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A Neuroethics From Below?

By Anjan Chatterjee

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Gustav Fechner, a 19th Century icon of Psychology, is regarded as the founder of both psychophysics and empirical aesthetics. His approach to aesthetics, influenced by his work in psychophysics, asked a radical question: Could there be an aesthetics from below? Rather than approach aesthetics from above, that is, first from principles as had been done for centuries by theoreticians, he thought we could ask people directly what they liked to inform our understanding of aesthetic experiences. He began an empirical tradition of showing people stimuli, such as different shaped polygons, and asked them which they found beautiful. Analogously, I ask, can there be a neuroethics from below? Can we ask people what behaviors they find acceptable?

Discussions about the ethics of cognitive enhancement or cosmetic neurology, as I dubbed it 15 years ago1, have been orchestrated from above by ethicists, philosophers, and academic clinicians. The practice of using neurotechnologies to improve mentation, mood, and movement in the healthy has also captured the imagination of the public as depicted in the 2018 Netflix documentary, Take your Pills. Yet, with few exceptions3,4, relatively little attention has been paid to what people actually think about such practices.

Erin Conrad, Stacey Humphries, and I recently published a study2 in which we queried 3,700 American online participants. We asked them to consider one of three scenarios: a student using cognitive enhancement to study, an athlete to train, and an employee to work. We asked them if they thought it was acceptable to use cognitive enhancement in these scenarios and whether they would use it themselves. We also used metaphors to describe cognitive enhancement, introducing it as either “fuel” or “steroids” for the brain.

People accepted cognitive enhancement in the workplace more readily than in school or in sports. They also accepted other people using cognitive enhancement even if they themselves would be reluctant to take it 2.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

The opposition to the use of enhancement by athletes was unsurprising given doping scandals that plague professional sports. By contrast, we did not expect people to accept enhancement at work more often than enhancement in school. Could this difference be explained by competition? Is cognitive enhancement cheating when used in competition, and is school more competitive than work? We then asked people to imagine a highly competitive workplace or a collaborative one. They accepted cognitive enhancement equally.

So, if the level of competition didn’t matter, why would it be worse to use cognitive enhancement at school than at work? We do not know. Perhaps people think that the young are not yet fully capable of making sensible choices. Perhaps people consider the greater good: When a student takes a pill to excel, they only help themselves. When workers enhance, we all benefit.

We also found that people were more accepting of cognitive enhancement for others when pills were described as “fuel” than when described as “steroids” for the brain. The language we use to frame uncertain situations can shape opinion. Metaphors matter.

When considered in the aggregate, our findings demonstrate that public opinion around acceptance of cognitive enhancement can be quite nuanced. The context in which enhancement occurs, opining about others or oneself, and the language used to frame the practice all contribute to people’s ethical valuation.

Are such findings relevant to public policy? One would certainly not want to be ruled by a tyranny of the majority. However, in a representative democracy, policy should at the very least be informed by what those who are being represented actually think. I would argue that there is an important role for a robust neuroethics from below.


Anjan Chatterjee, MD, FAAN, is Professor of Neurology, Psychology, and Architecture and the founding director of the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics. He is a member of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, and the Center for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania. He received his BA in Philosophy from Haverford College, MD from the University of Pennsylvania and completed his neurology residency at the University of Chicago.

The past Chair of Neurology at Pennsylvania Hospital, Dr. Chatterjee’s clinical practice focuses on patients with cognitive disorders. His research addresses questions about neuroaesthetics, spatial cognition and language, and neuroethics. He wrote The Aesthetic Brain: How we evolved to desire beauty and enjoy art and co-edited: Neuroethics in Practice: Mind, medicine, and society, and The Roots of Cognitive Neuroscience: behavioral neurology and neuropsychologyHe is or has been on the editorial boards of: American Journal of Bioethics: Neuroscience, Behavioural Neurology, Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology, Empirical Studies of the Arts, European Neurology, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, European Neurology, Neuropsychology, and the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts

  1. Chatterjee, A. (2004). Cosmetic neurology: The controversy over enhancing movement, mentation, and mood. Neurology, 63(6), 968-74.
  2. Conrad, E. C., Humphries, S., Chatterjee, A. (2019, Jan.). Attitudes toward cognitive enhancement: the role of metaphor and context. AJOB Neuroscience, 10(1), 35-47.
  3. Dietz, P., Soyka, M., Franke, A. G. (2016, April). Pharmacological neuroenhancement in the field of economics-poll results from an online survey. Front Psychol, 7, 520.
  4. Schelle, K. J., Faulmüller, N., Caviola, L., Hewstone, M. (2014, April). Attitudes toward pharmacological cognitive enhancement – a review. Front Syst Neurosci, 8, 53.

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Chatterjee, A. (2019). A Neuroethics From Below? The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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