jointly hosted by the Center for Cognition and Neuroethics and the University of Michigan-Flint Philosophy Department. I had the pleasure of attending and presenting at this incredible event through the generous support of the American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience and the Neuroethics Program at Emory. The goals of the Center for Cognition and Neuroethics are to promote “the exploration of conceptual foundations of neuroscience” and to “study the implications of their advances for society in the legal, political, and ethical realms.” The conference, organized by Cody Hatfield-Myers, a senior at the University of Michigan- Flint, brought together students from multiple states in the US and even a few students from Canada.

The event, directed at undergraduate students, aimed to foster the sharing of students’ diverse papers, all linked by the common themes of cognition and neuroethics. Central topics of discussion included: philosophy of mind, cognitive science, neuroscience, philosophy of action and free will, identity, medical ethics and memory, learning, belief, and knowledge. Common questions that seemed to resurface included: What is self-identity? Can you freely alter your own self-identity? Are there aspects of one’s personal identity that it would be wrong to alter, eliminate or hide? If so, why? What is the proper role of medicine—to eliminate illness or to enhance people (physically, morally, psychologically) to make them “better than well”? What are the limits of parental control over the health and well-being of the body and mind of their child (as was the case with my talk)? Do children have the right to determine whether or not they are subjected to medical or psychological treatments? How are health, life and death, medicine, physical and mental illness portrayed in art, music, and in literature?

The conference was structured to facilitate discussion and interdisciplinary collaboration. Each session consisted of two talks. After some inspiring opening remarks by Cody Myers from University of Michigan-Flint, the first session consisted of talks from Albwin Wagner Scmitzer from University of Cincinnati, who presented his paper “Fantasy, Reality, and the Self,” and from Ryan Powers from Ohio University, who presented his paper, “Logical Fatalism: Origins as Essential Properties of Events.” In his talk, Schmitzer asked and expanded upon the question, if we usually discredit fiction as having value in the real world, is there any point to reading it? The second session featured a talk from Juensung Kim from University of Toronto on “Predicting Encoding of Acupuncture” along with my own talk, “Responsibility: Revis(ion)ing Brains via Cognitive Enhancement.” Kim’s talk was particularly engaging because he spoke more from a neuroscience background and found ties to connect his Asian culture back to early ancient medicinal rituals, like acupuncture.

The purpose of my paper was to explore the ethical issues surrounding cognitive enhancement, which is the augmentation of one’s intellectual ability via medicine or various methods of therapy, especially transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). I also wrote a bit about this in an earlier post here. I began by introducing tDCS and noting its rise in popularity, along with its growing fervor in the DIY community. I then reviewed and expanded on some of Dr. Anjan Chatterjee’s concerns regarding “cosmetic neurology,” including, but not limited to, whether cognitive enhancement is worth the potential risks; if we have the ability to enhance, should we enhance; and could we alter the individual and erode character through enhancement? I delved further into the personal realm and questioned whether my parents would have opted for cognitive enhancement for me, but from the unique perspective of a first generation student and the complications that ensued.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Steven S.
One fascinating question that fellow Emory University student, Lokita Rajan, brought up was whether the use of calculators could be considered a form of coercion. She astutely noted that teachers frequently write exams assuming that students use calculators on math or science exams, and that the time frame allowed for the test assumes the use of a calculator. However, in doing so, are they taking away our free will or are they enabling us to reach our full potential? She was prompted to ask this question in response to my statement that “enhancements just augment people’s existing capabilities, so they may enable them to lead a more ‘authentic life’ and reach their full potential.” Conversely, one may argue that “natural” excellence is worth more than bought talent. In my view, if there are shortcuts to excellence, then access to those shortcuts is what determines success or failures, not one’s inherent hard work. Moreover, some shortcuts in our society are completely acceptable. For example, performance enhancing athletic shoes and the use of calculators in high school physics promote authenticity by allowing a person to concentrate on more complex challenges that relate to goals rather than spending time developing thick soles or trudging through algebra. While we may be implicitly coerced into using calculators, I think it is acceptable because the use of a calculator allows us to focus our energies on the subject we are trying to master (whether it be using equations in biochemistry or formulas in physics), rather than “wasting time” doing the algebra and not grasping the main idea of the science we are learning.

