The Albatross and the Chameleon

I’ve never seen an albatross but I’m told the regal bird can glide for hundreds of miles without flapping his wings. On land, however, the large wings drag like “drifting oars” and cause him to walk rather clumsily. Charles Baudelaire related to this duality. For the French wordsmith, a poet away from his pen resembled the albatross on land: ridiculed, misunderstood and ugly. The poet may have a wily way with words but not much else.


Most people should relate to the albatross. An unfortunate feature of the mind is its tendency to be good at understanding something in one domain but quite bad at applying it to another. The term for this is domain dependence, and it describes an inability to extend what you’ve learned beyond the context in which you learned it.

Consider an experiment from a study conducted by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the early 1970s. They gathered professors of statistics and gave them a number of statistical questions dressed up to not look like statistical questions. Here’s the premise of one: in a large hospital about 45 babies are born each day and in a small hospital 15 babies are born. For one year each hospital keeps track of the number days on which more than 60 percent of babies were boys. Keeping in mind that on average 50 percent of all babies male, which hospital do you think recorded more such days: the larger hospital, the smaller hospital, or about the same? Kahneman and Tversky found that many statisticians (and students who took statistics classes) made the mistake of choosing option one, even though the larger a sample the less it fluctuates from the long-term average, making option two the correct one. 

A similar mistake shows itself in the well-known bat-and-ball problem. Here’s the premise of this one: A bat and ball cost $1.10 and the bat costs one dollar more than the ball. The question is: how much does the ball cost? Most people go with the intuitive answer: 10 cents. But if you do the math you’ll see that if the ball costs 10 cents then the total is $1.20 (10 cents for the ball and $1.10 for the bat). Therefore, the correct answer is 5 cents. What’s shocking is over 50 percent of Harvard, Princeton and MIT students who tackled the bat-and-ball question provided the incorrect answered of 10 cents. Mind you, these well-endowed students are the same students whose SAT scores rank in the top percentiles.

For another illustration of the way we struggle with domain dependency consider a personal example. As a Manhattanite I enjoy long walks but sometimes I shock my friends when I tell them just how many blocks and avenues I traverse. They’re not walkers by my standards, which is fine except they pay around 50 dollars for gym memberships… and even more for cabs and a chance to run in the New York City Marathon. I shouldn’t criticize though. Just yesterday I was at the front door of my apartment about to run when I realized that I forgot my hat. I scoffed at the thought of having to walk up four flights of stairs to retrieve it so I ran without the hat. If you want to see domain dependency in action exercise is a good start.

The opposite of domain dependency is someone who can take what they’ve learned in one domain and apply it to any other. Here the animal equivalent is the chameleon, because unlike an albatross a chameleon naturally adapts to any circumstance (and looks good doing so). An incongruity of the mind is that we are chameleons socially but albatrosses epistemically.

Here’s the important part. If creativity is the ability to connect two unrelated ideas to produce a novel idea with use then we should strive to be what I term “epistemic chameleons.” An epistemic chameleon is an academic version of the most interesting man in the world (the one from the Dos Equis commercials). He shifts from one domain to another seamlessly and is good at applying what he learned in a textbook to the real world and vice versa despite the subject matter.   

How can we adopt his personality? A slew of research from the psychology of creativity tells us that taking on different mindsets is helpful. For example, traveling abroad helps us see problems from multiple perspectives and alcohol and sleepiness improve tests of divergent thinking. There are reasons to be skeptical of these findings and the pop-science they influence. Tomorrow, a team of researchers might publish data that proves these results wrong. But it would not negate the benefit of adapting a mindset usually used in one domain to find a creative solution in another domain. This is a hallmark of the epistemic chameleon.

Consider a story from Steve Jobs’ famed Stanford commencement speech. Jobs favorite class was calligraphy. “I learned about serif and sans-serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great,” he said. None of it had a practical application until he and Steve Wozniak sat down to design to the first Macintosh ten years later. That’s when it all came back to him. He designed all the typography he learned from calligraphy class into the mac, which sold well.

The lesson here is that the brain uses different modules depending on the situation. There is no neural-CEO who controls an all-purpose hard drive. We struggle to connect what we learn in class with other aspects of life because the mind is composed of modules that often compete with each other. I’ve suggested that a creative mind acts like a chameleon because it moves from domain to domain seamlessly. The banal mind, in contrast, acts like the albatross because it depends on a domain, much like the Ivy-Leaguers and statisticians. If the purpose of education is to take what you’ve acquired in class and use it to succeed in the world then let’s learn from the chameleon, not the albatross. 

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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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