Dr. Toni Pustovrh & Dr. Ronald Sladky: From Star Trek to human enhancement

The last conversation this year in the Scientific Cognition series features Dr. Toni Pustovrh, assistant professor and researcher at the Faculty of Social Sciences (FSS) at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, and Dr. Ronald Sladky, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Zurich, Switzerland.

Dr. Toni Pustovrh is an assistant professor at the Chair for Cultural Studies and a researcher at the Centre for Social Studies of Science at FSS in Ljubljana. He focuses on ethical, legal and social implications of new emerging technologies, human enhancement, bioethics and neuroethics. He also works as a translator of scientific articles and books on science and technology.

Dr. Ronald Sladky is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department for Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics at the University Hospital of Psychiatry at the University of Zurich. For his doctoral thesis in medical physics at the Medical University of Vienna, he investigated the methodology of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and brain connectivity. He is now focusing on how neurofeedback in fMRI studies may benefit psychiatric patients.


Both speakers have a keen interest in science and technology in one way or another. Toni Pustovrh is mainly interested in societal implications of the emerging neurocognitive technologies.  As always, these developments come with specific costs and benefits which have to be evaluated carefully. Ronald Sladky, on the other hand, is interested in the brain from the psychiatric point of view. Although he is not a psychiatrist himself, he tries to develop new neuroscientific methods for psychiatric diseases. Specifically, he is interested in how functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain may help as a therapeutic tool for psychiatric patients.

Our guests first address how they came to their own research areas. Interestingly, they both stress that science fiction had a big impact on their early scientific formation. But not just any science fiction. Rather, it was the sci-fi where science was used to overcome tough situations instead of violence. Is the use of mind enhancing drugs nowadays more prevalent than in the past? Where to draw the line between a health and illness?

Both speakers emphasize the role of interdisciplinarity in contemporary research. Can mathematics be the common denominator, which integrates scientists from different research areas in a clear and precise way? Is it even possible to do research without interdisciplinarity nowadays? Why is it important that both children and the elderly understand what scientists do? Why is it important to travel if we want to nurture our creativity, and what happens when we speak with researchers working in different areas? And last but not the least, why is it sometimes a good idea to simply sleep things over?


Toni Pustovrh: My name is Toni Pustovrh. I’m a political scientist by training with a focus on topics dealing with science, technology and society. I investigate the ethical, legal and societal implications of the new technologies and sciences; how they influence society and the individual.

These are my major interests in a nutshell, but I’m also interested in other somewhat related topics ranging from cognitive science to robotics, psychometrics, science communication, public engagement, etc. I’m in a sense, all over the place.

Ronald Sladky: My name is Ronald Sladky, originally from Vienna. During my cognitive science master program, I also studied in ljubljana for half a year. I’m currently a postdoctoral researcher in Zürich at the University of Zurich.

I am an empirical scientist. I’m primarily working with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) which is a form of neuroimaging. We look at brain activations while people perform different cognitive tasks, for example, while they look at pictures or listen to music, for example. We are interested in changes that can be measured in the brain while participants perform these tasks. In doing so, we aim to link behavior, psychological states to changes in brain states.

My current research is on real-time neurofeedback. We try to not only map the brain, we don’t just want to understand how different neural networks work, we also try to give subjects, while they’re inside the scanner, some kind of information or feedback about the current neural activation, so that they have the ability to actually influence this activation by mental effort.

ON MOTIVATION

Toni Pustovrh: In general I’d say it’s curiosity. On the one hand, I’ve always been interested in how things work and what makes them work, but on the other hand, I’m also interested in how this knowledge can be used to make a change for the better, how to apply this knowledge. On the one hand, it is really about some deep-seated curiosity and on the other, the desire to alter, transform, or change things.

With respect to my current work, I’ve written a lot about human enhancement. That is the idea that science and technology can be used to make direct technological interventions in the human body and especially the human brain with the goal to bring human abilities beyond what is currently normal or average.

Toni Pustovrh: On the one hand, it is really about a deep-seated curiosity and on the other, the desire to alter, transform or change things.

