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Altering Bodies and Minds

 

ORGANIZING FELLOWS:

Barbara Brehm-Curtis
Exercise & Sport Studies

Nicholas Horton
Mathematics & Statistics


ORGANIZING FELLOWS:

Barbara Brehm-Curtis
Barbara Brehm-Curtis
Exercise & Sport Studies
Nicholas Horton
Nicholas Horton
Mathematics & Statistics
 

PROJECT DESCRIPTION:

Throughout history and in virtually every culture, people have sought ways to alter their bodies and their minds to achieve improved performance. Innovative training regimens and nutritional methods to enhance athletic performance in sports competitions are constantly in development. New drugs and pedagogical methods are regularly introduced to refine concentration and improve educational outcomes. Novel psychotherapeutic techniques and pharmaceutical interventions are continuously researched, tested, and prescribed in an effort to enable individuals to function more effectively in their daily lives.

The impulse to alter body or mind in pursuit of the improvement of some aspect of human life and functioning has existed for at least as long as history has been documented. Reports stretching back to antiquity describe treatments that could increase power and stamina for athletes and warriors. In the 1904 Olympics, marathon runners injected themselves with the poison strychnine in an effort to enhance their abilities. In more recent times, with record times continually being broken through improved performance, the press has been filled with reports of illicit doping to enhance athletes' performance in a wide range of sports.

The quest for "artificial" performance enhancement has not been limited to athletics. Societal competition within the cognitive domain has also motivated people to seek ways to strengthen mental function. For example, medications developed to address attention deficit disorder are increasingly used to improve productivity among students and scholars, a practice that raises fundamental questions not only about the ethics and efficacy of popularized repurposing of such treatments, but also about the indicators and measures of intellectual achievement and performance in academic and scientific settings. How effective are such performance-enhancing drugs and does their use constitute cheating? Should some existing performance enhancers, such as coffee (the world's most widely used psychoactive substance) be more widely regulated?

The altering of bodies and minds raises many important questions regarding tradeoffs between risk and reward. For example, pharmaceuticals are now regularly used to alter mental disposition, but who should decide when such alterations are needed or required? The affected individual? Medical institutions? Families? Judicial systems? What are the legal, philosophical and ethical issues at stake here? Issues of weight loss are similarly complex: what is the balance between the pursuit of health and longevity on one hand, and capitulating to arbitrary and culturally constructed aesthetic ideals on the other? Who should decide and how should such decisions get legislated and enacted?

In this semester-long project, we hope to apply diverse disciplinary perspectives to the investigation of efforts to alter minds and bodies in our society. We will consider the spectrum of practices meant to improve mental and physical health. We will also consider the incentives encouraging such practices, and the role of various members of society (e.g., medical professionals, corporate interests, educators, lawmakers, the media) in promoting, discouraging, or regulating various types of modifications. While the specific questions and issues explored will be determined by the interests of the participants, the overall goal of the project will be to identify and analyze fundamental intellectual questions related to the types of alterations that are and have been widely practiced, examining whether distinctions should be made (legally, morally and culturally) among them, and considering the types and nature of limits that have been imposed on them.

The practices and problems of various efforts to alter mind and body provide a rich store of intellectual questions to be addressed. These will be considered from a truly broad range of perspectives that includes the social, the historical, the economic, the cultural, and the psychological, as well as through the science of biochemistry, neuroscience and statistics. We heartily welcome to this project the participation of scholars from a wide range of fields and perspectives.

 

 

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