The Future of the Mind in a Digital Society | Lecture and conversation with lawyer and behavioral neuroscientist Emily Murphy and brain scientist Alan Sanfey
The Future of the Mind in a Digital Society | Lecture and conversation with lawyer and behavioral neuroscientist Emily Murphy and brain scientist Alan Sanfey

The Future of the Mind in a Digital Society | Lecture and conversation with lawyer and behavioral neuroscientist Emily Murphy and brain scientist Alan Sanfey

How do new digital technologies such as AI affect our cognitive well-being? Are these digital advancements enhancing our cognitive functions and aiding in mental health care, or are they diminishing our capacity to process information, make decisions, and cope with stress? Should policymakers prioritize our cognitive well-being over traditional goals like economic growth and productivity? Learn from lawyer and behavioral neuroscientist Emily Murphy how the intersection of technology and brain & behavioral sciences can forge a new paradigm in public policy, one that places our collective cognitive health at the heart of societal progress.

Video  | Podcast 

Thursday 25 April 2024 | 20.00 – 21.30 hrs | De Lindenberg, Nijmegen | Radboud Reflects and Healthy Brain. See announcement.

Review

Written by Bas van Woerkum-Rooker

Navigation systems diminish our navigational abilities, while smartphones impact our capacity to concentrate. Today, our skills and wellbeing are increasingly affected by new technologies. How can we use data from brain and behavioural science in policy-making, to improve our cognitive wellbeing? Law professor and behavioral neuroscientist Emily Murphy discussed how the brain and behavioural sciences should be used to shape public policy, after which she engaged in a conversation with philosopher of technology Tamar Sharon and neuroscientist Alan Sanfey about our collective cognitive capital in a world increasingly dominated by digital technologies. Philosopher Frank van Caspel moderated this evening in the Steigerzaal of De Lindenberg. 

Brain science in the service of wellbeing

We've dedicated an immense amount of time and money to understanding how we think and behave, said Murphy. What should we do with this information? How should we apply it? According to Murphy, "We should be using brain and behavioral science to make decisions and then evaluate those decisions about how we govern ourselves, and how we achieve what government is ideally supposed to do, which is promote the general welfare of all people." Improving the welfare of all people is the realm of law, as well as of behavioural and brain sciences, according to Murphy. However, policymakers tend to prioritize economic value.

The concept of “nudging” has long been popular in policy for letting individuals maker better, healthier choices. Nudging, explained Murphy, is the practice of subtly guiding people through environmental cues, such as influencing food choices. But Murphy believed that nudging is too limited for addressing today’s challenges. Questions such as how toxins, diet, and warmer climates affect our ability to think and act, require a focus on the capacities of humans, as well as on the collective rather than the individual. For instance, air pollution and warmer classrooms have direct impact on brain function and mental health. 

The 3 C’s of Collective Cognitive Capital 

Murphy introduced the idea of “Collective Cognitive Capital”, a framework for integrating data from behavioural and brain Sciences into policymaking. She dissected each term individually, starting with “capital”. Policymakers speak the language of economic capital: money. Murphy thinks that instead of trying to change this language, we could use it to our advantage by thinking of our cognition in terms of capital. Just like monetary capital, cognitive capital is subject to fluctuations and influenced by environmental factors, such a diet, work load and air pollution. 

Murphy explained that she used the term “cognitive” in a very broad sense, including emotion regulation, social skills and cognitive resilience. About the latter, she explained how the burdensome paperwork in many jobs today prompt the question: should the government burden us with this? A realistic understanding of people's cognitive resilience could inform policymaking in this regard. This led to the term “collective”, where Murphy explained that our cognitive capacities aren’t the product of our individual brains, but of collaborative endeavours. We should think about improving the cognitive capacities and wellbeing of people in an overarching sense, not on an individual level. 

Smartphones, wise systems and ChatGPT

Collective cognitive capital seems to increasingly diminish in today’s society. In an effort to improve attention and remove distraction, schools in The Netherlands have now banned phones. Sharon argues affirmatively, emphasizing the necessity of policy intervention to address issues that individuals may struggle to manage alone. Sanfey highlighted that technologies indeed can “hijack” our motivation and attention, and that public policy can help to increase autonomy in this regard. He added that surveys indicate that children are willing to hand in their phones, as long as everybody does it. Murphy added that banning phones recreates room to learn subtle social skills that may otherwise get lost.