Ronald, you’ve mentioned that you kind of work with biofeedback where users can attempt to alter or influence their own states of mind or its brain chemistry. That would be kind of one application, let’s say, also in the field of human enhancement. How to get greater control over your own physiology or neurophysiology.

Ronald Sladky: I think that science can also bring something else to the people: it can actually liberate them. There is this notion that science is somehow demystifying everything, taking the fun out of everything because it just explains it away. I think it’s the opposite. With science we can actually learn about our limitations and also find ways of overcoming those limitations.

One example of this would be neurofeedback. People with addiction or anxiety disorders, they usually suffer from a lack of control over different parts in their mental or brain states. If we find ways of actually overcoming these limitations, for example, if we can teach a person with a major depression to actually appreciate positive pictures in the more intense way, then we can actually help them to be more independent to, for example, to not require medication or lower doses of medications. This would be the big thing I’m working on. To bring a new technology out there to actually help the people.

Ronald Sladky: With science we can learn about our limitations and find ways of overcoming them.

On the one hand, I think basic research is hard work. We need developments in methods as well. But at the same time, I my goal is always to make something useful in the end. Therefore, I can totally relate to your perspective.

Can I ask you what is your stance on neuroenhancements? How far would you go? Because in my case neurofeedback is non-invasive, it always depends on the cooperation of the participants in our experiments. We don’t require any surgical procedures. We don’t administer any drugs in most of the studies. So, how far would you go? Are you working on deep brain stimulation and pharmacological interventions?

Toni Pustovrh: Absolutely, I’m also writing about those. For me, the major issue is the adequacy and safety as with any medical procedure. For example, brain implants or anything like that, are currently not really safe. Even for most patients who have neurological diseases and problems. There are certain costs that are involved in it and you have to weigh them against the benefits.

On the other hand, let’s say, a person, who is considered healthy or of average, normal health or capabilities who would undergo such a procedure. Here, I don’t think the benefits would outweigh the risks or the negative side effects that might arise from it. If we take a look at mid- or longterm future maybe, then these procedures will become eventually eligible also for people who would currently be considered to be of normal capacities or healthy. And imagine these people wear some type of connection to the computer, some type of connection to some sort of machinery.

Ronald Sladky: Basic research is hard work; we need developments in methods. But at the same time, my goal is always to make something useful in the end.

At present, these technologies are being developed, as you’ve mentioned, for people who have either various types of mental or neurological illnesses or for people who are handicapped or have no control over their lower or upper extremities. But eventually, I think, human enhancement will develop to the point where also healthy people can gain abilities that are beyond what is currently considered normal for them. As far as pharmacological experimentation is concerned, you probably also heard about students using stimulants or prescription drugs to do better on tests?

Ronald Sladky: But is it actually true or is it just a hoax?

Toni Pustovrh: Hoax in what sense, that it works or that people are using it?

Ronald Sladky: That people are using it and that it works.

Toni Pustovrh: That’s a methodological question or empirical question. But we do have some robust empirical studies among student populations that it actually is, I wouldn’t say really widespread, but that there is a trend. Though it is still hard to determine whether people in the past who had access to other types of drugs, for example amphetamines or things like that, whether such use has been widespread to a similar degree in the past as it is today.

But I do think it is becoming more widespread among the general population, especially among entrepreneurs, people who are using the internet for experimentation. You have a bunch of forums, a bunch of various outlets, where people report the results of their experimentation. I take that as an interesting development of self-experimentation.

With respect to self-experimentation, I do support the right of people to self experiment. Certainly, I wouldn’t recommend anyone to perform neurosurgery on themselves, but as far as experimenting with other types of substances or mechanisms or knowledge systems goes, I think that’s sensible or that it should be permitted as long as people don’t harm others. So can I now ask you a question back again?

Ronald Sladky: Sure.

Toni Pustovrh: You mentioned that you’re kind of really interested in bringing technology out to the people or to do something applicative or useful. If you look kind of further back maybe at your childhood, was there always a motivation present in that regard or what made you interested in science or brain science or neurology?

