Stunted Trees and Broken Bridges

Written by Ben Musgrave / Produced by Theatre of Debate

Facilitator Notes

Introduction

Stunted Trees and Broken Bridges is Y Touring Theatre Company’s Theatre of Debate production developed in partnership with the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the British Neuroscience Association and the Association of Medical Research Charities.

The starting point for this project was the Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ consultation on ‘Novel Neurotechnologies: intervening in the brain’ which explores the ethical issues raised by technologies and devices that intervene in the brain.

This pack outlines the learning objectives and opportunities that the project offers and provides you with background information to support any follow up work you may choose to do. It also offers you a menu of four cross curricular activities which you may choose to use prior to our visit to your school.

Learning Objectives

As a consequence of participation in the Stunted Trees and Broken Bridges Theatre of Debate production we hope that most of the audience will:

  • Report increased awareness about how new developments in science could have an impact on their lives in the future;
  • Contribute to a debate which examines the ethical issues raised through advances in neurotechnologies;
  • Have valued the opportunity to participate in a Theatre of Debate production;
  • Be able to demonstrate acquired knowledge in at least one of the more detailed learning opportunities (see next section).

We recognise that some individuals in the audience will gain a wider range of benefits, including; a more reflective approach to developments in scientific research, improved knowledge and understanding of the full range of learning points and articulation of associated feelings.

In addition we hope that some of the audience will:

  • Report that the Theatre of Debate production has impacted upon their feelings about the role of research and its implications for human health;
  • Be able to demonstrate acquired knowledge in more than one of the learning opportunities;
  • Demonstrate ability to evaluate the live performance commenting on aspects such as scenic elements, characterisation and plot;

Learning Opportunities

Stunted Trees and Broken Bridges will through the performance, debate and online resources, l present opportunities for participants to learn about one or more of the following themes:

  • The UK criminal justice system is based on the concept of ‘choice’ to commit crime. Our criminal justice system asserts that after a certain age most people are responsible for their actions, and have some sort of choice when deciding to break the law. The law is compassionate to those who are unable to exercise choice, by reason of age, learning impairment or other form of ‘diminished responsibility’ at the time the criminal act is committed.
  • The structure of our brain affects our decision-making (e.g. damage, ageing and development). However, scientific research is raising questions as to whether there is such a thing as a ‘normal’ brain. For example, the teenage brain goes through a massive growth spurt, which affects behaviour, judgement and empathy. This fact has been used with some success as defence in criminal cases in USA.
  • The brain is organised around structures controlling simple tasks, emotional responses and intelligent thought. There are different hierarchical levels within the brain. The more complex, prefrontal cortex is the “intelligent” part of the brain, whereas the mid-brain is involved in more ‘animal-like’ emotions such as fear and anger. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for inhibiting and therefore controlling some of the more basic animal behaviours. If the prefrontal cortex does not develop properly or is damaged, this can lead to anti-social behaviour.
  • We can see which part of the brain is working at any moment using scanning techniques. Some types of brain scanning shows blood flow to specific brain regions. Greater flow of blood to a region suggests heightened activity, so blood flow measurement is an indicator of (proxy for) the extent of brain activity.
  • The brain itself develops under the influences of our inherited genes and our experience. Though our genes largely determine the basic structure of the human brain, the ways in which we think about the world, the development of attitudes and our behaviours also rely on our development, experiences and learning.
  • Our personalities and behaviours are thought to arise from a combination of nature and nurture. Supportive family and friends and a secure environment in childhood have been shown to offer some protection against antisocial behaviour in people whose brain chemistry or genes may make them vulnerable in this way.
  • Brain scans cannot tell us whether someone is a criminal or has a psychopathic personality. The brain is quite adaptable, so damage or abnormal development in one region may be compensated for by another. Furthermore, the information provided by a scan is likely to give only part of the picture of what occurs within this highly complex organ. This places limits on what brain scans can tell us about personality and behaviour.

Sensitive Issues

‘Stunted Trees and Broken Bridges’ explores challenging issues that affects us all, from what makes us who we are to using interventions to enhance us or cure illness, and asks us to consider how technological advances may affect our future. 850,000 children and young people in the UK have a mental health problem – and that’s just the ones who have been diagnosed. But what do we – and they – do with that diagnosis? And what would happen if we could offer a cure by implanting something in the brain?

The play opens discussions on a range of topics that may raise questions for young people. and looks specifically at young people who are searching for diagnosis to explain why they are as they are. Several organisations/websites can help inform your discussion and act as back-up. A good starting point for further information about young people’s mental health is Young Minds.

Preparing Your Students

Evaluations of previous Theatre of Debate projects have emphasised the importance of preparing students to ensure that they gain the maximum benefit from the project. That said we know that some teachers prefer not to prepare their students for the event believing that our productions have greater impact if the students have no preparation other than being told that they are going to see a live performance. Either way we hope that you will find the information in this pack helpful.

