Words Are Thinking Tools

New word tools can sometimes avoid old confusions. Let’s use “praxotype,” “cognotype,” and “technomorphic” to see human nature more accurately. Especially to see that we’re the least genetically constrained species ever.


Words are thinking tools (e.g., Dennett). New word tools can sometimes avoid old confusions. Let’s use “praxotype,” “cognotype,” and “technomorphic” to see human nature better.

1) Biologists describe organisms in terms of genotypes (gene sets) and phenotypes (developed traits — genes aren’t all used). But those types don’t distinguish physiological from behavioral or cognitive traits. Usually all three trait types are subsets of genotypes. But not for us.

2) Much human behavior, including what you’re doing right now, isn’t in your genes. Our physical traits are subsets of our genotype, but our praxotypes (sets of behaviors, prax = action) and cognotypes (cognitive traits) aren’t. That’s one reason why “gene for X” is less useful in humans, if X is a behavioral or cognitive trait.

3) We don’t only inherit genes. We inherit modified environments, physical tools, thinking-tools, second-nature skills, social rules, etc. And such “cultural” elements have long shaped our genes.

4) Emily Dickinson declared, “The Brain — is wider than the Sky.” Similarly, our praxotypes are wider than our biology. And our sky-containing skulls contain opinions that exert forces on our physiology.

5) Praxotypes = Lamarckian. Improved habits can be “inherited,” by social transmission. Other species learn socially, but we do it way more. Evident praxotype diversity suggests we shouldn’t model motivations monolithically (single-minded “utility” seeking risks becoming circular, and unfalsifiable).

6) It’s worth recalling how psychology was seen before today’s seeming certainties arose. Hamlet’s “There’s nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” stretches a key truth. Shakespeare likely knew Montaigne’s essay, which quotes Cicero’s “grief lies not in nature, but [in] opinion,” and says opinions, “error and dreams,” each “gains reality” by serving as cause for our actions. Darwin similarly noted how “Hindoo” beliefs about food, not the food itself, had “soul-shaking” effects.

7) Montaigne’s we’re all “furnished … with similar tools and instruments for thought,” is right about our hardware. But our cognotypes are computer-like. They include updatable software.

8) Pinker arguing against “The Blank Slate” mental model said we have a common “battery of emotions, drives, and faculties for reasoning,” that can work like “setting a dial [or] flipping a switch.” But those “technomorphic” elements should also include computer-like logic scripts (if X, then do Y etc., which can be System 1 triggered, and can encode our cultures’ habits, and emotion-configuring stories, and maxims). Parts of our minds are blank slates awaiting social scripts.  

Our software-configurable cognotypes (opinions, and beliefs, often unchosen and tacit) drive our praxotypes (especially our habits) and influence how our physiology reacts. Though we evolved like other species, much about us is unique or uniquely developed. We’re the least genetically constrained species ever.

 

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

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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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