Ronald Sladky: The interesting thing is that when I was young I was always fascinated by people helping out people in a professional way. I was always fascinated by firefighters, doctors, nurses, police officers and so on. Later on, I learned what I’m really good at and found out that I probably wouldn’t be a good doctor after all. But I did figure out that I’m quite good with computers, programing, that I like to do maths etc. My career was somewhat of a ziczac between programming and engineering.

Toni Pustovrh: I’ve always had bit of deep-seated urge or drive to for understanding, but I think reading science fiction also contributed a lot.

But then I was also curious about how things work and always knew that I want to do something with medical clinical applications. I ended up in cognitive science, the masters program that the University of Ljubljana is also part of. Initially I just wanted to learn something that I can use in the field of medical informatics or human-computer interaction. On the way, I also learned about the open questions of how the brain works and so I somehow got more interested in that.

What I always found somehow missing, though, was the link between the philosophy of mind and the more clinical perspectives. Most of the cognitive theories usually neglect that psychiatric and neurological conditions that actually bring many established theories to shaky grounds. Because they can’t really properly explain the phenomena like this. For example, think about cognitive development in childhood, most of the established cognitive theories sidestep it. This is what got me really motivated in going back to the more medical and clinical applications and I believe can actually contribute to classical cognitive science theories with ideas from these fields.

And at the same time, I was convinced that it might turn out quite useful to do work in clinical settings because there’s so many people suffering from psychiatric disorders and there are no really good tools out there to help them. Of course, we have come a long way now with pharmacological treatments and also psychotherapeutic treatments but we’re still somehow in the infancy. But this is something that will change in the next hundred years.

I’m very optimistic about the development because we get to know more about how the brain works, how the brain actually interacts with the bodily processes and how the environment changes the brain in the long-term. This is how I got here. Always having in mind to create something useful for people but using the skills that I actually have and that I’m really good at. So I don’t think I would be a good doctor and I wouldn’t be a good clinician either but I think I am a good back-office researcher, so to speak. So what about you?

Toni Pustovrh: I’ve always had bit of deep-seated urge or drive to understand things, but I think reading science fiction also contributed a lot. That is something that motivated a lot of people, I think, to going to science or engineering or any of those fields.

Ronald Sladky: I always liked to watch Star trek as a kid and I was fascinated because every time when they were in a hopeless situation there was always a way out. One way was through diplomacy and the other one was through science and it really changed my worldview towards my current thinking. There have to be non-violent ways of solving problems based on our intellect. That’s what I’m trying to achieve.

Toni Pustovrh: I miss this in a lot of other sci-fi shows, that things can be achieved cooperatively or that they can be done in ways other than by using violence or huge impacts.

But another thing that you’ve mentioned, which I find quite interesting, is that most of the modern problems that we’re confronting through science and technology or engineering or even in social sciences or humanities, basically require an interdisciplinary viewpoint or at least a wide interdisciplinary approach.

Ronald Sladky: I learned by watching Star Trek as a kid that there have to be non-violent ways of solving problems based on our intellect. That’s what I’m trying to achieve.

For example, as you mentioned already, mental illnesses are not confined to either pharmacology or neuroscience or only to cognitive science or to environmental interventions. This interdisciplinary approach, is becoming more widespread or entrenched today, brings much better results. Then any intervention on its own, for example, just taking drugs or on the other hand just exercising or just trying to do psychotherapy or something like that. Is this also something that you see in your work?

ON INTERDISCIPLINARITY

Ronald Sladky: Most definitely. For example, a new field of computational psychiatry is being developed, where we try to create causal models of how psychiatric symptoms develop. The idea is that you don’t just group patients together by symptoms, but try to distinguish them by different mechanisms that might be malfunctioning. It is a computational approach which involves formal mathematical tools to describe what we can observe in clinical symptoms, laboratory results, behavioral observations and so on. It involves a  lot of formal, quantitative techniques, but we try relate those to the qualitative aspects.

It is sometimes quite hard to to do interdisciplinary research with a common taxonomy to bring all the different fields together such that everyone can understand each other and that the outcome isalso useful. I don’t think it helps to stick to a very abstract descriptive level, where you just draw nice boxes with arrows. This is something that has been done in cognitive modeling for decades and it is not really useful.

