Passions aren't fixed. You can develop them.

A Stanford new study delves into whether passions are fixed or developed.


We are often told to follow our passions when entering into the work world. It’s become a common bit of wisdom to do so. "If you love what you do"—they commonly say—"then you’ll never have to work a day in your life." However, it's often the case that this is much easier said than done. 

On top of this, sometimes we may be cultivating a passion that isn't right for us. Rather than branching out and developing new passions, we’re stuck with dead ends. Indeed, if you’re not careful, following your passion could lead you to being broke and frustrated.

In one of George Orwell’s earlier novels, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, his protagonist disavows working a well-paying job in advertising. Rather than subject himself to the system, he resigns himself to abject poverty working in a bookstore to follow his dream of writing poetry. Throughout the novel, he begins to see that his passion is holding him back as he obsesses over the ability to live beyond the grasp of what he calls the “money god.”  

Oscillating between disparaging the money-driven society he lives in and envying the power of riches, he begins to realize that he’s playing a losing game. Unconsciously, what he really wants is wealth, and by the end of the novel, he accepts that fact.

Orwell’s novel is illustrative of the idea that following your passions can sometimes be a limiting belief. That is to say, passions are not fixed, and by believing that they are, you restrict your capacity to grow into other areas of interest. It turns out that the idea of building your passion, rather than trying to find it, may be a better approach to life. A new Stanford study suggests just that.

Like pottery, new passions can be fashioned. Photo by ritesh singh on Unsplash

A deeper look into theories of interest 

There are many beliefs we hold that determine whether or not we’ll succeed or fail. In a research paper titled Implicit Theories of Interest: Finding Your Passion or Developing It, which was published on September 6, the authors set out to explore the implications of the beliefs behind finding your passion. In the abstract, they state:  

People are often told to find their passion as though passions and interests are pre-formed and must simply be discovered. This idea, however, has hidden motivational implications.

In a series of five studies, they tested and examined “implicit theories of interest," which refers to the idea that interests are either fixed or developed. These two theories were compared to one another in order to find out which was more advantageous for learning and cultivating a passion.   

The authors theorized that once someone has a fixed interest, they will have little reason to explore other passions. Next, the researchers aimed to find out whether having an internalized passion made it easier for a subject to be motivated and inspired while they set out for their goal with minimal frustration or struggles. In all of these studies they gave subjects learning materials and information to spike interest in new fields of study. They then gradually increased the difficulty it would take to pursue these types of newly found passions. They also determined the theories of interests through questionnaires.   

Briefly, here are the results from each section study:

  • Studies 1–3: “Those endorsing a fixed theory were also more likely to anticipate boundless motivation when passions were found, not anticipating possible difficulties.”

  • Study 4: “When engaging in a new interest became difficult, interest flagged significantly more for people induced to hold a fixed than a growth theory of interest.”

  • Study 5: “Urging people to find their passion may lead them to put all their eggs in one basket, but then to drop that basket when it becomes difficult to carry.”

The more believe you can do, the more you do

Fixed and growth theories are two different approaches to the way people pursue their interests. In their general discussion part of the research paper they came to the conclusion:  

The message to find your passion is generally offered with good intentions, to convey: Do not worry so much about talent, do not bow to pressure for status or money, just find what is meaningful and interesting to you. Unfortunately, the belief system this message may engender can undermine the very development of people’s interests.

In the end, however, neither theory is necessarily better or worse than the other one. Instead the results showed that the development of interest varies significantly due to the implicit theory that a person possesses. 

 

So what does this mean for people pursuing their passions?

A person who held a fixed theory were unlikely to pursue new developments in other areas of interest. In the event they do start something new, and encounter difficulty, they are prone to quit right then and there. Those with a growth interest mindset are more likely to follow through on a variety of interests. This is helpful for people who require interdisciplinary knowledge, which in our world is a sought-out commodity. It also frees you up to not be a slave to unfruitful passions.

It's not all shade, though, when it comes to holding a fixed theory. It's not a liability. The laser-like focus can even help deepen someone’s grasp of their individual interest or passion, which can, in turn, make them an expert in a field. Beyond the work sphere, however — when it comes to bucket lists — one should see how their mindset, the way they chase their passions, is affecting their goals in life.  

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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. 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.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
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