Can technologies also enhance collective cognitive capital? “My job is to see the risks”, said Sharon. Digitalization is reshaping various societal domains, including healthcare, agriculture, and education. Originally organized around certain values and expertise, the language of efficiency, speed and convenience comes to dominate these sectors. These technological developments may seem to relieve cognitive and physical burdens, they create new problems and challenges. Sanfey does see some opportunities, at least in his research area. So-called “wise systems” can help us overcome fairly well known limits in decision-making skills. These are systems that help us think through all aspects of our decisions. We think in terms of A or B, said Sanfey, “Stay at home or go to Radboud Reflects”. But there are many more, and technology can assist there. But we need to be cautious, “about who controls the data and decides what the system is advising”. 

The conversation shifted to ChatGPT and education. “The process of writing is the process of thinking”, said Murphy. Teaching is not merely about communicating knowledge, but about cultivating skills, such as how to make judgements based on accumulated knowledge. ChatGPT limits that learning process and students may lose certain skills, argued Murphy. It’s clear that we shouldn’t stop thinking about the cognitive skills we deem valuable in an increasingly digital society.

Announcement

How do new digital technologies such as AI affect our cognitive well-being? Are these digital advancements enhancing our cognitive functions and aiding in mental health care, or are they diminishing our capacity to process information, make decisions, and cope with stress? Should policymakers prioritize our cognitive well-being over traditional goals like economic growth and productivity? Come and learn from lawyer and behavioral neuroscientist Emily Murphy how the intersection of technology and brain & behavioral sciences can forge a new paradigm in public policy, one that places our collective cognitive health at the heart of societal progress.

Collective Cognitive Capital

Imagine a society where policies and technological advancements are judged by their impact on our collective cognitive and emotional health. American law professor and behavioral neuroscientist Emily Murphy advocates a profound shift in policymaking with her concept of ‘Collective Cognitive Capital’: Government decisions should be evaluated based on their impact on the cognitive and emotional functioning of the people – a stark contrast to current policies primarily centered on economic outcomes. It's a call to prioritize our collective cognitive well-being by integrating neuroscience and behavioral science more effectively in policymaking, thereby ensuring that the environments we create and inhabit serve to enrich, not deplete, our mental and emotional health.  

Digital threats and Potential Regulations

What does this mean in the context of our rapidly evolving digital world? From the potential for AI to affect our decision-making and autonomy, to the way social media platforms can exploit cognitive biases for sustained engagement: The digital age presents unique challenges to our collective cognitive health. While these threats to our mental well-being are real, it's important to also recognize the potential of digital technologies to enhance our cognitive capabilities. Innovative digital tools and solutions hold promise for not only revolutionizing (mental) health but also for improving our overall cognitive and emotional health. The question remains: Should governments protect us against potential threats to our mental well-being, and if so, what would such regulation entail? 

After Murphy’s lecture, cognitive scientist Alan Sanfey and philosopher-ethicist Tamar Sharon will engage in a conversation with Murphy to delve into the effects of digital technologies on our collective cognitive capital. Sanfey will bring in his perspective on navigating the challenges and opportunities presented by digital environments, based on his expertise on the neural mechanisms of decision-making. Sharon will bring attention to the ethical questions pertinent to digitalization and emerging technologies, such as their effect on our autonomy and our well-being, and how we can responsibly use and benefit from the growing repository of health data.

Come and uncover how we can place cognitive and emotional well-being at the heart of policy decisions, amidst the complexities of ever-evolving digital technologies. 

This program will be in English.

About the speakers

Emily Murphy is a law professor and a behavioral neuroscientist at University of California, College of the Law, San Francisco. Murphy’s research focuses on the intersection of neuroscience, behavioral science, and law. She writes about the use of neuroscience as evidence and how neuroscience and behavioral science shape public policy and legal systems. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Stanford Law Review, The Journal of Law & the Biosciences, Connecticut Law Review, William & Mary Law Review, Law & Psychology Review, Psychology Public Policy & Law, and Science.

Alan Sanfey is professor and principal investigator at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behavior at Radboud University. Sanfey investigates how people make decisions and judgements. How much risk do I take with an investment? Or how to decide on a strategy when playing a competitive game with an opponent? Sanfey currently heads the Decision Neuroscience group at the Donders Institute, and his research utilizes a novel approach to the study of both individual and interactive decision-making by combining the methods of behavioral experiments, functional neuroimaging, and formal economic models.  

Tamar Sharon is professor of Philosophical ethics and political philosophy at Radboud University, and co-director of iHub, Radboud's interfaculty centre for research on digitalisation and society. Sharon’s research centres on the ethical and societal ramifications of digitalisation and new technologies, particularly concerning health and medicine. In her current project on the “the Googlization of Health", she scrutinises the expanding influence exerted by technology giants such as Apple, Google, and Amazon in medical research, and how this affects the common good.

Contact information

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Organizational unit
Radboud Reflects, Healthy Brain