What we try to do now is to bring this to the formal level of mathematics. Everyone can learn this language and it’s very interchangeable, and everyone can actually use their knowledge from their fields, based on this formal language. Personally, I am really optimistic about it. Once you find a common language once you find a common way of exchanging the ideas collaboration can really work very well. I agree in that it is not helpful if every discipline builds their own models, their own a prioris and stays within their own domains. We need to have these observations from different perspectives.

Ronald Sladky: I don’t think it helps to stick to a very abstract descriptive level, where you just draw nice boxes with arrows. This is something that has been done in cognitive modeling for decades and it is not really useful.

Think about psychiatrists, for example. Trained psychiatrists work 10 hours a day. They work at the clinic. Normally, they do not have this openness to actually appreciate that their observations at the clinic are also present during the preclinical state, in general environment. The different personality traits that might be considered to be specifically linked to psychiatric disorders might also be present in the range of normal human behavior.

What is currently very interesting for me is how to actually define the boundaries between people who feel healthy, people who are doing fine and have certain personality traits, and the point when this actually diverges and becomes a burden to those people. When would they consider themselves as being unhealthy?

Toni Pustovrh: Those boundaries are being brought into question also with the modern progress of science and technology. In the past we used to be quite certain what is life, what is living what is not living, what is artificial, what is natural or what’s a human being and what’s an animal.

But we are now gradually seeing that these boundaries are really close to gray areas when you can’t distinguish between one thing and the other. And that is positive development, because we can can realize that we are much more connected with the natural world, for example that animals themselves can reason, can think, at least in the prototypical way, not as much as humans, but still.

Toni Pustovrh: Many in the social sciences and the humanities are also somewhat reluctant to engage with natural and technical sciences and science as such. Especially because they see those disciplines as encroaching upon their domain.

I also found it interesting when you mentioned the need for common language or for common metaphors. As I see it, many of the social sciences and the humanities are also somewhat reluctant to engage with science as such. Especially because they see them as encroaching upon their domain. However, both sides could in fact learn a lot from their own approaches, from intermixing.

We are now steering towards the the topic of communicating or bringing science to the broader expert public on the one hand, but also to the broader society or the lay public as such.

ON SCIENCE COMMUNICATION

Toni Pustovrh: Do you have any experiences with communicating your scientific results? I saw that you actually won some prize or award or a competition, or was it?

Ronald Sladky: Yes, I participated in the science slam in Vienna. In a science slam you try to present your research in roughly five minutes without the help of PowerPoint presentations and so on. You have to communicate the essence.

I tried to explain what brain imaging and brain mapping is about. Actually I’m not really extraverted, I’m not really a showman. However, I wanted to participate because I realized that there’s not enough scientists really showing what they are doing. I realized that after all I am a scientist myself, therefore I also have this obligation to present my work to the public.

Ronald Sladky:  I wanted to participate in a science slam. I realized that after all I am a scientist myself, therefore, I also have the obligation to present my work to the public.

The nice thing about this event was that it attracted a wide spectrum of public from younger children up to older people, which made this a good opportunity to address a large variety of knowledge and age levels. This was actually the reason why I wanted to participate; to bring older people to understand what we can do now with science and at the same time to inspire younger children to think, to consider to also become a scientist.

If I hadn’t met the right people when I was younger, if no one had introduced me to Star Trek, for example, or if I hadn’t had the right teachers in high school, I probably wouldn’t have thought of becoming a scientist because it is a very abstract thing to consider.

It can be very fulfilling to see that you can do so many things when you really work hard on problems, use your intellect, do empirical research, find out new things that have never been discovered before. When you get to know the basics, at some point it becomes as addictive as playing computer games; you’re always challenged with new riddles, you’re frustrated, you fight until you reach the end of one level and suddenly, there are boundaries to give way and you realize something and you get some results. This is very rewarding.