Another question that was particularly intriguing was brought up by Cody Myers, the event coordinator. He asked about the cultural responses to enhancements. Since I came at my paper from more of a neuroscience and ethics view, and less of a sociological or anthropological background, I didn’t know much about the existing literature except to know that most cultures probably view it differently. However, based on personal experience, I can tell you that when speaking with my cousin my age in India, he does not know of peers with ADHD, has never heard of Ritalin, or even study drugs commonly used in colleges in the US, though he goes to a prestigious university in India. This got me wondering whether parents there immediately discredit those ideas and frown upon enhancements other than natural remedies. As a kid, I would always mix up my P’s, F’s and 5’s and I had a hard time sitting in one place, so I thought that maybe I needed to get tested for ADHD or dyslexia. I remember that when I voiced this thought to my parents, they immediately said nothing was wrong with me I just needed to focus better. A study done by Ilina Singh on kids with ADHD in the UK and the US backs up the idea that different cultures view enhancements differently. After asking children in both countries why they took Ritalin, the study found that kids in the UK mainly reported that they take Ritalin so they can “manage anger and bad behaviors,” but kids in the US reported that they take Ritalin to “be more productive and improve academic performance.”

Upon further investigation into the literature, it is found that traditional Chinese medicine and Indian ayurvedic treatments using a plethora of plants and naturally occurring substances are widely practiced in China and India, respectively. Moreover, one WHO report found that “up to 80% of people in developing countries use traditional medical therapies as the first line of defense against illness.” Another study notes that these holistic systems of health care are commonly used in the “prevention and management of chronic, non-communicable and systemic disease.” Yet another study has reviewed the applications of plants used in ayurvedic medicine and found that these natural treatments have been used in: “stimulating intellect and sharpening the memory… restoring youth, memory and longevity… combating physical and mental exhaustion…” Thus, we can see that some cultures do seem to prefer natural enhancements over “unnatural enhancements” such as pills. Extending this idea by association, therefore, leads us to believe these same cultures would most probably value natural cognitive enhancement methods (like exercise, meditation, and ayurvedic plants) over unnatural ones (noninvasive brain stimulation and pills). If presented with a pill containing a crushed up herb with added chemicals, perhaps these individuals would hesitate to comply with such medication.

Photo Credit: Cody Hatfield-Myers
Another stimulating question Juensung Kim brought up stumped me at first. He asked whether glasses and clothes are considered enhancements. The answer to this question lies in the definition. Though there are many definitions of cognitive enhancement, most say something among the lines of: “the use of drugs, biotechnological strategies or other means by healthy individuals aiming at the improvement of cognitive functions such as vigilance, concentration or memory without any medical need.” So yes, while glasses can improve your ability to see what a professor is writing on the board, thereby allowing you to engage with the material more, they are not an enhancement, in my opinion because they are not augmenting your cognitive ability [memory, reasoning, problem solving, etc.] as do other enhancements.

Little did I know that my talk would be just one of the stimulating, spectacular talks given by my peers; a full itinerary of the talks and lecturers can be viewed here. Following each talk, there were several other enthralling debates, questions, and discussions brought up by conference members. Some questions that were discussed in depth were in regards to the role/extent of free will in determining responsibility in criminal trials, how much sensorimotor understanding was comparable to Kant’s epistemology, how responsibility differs in parents putting their children to bed on time and dieting in comparison to applying some sort of noninvasive brain stimulation, whether the brain is more malleable if it has been primed earlier in life, and the uses of N, N-Dimethyltryptamine (similar to serotonin) in the brain and its role in evolution.

It was truly an engaging day filled with excellent questions. My hope is that more people will present and attend in the future, and I hope to attend next year for another wonderfully eye-opening event.

Want to cite this post?

Sahu, S. (2016). Cognitive Enrichment on Cognitive Enhancement at the Michigan Undergraduate Philosophy Conference. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


Emory Neuroethics on Facebook