The Pattern Seekers

GUEST POST BY JASON SILVA


The spectacular think tank and apparel company The Imaginary Foundation states that "To Understand Is To Perceive Patterns".  This seemingly simple sentence is actually utterly profound:  what it reminds us is that "understanding" means figuring out (or seeing) how things fit together.  We extract meaning from chaos by spotting patterns. It is the signal in the noise. 

To celebrate the importance of patterns, The Imaginary Foundation released the Pattern Seekers Trading Cards, each one highlighting a unique "patternist" who has made a profound impact on the world by discovering a "metapattern". Upon reading about these guys, you'll see the "meta-pattern" that defined their life and thinking.  Beautiful stuff indeed!

1. Buckminster Fuller

Meta Pattern: Nature is a totally efficient, self-regenerating system. IF we discover the laws that govern this system and live synergistically within them, sustainability will follow and humankind will be a success. 

2. Marshall Mcluhan

Meta Pattern:  The medium is the message. Developments in communications technology change the way we think about and experience the world. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.  Electronic communications are an extension of the human nervous system. 

3. Joseph Campbell

Meta Pattern: All religions are metaphorical rather than literal and contain poetic, symbolic meaning that should be examined for clues concerning the fundamental truths of the world and our existence.  The Monomyth: All great stories fit the archetype of the "hero's journey" whereby the hero answers the call to adventure, leaves the familiar world behind, overcomes great obstacles, faces his own actual or symbolic death, transcends and has an apotheosis, gains glory and insight, brings back the gift of wisdom back to the ordinary world in the return. 

4. Deep Blue

Meta Pattern: Chess is one of humanity’s great intellectual pursuits and a complex form of pattern recognition. In a 1997 match against world champion Garry Kasparov, Deep Blue became the first computer to defeat a human chess master.  

5. David Bohm

Meta Pattern: Bohm’s ”holomovement” demonstrates how physics can be rigorously consistent with higher realms of truth, order, and existence. 

6. George Lakoff

Meta Pattern: The mind is embodied. Truth is a metaphorical construction, not an attribute of objective reality. Reason proceeds from our experience of physicality. 

7. Howard Bloom

Meta Pattern: “Omnology,” the idea that patterns emerge when the arts and sciences are viewed as a whole. Bloom’s synthesis strives to make aesthetics, intuition, emotion, logic, politics, business, and science all facets of a common process, offering us the broadest view conceivable. 

8. Gordon Moore

Meta Pattern: Moore’s Law, which states that computer power doubles every two years, a principle that has held for half a century. Almost every feature of digital devices is strongly linked to Moore’s Law, from processing speed and memory capacity in PCs to the number and size of pixels in digital cameras. 

9. Leonardo Fibonacci

Meta Pattern: The Fibonacci sequence, a set of numbers intimately connected to a mathematical proportion that yields beauty in nature, art, and the human form. 

10. James Lovelock

Meta Pattern: The Gaia hypothesis. Lovelock proposed that Earth is a living, self-regulating system that functions as a superorganism. His hypothesis has been hugely influential in the development of ecology and environmentalism. 

11. Edward Tufte

Meta Pattern: Quantitative data arranged visually can reveal hidden trends and cycles. Tufte’s ideas were embraced by the architects of the Information Age, and have shaped everything from evening-news infographics to research in the physical and social sciences. 

12. Albert Einstein

Meta Pattern: Relativity. Einstein revolutionized modern physics by demonstrating that time and space are not fixed and that mass and energy are manifestations of the same thing. 

13. Ray Kurzweil

Meta Pattern: Exponential change. Technological progress will continue to accelerate until machine intelligence surpasses human intelligence—an event called the singularity—at which point humans will transcend biology. 

14. Benoît Mandelbrot

Meta Pattern: The fractal geometry of nature. Mandelbrot discovered what is now called the Mandelbrot set and coined the term fractal to describe its structure. Fractals, when magnified, display infinitely repeating self-similarity; they describe the complexity of the natural world in a way Euclidean geometry could not.  

15. Robert Wright

Meta Pattern: Biological and cultural evolution reward cooperation. In a globally networked society, the welfare of others is in our own self-interest. Borrowing from game theory, Wright calls this the “non-zero sum.” 

16. Johann Sebastian Bach

Meta Pattern: The art of fugue. Bach’s use of counterpoint to organize thematic variations into intricately detailed works called fugues is unequaled in Western music. While he didn’t invent the form, Bach’s fugues have been credited by scientists as a source of insight about nature and the cosmos. 

17. Peter Russell

Meta Pattern: The Internet is the central nervous system, and each user a discrete neuron, of a newly evolved global brain. 

18. Charles Darwin

Meta Pattern: Evolution by natural selection. Darwin’s theory offers a complete explanation of the complexity and diversity of life, connecting all organisms alive today to all organisms that have ever lived. 

19. Hubble telescope

Meta Pattern: Bringer of the bigger picture, literally. The Hubble telescope is a space-based observatory that revolutionized astronomy by providing unprecedentedly deep and clear views of the universe.  

20. Pythagoras

Meta Pattern: Not only do all things possess numbers, all things are numbers. 

21. Marie Curie

Meta Pattern: Radioactivity. Curie’s work contributed substantially to the shaping of the social, political, and technological landscapes of the 20th and 21st centuries. 

22. Thomas Kuhn

Meta Pattern: Science proceeds by revolution. Kuhn coined the term paradigm shift to mark the point at which accumulated data overturns received wisdom, engendering a radical transformation of the world and how we think about it. 

23. Watson & Crick

Meta Pattern: The double helix. James Watson  and Francis Crick discovered the molecular structure of DNA and its replication scheme, which has deep significance for information transfer in all living things.

24. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Meta Pattern:  Biological evolution is Anti-Entropic: instead of simplifying , evolution is a force of complexification which has crossed a threshold at the dawn of man, at which point we have switched to technological evolution. Evolution has become "self-aware" and "Self-directed" and birthed a new substrate of "mind" he coined "The Noosphere", which sits above the biosphere, combining all of human knowledge and intelligence and leading us to an "omega point of infinity in all directions" (his own take on the Singularity).

25. Terrence McKenna:  Meta Pattern: Language is both a psychedelic and synesthetic technology and was the first "technology" outside of DNA that allowed us to "encode information and transmit it through time and space". Basic language is the precursor to the electronics communications revolution and may have been spawned by the synesthetic effects of psychedelic mushrooms. 

  26. Timothy Leary Meta Pattern: The computer is the LSD of the 90's. Psychedelic substances can expand and dissolve the limitations of "reality" and played a key role in spawning the Information technology revolution. Today our minds compress and transcend time and space through our engagement with trippy devices like cell phones which give us telepathy and create techno-social wormholes. The universe is one big computer system.

Jason Silva is a media personality and Fellow at the Hybrid Reality Institute.

 

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  • 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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