It’s not only about the financial earns at the end of the project and that you can have a little party because you accomplished something. It’s really about learning something for yourself. It is very intrinsic and not just based on some external values. But this only works if you are susceptible to intrinsic rewards. There are also scientists who pursue their career to achieve goals for prizes or good academic positions. I think you cannot do this on a long-term basis. You would end up too frustrated because of all the setbacks. But if you see all the setbacks as a challenge, something that you want to overcome by your internal drives, I think that science can be extremely nice as a career path.

Toni Pustovrh: I agree. I’ve also been involved in and I’m still involved in a European framework project, it’s called SYNENERGENE, it’s about synthetic biology in the context of responsible research and innovation. A big part of it is basically organizing a bunch of public events, science cafés, getting people mobilized, bringing together different experts and the lay public. This component involves scientists presenting their research, results, innovations or their career paths to, on one hand, other experts and to the general public.

Toni Pustovrh: Science communication can be used as a motivational tool to get either the youth or students interested and engaged in such activities, but it can also show that science has a big impact on everybody’s life in the sense of improving it.

This an overarching goal of the European project funding because science is losing the support among the public at least to some degree. People either see it as something that has nothing to do with their daily lives or they see it in connection with scientists playing god and endangering the whole biosphere and human race and everything that goes along with it. I’m equally optimistic about this approach to try to present to the people what scientists are doing and also that scientists are basically people just like them.

This approach can be used as a motivational tool to get either the youth or students interested and engaged in such activities, but it can also show that science has a big impact on everybody’s life in the sense of improving it. The current trend that science is something that’s producing negative results and exerts a negative impact is a very dangerous one. Would you agree with that?

Ronald Sladky: I totally agree. There seems to be this dichotomy of news about science. At the one end we see sensational headlines of the type “cure for cancer found,” where in fact the finding is about a substance currently under investigation, which showed promising results in cell cultures. And now they have to be tested in mice and so on. And they will probably not work at all in humans.

On the other end are those saying “science is flawed in a way.” No it’s actually not. All those negative headlines are just a misrepresentation of what science is actually doing. Learning that some high impact studies in high-ranking journals had some flaws is in fact just another evidence that science works. Namely, we have the tools, there are ways of uncovering our own mistakes and learn from them. If we find those mistakes no one can actually do the same mistake again, because knowledge is open after all. It’s published, it’s clear.

Toni Pustovrh: The problem is probably also in scientific publishing because publishers want to see positive results not negative or null results. However, null results can be as valuable, or sometimes even more valuable than positive results. They show that some avenue is not conductive or useful.

Ronald Sladky: Absolutely, I totally agree. In field I’m working in, the Organization for Human Brain Mapping, the largest organization in cognitive neuroscience, came up with an interesting new prize called “the replication award”. They focus wellpowered replication studies of established protocols of established theories in order to show that they work.

Ronald Sladky: Most universities don’t consider the metrics that take into account science communication or education enough. Instead, they care more about the track record in terms of publications and talks.

At the same they award an “Education prize”. Therefore our efforts are not only about creating new insights and new findings and pushing everything to the limit without actually accounting for false positives. There is also the concern for replicating the findings and proper education. This is all very good but though still in its infancy at the moment; the problem is that most universities don’t consider the metrics that take into account science communication or education enough. Instead, they care more about the track record in terms of publications and talks. However, if you are an honest scientist you can actually do both. I think you can be both successful in publishing and in taking science seriously and work on replication.

What I learned from the groups I’ve been working with is that it is a very good strategy to try to replicate earlier findings and investigate something new based on that. That is, always make these very small intuitive steps to build on solid ground, to test if everything is actually working, and then to try to add new details about the phenomena you’re working on.

Toni Pustovrh: If we go back to science communication for a bit. I am not familiar with situation in Austria, but in Slovenia a big problem is that programs in natural and technical sciences, and even in social sciences and humanities, do not have any courses, where they would be taught the basics of science communication. Maybe there is one lecture that’s devoted in some course to the topic, but I think it would be really useful if students had a course where they would be at least taught the basics.

Toni Pustovrh: In Slovenia, a big problem is that study programs in natural and technical sciences, and even in social sciences and humanities, do not offer courses where students would be taught the basics of science communication.

