Does Enhancing Cognition Affect Human Values? How Does This Translate into Social Responsibility?

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014
Grace Lee, Judy Illes and Frauke Ohl (eds.)Ethical Issues in Behavioral NeuroscienceCurrent Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences1910.1007/7854_2014_334

How Does Enhancing Cognition Affect Human Values? How Does This Translate into Social Responsibility?

Laura Y. Cabrera1, 2  

National Core for Neuroethics, The University of British Columbia, 2211 Wesbrook Mall, Koerner S124, Vancouver, BC, V6T2B5, Canada

Institute of Biomedical Ethics, University of Basel, Bernoullistrasse 28, 4056 Basel, Switzerland



Laura Y. Cabrera


The past decade has seen a rise in the use of different technologies aimed at enhancing cognition of normal healthy individuals. While values have been acknowledged to be an important aspect of cognitive enhancement practices, the discussion has predominantly focused on just a few values, such as safety, peer pressure, and authenticity. How are values, in a broader sense, affected by enhancing cognitive abilities? Is this dependent on the type of technology or intervention used to attain the enhancement, or does the cognitive domain targeted play a bigger role in how values are affected? Values are not only likely to be affected by cognitive enhancement practices; they also play a crucial role in defining the type of interventions that are likely to be undertaken. This paper explores the way values affect and are affected by enhancing cognitive abilities. Furthermore, it argues that knowledge of the interplay between values and cognitive enhancement makes a strong case for social responsibility around cognitive enhancement practices.

Cognitive enhancementSocial responsibilityValues

1 Introduction

The use of different technological interventions for cognitive enhancement by healthy individuals raises a number of ethical issues, including safety, peer pressure and authenticity, which have become a focus of discussion and analysis in the neuroethics literature. It is also generally acknowledged that the debate on cognitive enhancement touches upon a wide variety of values, perceptions, hopes, and fears, from philosophical and ethical perspectives on desirable human qualities to the proper role of medicine and the equitable distribution of resources (Coenen et al. 2009; Elliott 2003; Farah et al. 2004; President’s Council on Bioethics 2003; Wolpe 2002). Even though the role of human values in the ethical debate is acknowledged, an issue that has not yet been widely explored is how enhancing cognitive ability affects human values if at all.

One way in which values can be affected by cognitive enhancement has to do with the organ targeted, namely the human brain. The brain is not only generally considered to be the most dynamic part of our anatomy and physiology and the most sensitive to intervention, but also the organ responsible for affective and cognitive capacities, and reasoning and decision-making. The brain is also considered to be the location and driver of the human being—including consciousness, self, and identity (Glannon 2007; Farah 2010). From these perceptions about the brain, it is reasonable to say that interventions affecting the brain are regarded as having more far-reaching consequences for human behavior, self-perception, and understanding than any other intervention in our body, and consequently likely to affect human values.

However, there is another way in which cognitive enhancement can affect human values, and this has to do with the different technological, political, and cultural changes that cognitive enhancement brings with it. We live in a world that is changing at an accelerated pace driven by rapid technological change (Kurzweil 2005) and globalization. The speed, scale, and depth of the changes that we are part of today mean not only rapid changes in our technological capabilities, which might be outpacing society’s and even each individual’s capacity to conceive of and agree on new values, but also generate uncertainty, imbalances, and conflicts both socially and personally. It is not that in the past other socio-cultural and technological changes have not affected our values (Gupta et al. 2011); rather, it is the rapid and radical changes that current emerging technological capabilities to enhance human cognition can potentially bring about that make the subject so important (Czerniawski 2010; Sarewitz and Karas 2006). Moreover, in modern democratic societies, which are in many regards more pluralistic than past societies, the diversity of perspectives, aspirations, and capabilities that we encounter can generate strongly divergent views on values among its members. Finally, it can be said that while it is true that technology and its different uses affect human values, it is also the case that values affect the way we use, develop, regulate and perceive technology and the goals that we aim to achieve by its different uses.

Thus, to properly understand the role cognitive enhancement practices play within a society, it is not only necessary to have a good grasp of the values at stake, but also on how our values affect and are affected by enhancement practices. These two aspects are the main focus of this paper.

2 Enhancing Cognition and Human Values

2.1 What Are Human Values and Why Do They Matter?

Values are referred to constantly in almost every important discussion of modern societies, from bioethics to economics and politics. One reason for the constant reference is because human values represent ideals or goals that people in a society strive to achieve. Values orient activities within and between individuals, and as such are a benchmark for human behavior. Thus, it is of no surprise that when discussing topics such as cognitive enhancement , values are an essential theme.

