TED and TEDActive Offer Immersive Inspiration and Radical Insight

BY @Jason_Silva


"He who speaks in primordial images speaks with a thousand voices; he enthralls and overpowers, while at the same time he lifts the idea he is trying to express out of the occasional and the transitory into the realm of the ever enduring." -- Carl Jung

The TED Conference has become a temple for intellectual neurogenesis. At TED (and TED Active), the confluence and diversity of mind-candy triggers just the right kinds of conceptual collisions leading to the elusive, dot-connecting, combinatorial creativity that thinkers relish. I truly believe the synthesis of new ideas arises in the ecstatic or inspired state whereby the recombination of previously acquired information and the pattern-seeking abilities of the brain converge, leading to a form of intellectual neurogenesis, the spitting forth of AHA!, an orgasm in the head that gives birth to new insight. At TED, we experience this multiple times over the course of the event!

Here is one way in which TED truly shines: Besides the obvious (and hugely important) aesthetic considerations, the talks vary widely. This year we went from listening to the Head of DARPA, Regina Dugan, telling us to "dream the impossible", to learning about the power of story from the writer ofToy Story -- and it is precisely this juxtaposition and diversity that triggers radical new insights.

One of my favorite talks featured X PRIZE founder Peter Diamandis speaking about how exponentially emerging technologies can be leveraged to solve humanity's grand challenges. The talk was based on the research for his new book Abundance, where he carefully explains how, in spite of what you hear from our doom and gloom media, the world has never been better off, and is improving exponentially. He cited the work of Steven Pinker's Myth of Violence, which showed how violence is down across the world. He also cited Hans Rosling, another TED speaker, who has shown that by every measurable indicator, quality of life markers for every nation have been on the rise for decades. His talk was just the kind of counter-intuitive download that attendees enjoy.

TED has also redefined the dimensions of memetic content: The self-contained ideas packaged in a TED talk can live on past their initial presentation.TED talks can leap from brain to brain, exhibiting infectivity and spreading power, just like organisms! Their vector of transmission is the global brain.

In spite of the huge scale of a TED talk, they still feel remarkably intimate while remaining intellectually satisfying. Most speakers mix and match their work and research with really personal stories, the combination of which allows them to converse with the audience on richer, deeper, and subtler levels of communication by more closely replicating the multidimensional stimulation of actual lived experience. Philosopher Terence McKenna used to say that all of the unique and significant characteristics and preoccupations of human beings can be summed up under the heading of cognitive activities: dance, philosophy, painting, poetry, meditation, essentially the world of ideas, of mind. "We are truly homo sapiens, the thinking animal," he wrote, "our acts are all a product of the dimension that is uniquely ours, the dimension of cognitive activity. Of thought and emotion, memory and anticipation. Of psyche.".

At TED, the best talks, like cinema, have the power "to make visible the invisible, express the inexpressible, [and] speak the unspeakable"...

There's a great line that reads: "Life is only worth living when it is in the service of something beyond the explicit and the mundane." TEDsters seem to wear this truism on their sleeves. Attendees and speakers alike represent the some of the most interesting people in the world. TED is heaven for the thinking mind.

I was so inspired by Peter Diamandis ideas related to Abundance that I did this video rant waxing philosophical on its themes. Proof that TED can turn ideas into action:

Jason Silva is a Fellow of the Hybrid Reality Institute, a research and advisory group focused on human-technology co-evolution, geotechnology and innovation.

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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.

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