While I don’t think everybody’s suited to be a public presenter or public communicator of science, I do think many more scientists should be than there currently are. What’s the situation like in Austria?

Ronald Sladky: There aren’t really any courses like this at the university level. There are of course courses on presenting and writing scientific articles, but these tend to be very basic-level courses. Mostly, students learn these skills during their PhD studies.

At the Medical University, though, we had a nice training program in scientific communication. It was a course offered by the dean of the department. It was about scientific communication. We had someone over from the Austrian national television to actually do some interviews with the people and also taught them the tricks that journalists would sometimes use to trick you into saying things that you didn’t actually want to say. It turned out to be very helpful, indeed.

However, I’m not really sure if it’s helpful for younger students to learn about communication because they usually don’t have many things to say at early stages. Back then, when I was still a master student, I thought that I would never be able to find anything new or really novel, generally novel. I had the feeling that all the thoughts that I’m having had already been voiced. You first need some contents that you want to convey to the people and then you need some kind of training to actually bring this across.

If you are very immersed in your field, there are so many ways of miscommunicating. The most difficult is that you try to communicate your results in a way that no one would be able to understand. However, it might also happen that you try to break it apart into a single simple explanation, which is no longer valid just because you want to simplify everything. I used to work with physicists a lot and they said that there is no sense in writing a book called Quantum Mechanics for Dummies or something, because it is not simple, it’s very hard.

ON CREATIVITY

Ronald Sladky: Most of my creative work is involves intuition. At some point, I come to a certain level of familiarity with the research methods that I can see what has to be the next logical step and question in my next experiment given what I’ve done in the past. That’s one thing. However, to come up with something very original, traveling helps a lot. It can only be a train ride somewhere or just being there with some books and looking out of the window and contemplating about things. Similarly, really long journeys or attending international conferences where you meet new people and talk about their work are also a good way and very inspiring.

Ronald Sladky: When trying come up with something original, traveling helps a lot. It can only be a train ride or simply being somewhere with some books and looking out of the window and contemplating about things.

For me perhaps the best conference that always brings some new ideas will be the Interdisciplinary College in Germany or the IK for short. It takes place in the middle of Germany, near a lake. It’s in the middle of nowhere, there’s nowhere to go and you’re locked in there for one week with researchers from all over Europe including bachelor students, master students etc. You live together in a house with 200 people. There are courses and evening lectures and afterwards you’re hanging out at the bar or in front of a fireplace and discuss different topics you’re working on and you’re interested in.

The interesting thing is, and I think this is a very good example of how the interdisciplinary research works, you realize that you’re working on the same problems, but the person you’re talking to might do robotics and you are a neuroimaging guy and then a philosopher turns in and you realize that you have something in common even though you adopt completely different approaches in how to move forward. And at the end you learn so much from learning about these perspectives.

Toni Pustovrh: From my side, it is similar to some degree – knowledge building upon knowledge. I also get new ideas or more complex ideas when I read very diverse topics, be it journal articles or popular press articles or books. At some point something just clicks and overlaps, as you’ve mentioned, when you consider a phenomenon from different angles.

Toni PustovrhI’ve also noticed that new ideas pop up either when I’m running or working out etc. Another example is when I think about something the previous day and then in the morning something just clicks during the night.

I also find it quite interesting your though on travelling, when you go somewhere where you’re either alone or away and you have an empty mind and new ideas come up. That happens to me as well. I’ve also noticed that new ideas pop up either when I’m running or working out etc. Another example is when I think about something the previous day and then in the morning something just clicks during the night.

There are also many examples among famous scientists or famous researchers who say that they had some sort of dream, where some element or some pattern was revealed kind, some sort of unconscious mind, and they had a good idea for a new article.

I also agree that it is important or very rewarding to talk to people from different fields, to attend conferences and have that kind of our conversations there and see what other people are working on, see how that can be incorporated in your own work.

Ronald Sladky: OK, good. Have a great day and a happy new year!

Toni Pustovrh: Same to you! Bye bye.  

 

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