While it is true that needs and attitudes can also be an important part of how we conduct our lives, values can be said to underlie these. In this regard, values not only guide selection and evaluation of behavior, people and events, they also enable groups and individuals to cope with reality as they “cognitively transform the necessities inherent in human existence and express them in the language of specific values about which they can then communicate” (Schwartz 1994). Values then are important because they serve useful social functions, for example, enabling the smooth functioning and survival of groups, as well as enabling members of a given community to share socialization and conventions (Bain et al. 2006).

Values are generally acquired both through socialization to dominant group values and through the unique learning experiences of individuals. As such, they encompass various moral, legal, cultural and religious considerations that are internalized. Values also affect the means that are used to achieve those ideals and goals. Thus, human values are involved in what people want in life, how they feel under certain circumstances and the decisions they will likely make.

There are a variety of value systems, from personal to social, moral and political, economic and cultural, and often the pursuit of each type of value has psychological, practical and social consequences that may conflict or not be compatible with the pursuit of other types of values (Schwartz 1994). For example, seeking personal success for oneself is likely to clash with actions aimed at improving others’ situations. As such, conflicting values do not only occur between individuals, they are also common within a single person. Different enhancement interventions can play a role in the reaffirmation, modification, or at times, even the abandonment of values within our own value system. While it might be the case, often people embrace different values that do not add up to an orderly and coherent system, making these values more likely to be abandoned or modified. It is also possible that at least some values are more core to the person and as such less likely to be changed. Baron and colleagues referred to those values that seem unchangeable as “protected values ” (Baron and Spranca 1997), that is to say, values that resist trade-offs with other values as they are regarded as highly important to one’s self identity . The fact that people engage in violations of their protected values does not mean that the value is less important to them (Baron and Spranca 1997). However, such a violation is likely to create internal conflict. The contingency of our all-too-human values makes it possible that the various pressures, perspectives and compromises that we have to make in today’s 24/7 world can often lead to a radical shift in someone’s values. Accordingly, for some the benefits promised by cognitive enhancers might not be enough to make them modify or trade off their values, while for others it might.

2.2 Enhancement, Values and Society

Among the different ways in which humans can enhance themselves, cognitive enhancement has been one of the most discussed. There are many reasons for this. Some people are of the view that humans can never have too much cognitive experience. Some scholars take such a position to argue that it is desirable to enhance cognition, as this enables the individual to experience other forms of knowing and being in the world. Other commentators argue that even “a small increase in general cognitive function would likely be sizeable and desirable” (Sandberg and Bostrom 2006).1 Even if we do not agree that cognitive improvement would have such a significant impact on society, we can still agree that cognition is indeed important for the individual and society. Cognition involves various mental faculties, including perception, attention , representation, memory , learning, and executive functions such as goal setting, planning, decision making, and judgment (Sahakian and Morein-Zamir 2011; Sandberg and Bostrom 2006), which enable us to perceive, understand, and interact with the world. Thus, considering the scope of abilities involved in cognition, it is not hard to see why cognitive ability is generally, particularly in modern societies, regarded as more useful than other abilities from a social perspective (Sandberg and Bostrom 2006), as well as enabling the pursuit of personal goals. Cognition has also become a key faculty in modern societies as it helps us to balance an increasingly complex society. Considering all this, we can see why cognitive enhancement, understood as the amplification or extension of any of the core cognitive faculties mentioned above, has become such a common topic and among the main goals of the human enhancement movement.

Cognitive enhancement is not a new goal of humankind; for instance, the use of certain herbs and potions with the aim to improve memory and cognition can be traced back to antiquity. However, as we learn more about how the brain works and about new technologies and applications that can alter brain functioning, the possibilities of developing new types of cognitive enhancers take a different scope. Moreover, the world in which we currently live is a more information-rich world compared to the past, a world in which productivity and efficiency have taken priority over other values . This of course shapes the different uses and users of cognitive enhancers. For example, in today’s society, domains that are regarded as facilitators of success in life are more likely to be enhanced than those that are not. Given these changes in today’s society, it is not far-fetched to think that they have had an impact in the search for mechanisms to help individuals to cope and be able to fulfill the demands imposed on them by modern societies and living styles.

