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Creative Writing Competition: 'Changing the Human Brain'

Opening Ethical Windows Into The Human Mind

Science fiction is, perhaps, the greatest liar the universe has ever known. Where are our 'limitless' pills that super excite our brains into genius? Where is the eternal sunshine of the memory eraser machine and where is the fiery ‘nervous system upgrade’ technology featured in Iron Man 3? Ever since science met fiction writers have envisioned possible, if not always plausible, technologies to come and this has fed right back into science, inspiring generations of new researchers and moulding the public’s perception of what goes on under the fume hood and in the petri dish. Sometimes it gets its predictions right, as with the touchscreen of Star Trek or the point-of-view guns of Douglas Adam’s, but right or wrong it plays a key role in demonstrating public opinion and controlling it.

Fiction gives us an unparalleled medium through which to comprehend the value of neuroscientific accounts of behaviour and experience, because it allows for a very human non-scientific study of the effects of neuroscience, from the point of view of the very minds encountering new fandangled technologies. If genetic engineering of the brain really does perturb our sense of selfhood, help us fight mental diseases or endow us with new abilities, writers will swarm to produce work that can act as an ethical window into these nascent technologies. Their fiction can tell us something about how we consume, as a society, scientific ideas and blend them with social philosophy.

This is the thinking, along with the animated discussions at our speed debate, that inspired us to run a creative writing competition on the topic ‘changing the human brain/mind’. The competition ran from the 14th of August to September the 15th, and we received over fifty entries. Writers were allowed to submit short stories of 500-1,500 words, poems of up to 40 lines and (screen)plays of up to a 30 minute run time. The winning entries, along with a commentary by a UCL scientist, can be found below, in alphabetical order.

The UCL iGEM 2013 Spotless Mind team would like to thank everyone who has sent their entries to us. It's a wonderful thing to receive submissions from many countries all around the world, knowing that our project has reached different corners of the globe! We are humbled by your interest in our project, and we hope these winning entries will serve as inspiration to people passionate in both literature and science.

Winning Entries


Cipher by Ivy Alzvarez

They looked trivial. He knew the crowd was made up of individuals, each one with a story, each life holding value, but what of it? Together they made up an apathic crowd. One which, from his perspective, looked trivial..

Anamnesis by Natasha Ali

Swallow, says the hawk. She gestures at the plate in front of me. It is grey, but then the plates are always grey. Our clothes are always white and starched and uncomfortable. Our stools are always cold when we sit on them, our feet grazing the colder floor...

Writer's biography: Natasha Ali was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and raised both there and in Brussels, Belgium, but currently lives in Riyadh, KSA. She is about to start her last year at a sixth-form college. The trials and tribulations of scientific research have always fascinated her.

Moving Too Fast by Paul Aroniyoi

Doctor says the effects of the drugs will soon fade, as my brain reconfigures itself and adjusts to accommodating; I quote “Higher levels of cognitive thinking.” But I’m sure weeks have passed and yet these headaches and the nausea still persist; I’m not getting any better and I think the Doc knows it...

Writer's biography: I’m currently a Creative Writing student and I’m from London. I’m an avid sci-fi and comic book enthusiast (Yes, which means I love that characters but don’t read the actual comics!).

Four Poems by Dot Cobley

There’s an intriguing illustration

on this leaflet that the neuro team gave us.

Looks like somebody had fun

playing around with those little plastic wheels...

Writer's biography: Dot Cobley’s poems appear in numerous anthologies and magazines, including The Rialto, Smiths Knoll and The SHOp. She underwent neurosurgery for trigeminal neuralgia, and has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

Affordable Beauty by Siân Davies

There was electric classical music playing in the elevator when Alan Winterm alighted, his eyes fixed on the pre-released PDA in his hand. The silver ring he wore glinted in the cold, artificial light, dancing in his peripheral vision as he sent emails, replied to messages, booked appointments...

Writer's biography: My name is Siân, it's Welsh but I'm not. I live in a tiny rural town in Shropshire, selling people kettles and trying to learn how to write.

A Change of Mind by Carol Fraser

Just suppose. Now let's imagine. What if?

What would it be like to have a memory

That functioned sometimes but at others failed the test,

Like some old creaky household gadget on the blink,

As trusty as a teacup made of lace?


Writer's biography: I am a retired musician, now a (very) mature philosophy student. I am interested in every aspect of human condition - and that of non-human.

284 steps by Hilary Greenleaf

The past has become an area of conflict, a dangerous area of uncertainty that lies extinct yet threatening, waiting to draw us all into fresh conflict and pain. As a family we are learning to sidestep it, and something that should be so natural for people with a shared history is now taboo...

Writer's biography: Hilary Greenleaf (46) is an HCPC registered podiatrist and mother of two. She lives in the Essex countryside and writes short stories in her spare time.

The Demolishing Change by Fatima Muhammad

They looked trivial. He knew the crowd was made up of individuals, each one with a story, each life holding value, but what of it? Together they made up an apathic crowd. One which, from his perspective, looked trivial...

Writer's biography: Fatima Muhammad is a doctor, currently doing a postgraduate degree in Medical Education from Cardiff University. She’s had a few short stories published. Nothing large-scale yet, but here’s hoping.

A Constant Man by Martha Patterson

As he ages, Johnny comes to grips with his mother's dementia and her anxieties about her marriage...

Writer's biography: Martha Patterson has written more than 100 plays and has had work published in four anthologies by the International Centre for Women Playwrights and several collections by JAC Publishing and Original Works Publishing. Her work has been produced Off-Off-Broadway and in the UK, Korea, and Australia, as well as in twelve states around the USA. She has also had a half-hour mystery produced by Shoestring Radio Theatre in San Francisco. She earned her B.A. from Mount Holyoke College and an M.A. from Emerson College, both degrees in Theatre. She is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America, the International Centre for Women Playwrights, Screen Actors Guild, and Actors’ Equity Association. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

Changing the Human Brain by Ng Chin San

The road below was scattered with litter, broken beer bottles and picket signs the only evidence left of the chaos that was the previous evening. The Scientist stood motionless at the window surveying the dark scene, taking a sip from a glass of whiskey in his hand from time to time as Beethoven’s piano sonata in G minor played softly in the background...

Writer's biography: Ng Chin San is a third year law student at UCL. He enjoys playing sports. He also enjoys sleeping.