A Question of Creativity

It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question. EUGENE IONESCO, Decouvertes, 1969.

In America, at least, literal thinking is about all the educational system is perfectly good at teaching.1 I believe it needs to change, and I think it would be interesting/rewarding to craft a college-level (business school) course around the subject of questioning/creativity.  Simply asked, what topics should be covered?

A bit of background.  With the accelerating pace of change and volatility in business today,2 more emphasis out to be put on helping students zig when others zag.  At its root, creativity is about questioning; putting structure on something as yet without definition.3  Of course, first there needs to be recognition that you don’t know what you don’t know.  Here are a few topics (tips, tricks and techniques) to help jump start some comments:

Minds Eye: Empathy is crucial in helping nurture perspective.  What would a legalistic, artistic, scientific, religious or bureaucratic perspective bring to the topic?

Picturing: Human brains think in pictures; words are mere abstractions -  1) Portrait for a "who" or "What" problem; 2) Chart for a "What" problem; 3) Map for a "Where" problem; 4) Timeline for a "When" problem; 5) Flowchart for a "How" problem; 6) Multi-variable Plot for a "Why" problem.

Solution Thinking: We’re hard wired to think solutions, not necessarily to ponder what’s going on.  What are the seven deadly sins of solution thinking?  How does one get beyond them?4

1 In America, standardized testing and the ACT/SAT are but two examples which illustrate how our entire educational system is geared toward finding the right answer.  And this week, on the radio, I heard the Philadelphia school system is proposing a minimum score of 50 for all students on all tests, whether or not the pupil answers any questions correctly.  In an age where even big corporations and their mighty CEO’s can’t control their own destiny, instead of preparing students to search for the right answers (or not if you are raised in Philadelphia) shouldn’t we at least spend as much time helping them learn how to ask the right questions?

2 In the book It’s Alive by Christopher Meyer and Stan Davis, they highlight some compelling statistics regarding both the exponential nature of change and the volatility within business:
•    The number of Fortune 300 CEOs with six years tenure decreased from 57% in 1980 to 37% in 2001.
•    In 1978 about 10,000 firms were failing annually.  By 1986 about 60,000 firms were failing.  By 1998 that figure had risen to over 73,000 annually.
•    From 1950-2000 variability in S&P 500 stock prices increased more than 10-fold; from 1950 through the 1970s, days on which the market fluctuated by more than 3% happened less than twice a year, whereas in the last few years it has happened twice a month.
•    The number of firms that take "special items" in their accounting has grown dramatically; for instance, "special losses" from S&P 500 firms grew from 68 in 1982 to 233 in 2000.  (Special Items are, by definition, an admission of being caught flat-footed by change more volatile than the normal course of the business cycle.)

3 Which, as it so happens, is one definition of the word question.  What are other definitions that would inform a discussion?

4 Mathew May has an excellent Change This manifesto entitled Mind of the Innovator (Taming the traps of traditional thinking).

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
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  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
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