We offer below some generic preparatory lessons and a glossary that you may choose to use with your students before we visit your school.

In addition, regardless of whether or not you choose to use the preparatory lessons, we have provided some background information which we hope you will find useful. This information includes:

  • An overview of novel neurotechnologies by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics
  • Four recent articles that examine some of the issues explored in the play and debate
  • A link to a computer game that you and your students can play to explore Deep Brain Stimulation

Synopsis

Set in the year 2017. The story revolves around a young man, Emerson, who begins to experience volatile episodes after the death of his mother. He is expelled from school after a violent outburst and then seriously assaults a rival when provoked.

Despite Emerson’s increasingly erratic behaviour and hostility, his girlfriend, Hayley, and sympathetic friend, Miles, continue to offer their support, encouraging him to seek help. Facing trial and becoming increasingly concerned about his inability to control his behaviour, Emerson reluctantly agrees to undergo a brain scan.

This scan will determine if he has a brain abnormality and can therefore plead diminished responsibility in court. The outcome of the scan will govern his future, but how reliable is this new technology, and what are the consequences of using it in this way?

Preparatory Activity 1: What does it mean?

Objective

To ensure that your students are familiar with the key terms and phrases used in the play.

Process

Explain that you are going to say a word or phrase and that when you call out their name, you want each of your students to say the first word that comes into their head.

Explain that if they can’t think of a word or if their mind goes blank, they can say ‘Pass’.

After each round clarify the actual meaning of the word or phrase if appropriate and discuss, as a class, some of the associations that have been shared.

You may wish to scan the included glossary and substitute alternative words or phrases that you may feel are more relevant to your students.

Words and Phrases

Forensic InvestigatorDeep Brain StimulationBrain DisorderLobotomy
Anti Social Personality DisorderDiminished PersonalityNeuroforensicsBrain Scanner
IdentityTranscranial Magnetic StimulationNeurotransmittersIntervention

Preparatory Activity 2: What do we feel?

Objective

To explore the emotions that students might attach to some of the key words and phrases associated with ‘Stunted Trees and Broken Bridges’.

Process

Explain that you are going to say a word or phrase and that when you call out their name, you want each of your students to say the emotion that they associate with that word.

Explain that if they can’t think of a word or if their mind goes blank, they can say ‘Pass’.

Discuss, as a class, some of the associations that have been shared. You may wish to scan the included glossary and substitute alternative words or phrases that you may feel are more relevant.

Words and Phrases

Brain DisorderIdentityInterventionLobotomy
Diminished ResponsibilityNeurotechnologyNeuroethicsPsychiatric Institution

Preparatory Activity 3: What do we think?

Objective

To explore what your students know, think and feel about issues posed by advances in neurotechnology and the questions raised in ‘Stunted Trees and Broken Bridges’, before seeing the play and participating in the debate. You may also wish to repeat this activity as a follow-up.

Resources

A large empty classroom or drama studio.

Process

Ask your students to stand in the centre of the space.

Explain that there is an imaginary line running down the centre of the space, one end of the line represents ‘Agree’ and the opposite end of the line represents ‘Disagree’. The middle of the line is ‘Don’t Know’.

Explain that you are going to read out a series of statements. If they agree with the statement they should go and stand at the end of the line that is ‘Agree’. If they disagree they should go and stand at the end of the line that is ‘Disagree’. If they are not sure or don’t know what they think they should stay in the middle.

After they have taken up their positions, ask your students to explain why they have chosen their position. After hearing from several students give your group the opportunity of changing their position.

Repeat the process for each statement.

Statements

  • Anything you can do to your brain that makes you happier is OK.
  • Brain implants to enhance performance and abilities would be a good thing.
  • Science is as much the downfall as the saviour of society.
  • Medical technologies are the best way of improving human health and well-being.
  • I would have brain surgery or a device implanted into my brain if it could cure me of an illness.
  • I would be happy to undergo a brain scan, if it could tell me what type of person I am.
  • I would welcome having a chip implanted in my brain to enhance my performance.
  • I think brain scans should be used in court to determine guilt or innocence.

Preparatory Activity 4: I’d like to ask…

Objective

To prepare students with questions that they may wish to ask in the debate following ‘Stunted Trees and Broken Bridges’.

Process

In pairs, ask the students to come up with two questions. Both are for people who have strong opinions on neurotechnology:

Question 1. Is for a scientist who is using neurotechnology to help people with a neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s or epilepsy.

Question 2. Is for someone who has been wrongly diagnosed by a brain scanner as having a brain disorder.

Ask the students to make a note of the questions and then share them with the class. They could also take the questions with them into the play and ask them in the debate.