Tourists as Inverse Role Models, or the Benefits of Optionality

The benefits of tourism in New York City (or any city) are not only financial. Tourists are anti-beacons: wherever they flock, residents like me immediately know where not to go. When I travel to other cities I use this heuristic in my favor, which is why I gravitate towards the corners of a city where tourists are nowhere and stimulating cafes are everywhere (perfect environments for thinking and writing).

I’ve noticed that my fellow New Yorkers agree with me in the first regard. The term “New Yorkers” does not necessarily denote someone who is from New York but someone who exists in New York not as a tourist. So we bond not over our origins but mutual annoyances: the insanity of Times Square, photographers in Grand Central Station, and slow walkers. At the same time, I’ve witnessed New Yorkers travel abroad and become the very tourists they scorn. They don’t realize that it shouldn’t matter if you are a visitor or a local: it is always better to go where tourists are not.

I’ve noticed another inconsistency. A New Yorker will complain about the day-to-day trenches of adult life and then, to escape the predictability, plan a vacation down to the minute. It’s nauseating. If I could predict how my day would exactly transpire, part of me would feel dead. My mom, the best tourist I’ve ever met, maintained a rule of thumb to avoid this: “let’s get lost” was her mantra.

Charles MacKay’s 1841 opus Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of the Crowds comes to mind here. I’ve only read excerpts, but enough to see how brilliantly MacKay captures our sheepish tendencies: If someone stops and looks up, passersby will look up; if someone donates money to a homeless person, witnesses are motivated to do the same; once one person crosses the street, the herd follows. MacKay would have enjoyed observing locals and tourists in New York – if he could tell them apart.

If touristification, as Nassim Taleb defines it, is the systematic removal of uncertainty and randomness, then the “let’s get lost” mantra is an attempt to incorporate a certain dose of uncertainty and randomness into life. It turns out that this has some merit in the workplace. Fast Company is sub-par and repetitive, but I’ve read a few good articles about how businesses are designing their offices so employees cross paths (literally) more often. Pixar is the paragon here. It’s said that Steve Jobs insisted that the entire headquarters only have two bathrooms, thus forcing the designers to mingle with the producers, the directors to mingle with the writers, etc. I recently traveled to the opulent headquarters of a large business here in New York. The people bored me to tears but the office was impressive. When I arrived, I took an elevator up a number of floors only to walk down several flights of stairs. I later learned that the elevators stopped at every other floor. This apparently forced employees to walk long distances and through different departments. Again, the mind benefits from a bit of randomness and uncertainty (although this particular company has never been revered for their creativity). 

Science, too, benefits from a degree of haphazardness. Alexander Fleming was once investigating something he knew (the properties of staphylococci) when he discovered something else (penicillin) thanks to his untidy tendencies around the laboratory. Similarly, Viagra was originally designed to be a hypertension drug. Many years ago, as a student, I spent three weeks in the Golan Heights excavating a Roman Temple from the Hellenistic period. The site was overseen by a friend – a classics professor at Macalester College – who explained that a fierce brush fire uncovered the ruins. So while we glorify the scientific method, it’s critical to remember that without serendipity, discovery would grind to a halt.    

Mother Nature seems to have endowed the mind with an underlying appreciation for the potential benefits of the unknown. I’ve watched enough sport contests to know that a high degree of uncertainty is correlated with the largest payoffs. There are few things in life more pleasurable than last minute heroics with like-minded fans, which is why watching Landon Donovan score a goal against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup released the most potent dose of euphoria I’ve ever experienced. I imagine that poker players receive a similar pleasure when a favorable hand returns a large pile of poker chips as anticipated, but not known for sure. A random bump-in with a friend in a foreign airport is a rare joy in life. The seeds of most marriages (choice-marriages) are usually unintentionally planted – anyone who has been to a wedding more than once is familiar with this narrative. I’m currently listening to Pandora, the online radio streaming service. Not knowing what’s coming next (but knowing that you’ll probably like it) is the enjoyable part. Even our taste buds “know” about the benefits of the unknown: eating something unexpectedly good is much better than eating something you expect to be good.

Note how these examples are in opposition to modernity, where predictability and certainty are virtues. There are benefits, of course, to knowing how the future will unfold, but our insatiable quest for complete control produces a number of irrationalities. Consider placebo buttons, which David McRaney brought to my attention. Computers have effectively eliminated the “push to cross” buttons at cross walks. Years ago, a few cities were going to remove these devices, but to save money officials simply kept them. No one complained. The “close door” buttons in elevators are also placebos and thermostats are only capable of moving the temperature a few degrees in either direction – a few buildings contain noise generators to reinforce the illusion that employees are actually changing the temperature. We enjoy the idea that we control our surroundings, even if that idea is a fantasy.

The sooner you stop trying to control the world the better, and I can assure you that this is not as fatalistic as it sounds. Let’s return to tourists. There are two ways to explore a city. The first is to schedule things, plan things, and sign up for those heinous tours that make humans look like cattle. The problem here is once you have an itinerary you can be late for things, or even miss them. Worse, you cannot revise your plans, or your destination. The second approach is embodied by the “flâneur”, an idea the French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote about. For Baudelaire, the flâneur is the opposite of a tourist. He is a stroller and a wanderer – a connoisseur of the street. If he wants to go somewhere, he does. Free from a schedule, he can only catch trains and never miss them. (Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have a term for this: “pivoting.”)

The advantage the flâneur has over the tourist is optionality. That is, in life, it’s always better to have a few options than to set one fixed course (to a certain degree). Just ask bar hoppers and college students: they embrace a live in the moment attitude, which means they welcome the randomness a typical night may deliver while an uptight scheduler is crushed when things inevitably do not follow “the plan.” In other words, if you have optionality, you crave variability and unpredictability – you know planning is futile, so you look forward to the unexpected. 

I end with a quote from Seneca the Younger

The greatest flaw in life is that it is always imperfect, and that a certain part of it is postponed. One who daily puts the finishing touches to his life is never in want of time. And yet, from this want arise fear and a craving for the future which eats away the mind. There is nothing more wretched than worry over the outcome of future events; as to the amount or the nature of that which remains, our troubled minds are set aflutter with unaccountable fear.

Image via Wikipedia Creative Commons

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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.
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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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