The Flight from Attachment

One article talks about the declining rates of procreation. Another contemplates job mobility. When I pull the fragments together into one tableau I’m left with the question: How it attachment trending these days? To what do we attach ourselves in the 21st century?

Not to a corporation or employer, in the style of the Company Man, or the gold watch at the retirement party after four or five decades. We don’t attach ourselves to employers because we can’t, seeing as how employers don’t attach themselves to employees. Rather, they look to No Strings Attached and no-obligations employment. They seek out temporary, freelance, benefits-free labor; fire, outsource, and downsize at will; and squeeze as much productivity out of their employees as they can, without the joisting that shared benefits and distribution of profits might provide.

Even if a 20-something could envision pleasurable lifelong employment with one company, they’d most likely be foolish to pursue it. Young people are shrewd in not giving their hearts to the Company but, instead, seeing themselves as their own “brand,” transient and mobile.

There’s still marriage. Although not really, or not as robustly. The flight from marital attachment is a strong, decades-long trend. The Pew Research Center, which follows marriage and family trends, reports that marriage is at a record low, at barely half. New marriages were down 5% from 2009 to 2010. If the trend continues, the share of married Americans will drop notably below half in only a few years.  

Okay, there are still children to be had. Except that the “childfree” life is trending, too.  Census data show that 20% of women age 40 to 45 don’t have children, which is up from a mere 10% in the early 1970s. See the recent Time article whose cover I loathe, “The Childfree Life.”

We might not seek steady, lifelong employment, get married, or have children. But we still attach to meaningful, intimate relationships with lovers, right? Not quite. In the “hook-up culture” of young adulthood, that’s not the fashion.

Friends?  Social neuroscientist John Cacioppo reports in his book that 60 percent of Americans perceive themselves to be lonely. The Social Science Surveys found in 1984 that Americans had an average of three “confidants” (as opposed to more casual friends, colleagues, or acquaintances, confidants are told most anything, and the friendship is close enough to encourage disclosure). By 2000, that number had dwindled down toward one or “none.” Ironically, "social" media might not help matters. Social media favors grazing over root-laying. It favors the mile wide and inch deep over the intense. Does having a friend require more than a fleeting commitment in social media and, if not, does that really count as an attachment?

Maybe attachment has simply gone underground. Like ex-Governor Mark Sanford, who came up with the best euphemism ever for a tryst when he, ahem, “hiked the Appalachian Trail" (read: flew to Argentina to see his mistress) we’ll go to extreme lengths to nurture our illicit attachments. While I have no numbers to instantiate whether the incidence of illicit but deep attachments has risen or fallen, I do know that this century is more judgmental, and more intolerant about “cheating” than earlier generations, even when those bonds are, as in Sanford’s case, indisputably substantive and meaningful to the participants.

It’s not looking good for attachment.

There’s still community, and neighbors—except that at age 18, the average American can expect to move 9.1 times, according to Census estimates. By age 45, the number of moves is 2.7.

Before the crash of 2008, I would have singled out real estate, if not community, as an area of growing and stronger attachment, as the book Real Estate Love described. But the recession deprived us of this passion, curdling the love relationship into dysfunctional hostility. The transient arrangement of renting is on the rise.

In the aggregate, if you consider jobs, community, friends, marriage, lovers, children, and real estate, attachment isn’t faring so well. It’s trending downward in all of those areas.

There’s not much left, a place where attachment is trending deeper. Except dogs. Dog and pet "guardians" have generated booming economies of pet toys and caregiving services. Dogs now have their own cable station, and their own magazine, Bark. In a sluggish economy, Americans spent $53 billion on their pets in 2012, up 5% from the year before. And the number of households with pets has grown from 52% in 1988 to 62% today. So this is one attachment that’s trending strong. Concludes a business journalist, “pets fill a connection and friendship vacuum” today. New biochemical research has even found that dogs elicit the same intense oxytocin bonding response as your newborn. What’s striking in my mind is not the scientists’ conclusion, but that they thought to ask the question in the first place.

So, as they might say in Washington, If you want an attachment, get a dog.

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Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
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Photo credit: MARWAN NAAMANI / AFP / Getty Images
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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. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. 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.