2.3 Interventions

A look at the discussion around cognitive enhancement points towards disagreement in our values as well as polarized views about the prospects of cognitive enhancement. Choices around cognitive enhancement involve different values and expectations about the technologies and their uses. Thus, how these choices are made has important ethical and political dimensions (Nuffield Council on Bioethics 2013). As neuroscience and neurotechnology have advanced, the list of prospective cognitive enhancers has also expanded (Farah et al. 2004). Today, there exists a broad range of interventions that can affect cognition. While there are non-technological driven ways to enhance cognition, such as keeping an appropriate level of nutrients and glucose, proper sleep (Ferrie et al. 2011) and exercise (Vaynman and Gomez-Pinilla 2005), here I will only mention briefly two of the most controversial methods, namely pharmacological-based enhancements and brain stimulation techniques .

2.3.1 Pharmaceutical Interventions

While for many years individuals have tried to enhance their cognitive functions using drugs (President’s Council on Bioethics 2003; Savulescu and Bostrom 2009; Savulescu et al. 2011), characteristic of more modern societies is the use of stimulant drugs, ranging from nicotine and caffeine, which are widely used, to medications for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and wakefulness, which are more controversial (Evans-Brown et al. 2012; Farah et al. 2004; Greely et al. 2008; Turner and Sahakian 2006). This implies that medications are not necessarily used for impaired or at-risk patients, but also for lifestyle uses (Farah 2010; Racine and Forlini 2010). Among the cognitive areas where studies have found evidence of some improvement in normal healthy individuals are: attention , focus, memory , problem solving, and executive function (Elliott et al. 1997). Even though the long-term effects of these kinds of pharmaceutical interventions in healthy individuals remain largely unknown, and their efficacy for healthy individuals is highly contested, these types of interventions are probably among the most widely used and discussed in the literature and among the general public.

2.3.2 Brain Stimulation

Brain stimulation has recently shown potential as a cognitive enhancer. A number of small studies using brain stimulation report improvements in participants’ performance in laboratory tasks, for example, in tasks involving memory or language skills, that could be construed as ‘enhancements’. Here, I will only mention two minimally invasive techniques, namely transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) 2 and transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) .3

Different research groups have been using these technologies to achieve and demonstrate improvements in cognition. In the case of TMS , studies have shown improved performance in various complex motor learning tasks (Kim et al. 2004; Kobayashi et al. 2004), language-related abilities (Mottaghy et al. 1999), visuospatial processing (Hilgetag et al. 2001; Walsh et al. 1998), perceptual abilities (Gallate et al. 2009; Snyder et al. 2003, 2006; Snyder 2009) and in modulating social cognition (Knoch et al. 2006; Lo et al. 2003; Luber et al. 2009; Young et al. 2010). Regarding tDCS , there are studies suggesting that it enhances working (Fregni et al. 2005; Ohn et al. 2008) and declarative (Marshall et al. 2004) memory as well as certain forms of learning (Bullard et al. 2011; Flöel et al. 2008). Evidence for the enhancement of more general complex problem-solving abilities via tDCS is limited, but intriguing. This includes areas such as complex verbal associative thought (Cerruti and Schlaug 2009), planning ability (Dockery et al. 2009), numerical competence (Kadosh et al. 2010), problem solving (Chi and Snyder 2011, 2012), as well as behavior in cases of reward-seeking tasks (Fecteau et al. 2007) and the generation of deceptive responses (Priori et al. 2008).

Given the role that cognition has in our lives and the different faculties associated with cognition, it is not too far-fetched to think that as new capabilities are obtained by humans through cognitive enhancement , their morality and values will change (Hart 1958). Perhaps new values will come to govern society as we move closer to what some have referred as “enhancement societies” (Coenen et al. 2009), where in an era of increasing experimentation with cognitive enhancement technologies and interventions, taking pills or stimulating our brains with electric currents will be regarded as acceptable, at least for certain cognitive domains. However, this does not mean that cognitive enhancement will always affect human values , nor that different values will be affected equally. For example, it is likely that cognitive enhancers that exert a temporary action might not affect values in the way that more permanent enhancers will. It is also possible that after a certain level of enhanced cognition, the enhanced individuals might develop new values, new perspectives on life and on their relationships, which might conflict with those of unenhanced individuals. Ultimately these are empirical questions, but in the meantime we can explore how changes in different cognitive domains might affect human values.

