The Failure Fetish

A fetish for failure has been sweeping the blogosphere, the Twitterverse, and the broader market for ideas for a couple of years now. It’s ridiculous, and here’s why.

Failing is cool. Failing is great. Failing is the best thing you can do. A fetish for failure has been sweeping the blogosphere, the Twitterverse, and the broader market for ideas for a couple of years now. It’s ridiculous, and here’s why.

Thought leaders, social innovators, and TED talkers have been praising failure as an engine of learning with a zeal that borders on the evangelistic. Failure certainly can offer a lesson; when you mess something up, you often get a clue about how to do it better. Even absent a useful lesson, failure gives you one data point: your original approach didn’t work.

Failure fetishists tell you to fail fast, so that you can learn and adapt as quickly as possible. You may indeed save time by failing fast, but what about the quality of your failures? The fastest way to fail is just to throw every possible solution at a problem – a sort of brute force method. You might get a lot of information this way, but how much better will you understand the roots of the problem? Sometimes it’s worth taking time to think about the dynamics of the system rather than using rapid-fire trial-and-error.

This is especially true when each failure has a discrete cost. Imagine a platoon of soldiers trying to find the best way out of enemy territory. Failing fast would mean immediately sending soldiers in every possible direction and waiting to hear which of them made it back behind the lines. Of course, the rest would be killed or captured. In this case, a more judicious approach aimed at succeeding the first time – looking at maps, doing reconnaissance, radioing other platoons – might lead to a higher survival rate.

Now consider an advertising agency. Every time it wants to try out a new campaign, it hires a focus group. To fail fast, it would have to show dozens of iterations of its ads to these groups, learning a little bit each time. But people in focus groups get paid; if the account budget only allowed for three or four iterations, the agency would have to spend extra time trying to hit the mark – or at least get close – the first time.

Aiming to succeed the first time also helps to avoid bad habits. Imagine a concert pianist trying to learn a new piece. She could dive into the music, cruising through every passage at full tempo until she played a wrong note, then redoing those passages until she played them correctly. Yet along the way, she would create a jumble of useless and wrong muscular memories. For this reason, some of the best teachers suggest playing a new piece as slowly as needed to avoid all mistakes, then gradually increasing the tempo. Learning the piece correctly the first time builds a stronger foundation for the pianist’s interpretation of the music.

Similarly, a baseball player trying to perfect his swing could quickly try out a series of different strokes during batting practice in the pre-season. Most would fail to improve his hitting, but, as soon as one seemed to work, he could refine it with more trial-and-error. Of course, with this method he might miss another swing that was even more effective. Alternatively, he could try to succeed the first time by using simulations and expert advice to zero in on the most natural, efficient swing for his body, and then start from there. This approach would probably reduce his risk of injury, too.

Failure is a fetish and a growing fad. As with many fads, its adherents focus on benefits without considering costs. This is fine for the happy warriors and self-promoters who ply their trade in auditoriums and bookstores. But in real life, there’s something to be said for success.

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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.

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