Ethics and brain stimulation

Buried in today’s news is a story, fascinating on several levels, about a research team at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine who have provided evidence of electrical stimulation of the brain’s natural alpha wave oscillations and the consequent impact upon creative thinking. Their study suggested a boost in creativity of 7.4% in healthy adults, applying the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, one of a small number of standard industry tests for creativity.

While it is the boost to creativity that attracts the headline interest, it appears that the short-term applications of this science will focus more on relieving depression and other psychological problems where a non-invasive and relatively inexpensive treatment such as alpha oscillation enhancement may prove useful. Of course, the research team leader acknowledges the interest that will be enlivened in people aiming to boost their creativity but he counsels caution. He cites longer-term safety concerns with a protocol that is still in its early stages, which seems fair enough; but he adds that he also has “ . . . strong ethical concerns about cognitive enhancement for healthy adults, just as sports fans might have concerns about athletic enhancement through the use of performance-enhancing drugs.”

This is interesting. We have always worried about potential harm in using chemical boosters of all sorts, but this has not spilled over into marking down achievements that have been wind-assisted by waftings from magic mushrooms. A de Kooning painting is what it is, as even more gloriously is Sgt Pepper. And the comparison with sports is false as, unlike the zero sum game of a contest where the success of a competitor comes at the expense of an opponent, the boosting of creativity is a much more nuanced reflection of a balance between creator and a wider creation.

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