Consider memory enhancement. Memory is a good example of how complicated it can be to assess how cognitive enhancement affects values . To start with, memory is not a single system since multiple systems are involved. Furthermore, a memory enhancer that enables people to improve working memory might not be as problematic in terms of affecting values as one that targets memories of personal experiences, as these memories help us to build a framework of things we believe to be true about ourselves and the world (Bublitz and Merkel 2009; Elliott 1998; Taylor 1992). It could also be that an increased ability to remember every instance could overflow our capacity to categorize memories, which could impair our selectivity process, our ability to make abstractions from our lived experiences, and our ability to distinguish larger patterns (Borges 1964; Liao and Sandberg 2008; Luria 1987). These are all important aspects, not only of our cognitive faculties, but also of our value system. Regarding learning, it can be said that reducing a learning experience from one that involves engagement and time, to one in which less time and effort is involved due to the use of a cognitive enhancer, will have an impact on our value system.

In the case of attention , certain enhancers might enable people to concentrate better in tasks, but in doing so encourage them to bypass other important goals, such as keeping in contact with friends.4 It may also be the case that by enhancing attention we would be able to perceive more details about people’s behavior, which will enable us to judge their behavior under a different framework.

Probably the areas of enhanced cognition with the greatest impact on our value system will be those affecting social cognition . For instance, Young et al. (2010) found that TMS caused subjects to focus more on the outcome of an act than the intention of the actor when judging permissibility of the act as tested in a short vignettes scenario. Another example of how brain stimulation can affect social cognition comes from Knoch et al. (2006), who found that after stimulation, subjects in an Ultimatum Game were more likely to accept low money offers, even though they still perceived them as being unfair. One last example involves the effect on risk-seeking behavior (Fecteau et al. 2007), which could produce new behaviors that individuals would otherwise not have engaged in.

Imagine that in the future cognitive enhancers could affect safely and reliably more complex cognitive faculties, such as critical thinking or self control . Such cognitive enhancement interventions could deeply affect human values . For instance, in the case of critical thinking, it is likely that enhancement would enable us to assess in a more critical way many of the biases underlying questionable human decisions. Some of the studies mentioned above claim that there is already evidence for this (Snyder et al. 2003; Snyder 2009).5 To some extent, some of these types of enhancement interventions are the ones that supporters of moral enhancement have argued for (Douglas 2008; Persson and Savulescu 2008, 2011). However, as some scholars have counter-argued, it is the complexity of the different mechanisms involved (Zarpentine 2013) that raises problems for this type of argument. In the case of human values it is the interplay of social, cultural, and environmental factors, as well as the complexity behind most of our cognitive capacities that pose a problem in assessing the impact of the enhancement of cognition on values.

While it can be argued that these examples have just shown that cognitive enhancers affect behavior, it is plausible that long-term use of cognitive enhancers might result in certain behaviors being more common than others and that the individual might try to adapt his value system accordingly. This is, of course, an empirical question that needs long term follow-up of individuals who engage in different cognitive enhancement interventions. However, the evidence on the increasing number of individuals engaging in cognitive enhancement practices (Hotze et al. 2011; Olfson et al. 2013; Ragan et al. 2013; Smith and Farah 2011) already tells us something about how values have changed compared to previous decades.

2.4 Values at Stake

Another way in which values and cognitive enhancement affect each other is related to the different values underlying individual desires and societal goals. There are a series of values that seem to permeate Western culture and that are likely driving the current cognitive enhancement agenda.

2.4.1 Competitiveness and Success

We are part of a society in which the prime driver of development is competition (Ferrari et al. 2012; Lamkin 2012). Thus, even though at least some competition seems to be desirable, this is not the case when it discourages people from nurturing values such as cooperation or solidarity .

In a society dominated by competitiveness , improved cognition will be perceived and evaluated differently than in a society where other types of values are prioritized. Thus, in competitive societies, it is not uncommon to find arguments supporting cognitive enhancement on the grounds that even a small upward shift in cognitive faculties would have a beneficial economic impact. The main argument use here is that cognitive enhancement would enable people to perform better and avoid losses due to inattention in the school or workplace. However, one counter-argument here is that the use of cognitive enhancements under competitive environments can overstretch the natural range of equality, as those who have access or use cognitive enhancement are accrued greater advantages in life compared to those who do not have access or do not use them, to the point where inequality becomes a more salient issue (Brock 1998

Only gold members can continue reading. Log In or Register to continue