Getting Technology Out of the Classroom?
The high-tech parents from Silicon Valley are now sending their kids to a school—the Waldorf School of the Peninsula—that sells itself as computer-free. Why? Such technology is a distraction, turning attention away from reading, writing, numbers, talking, and thinking. It’s certainly difficult to deny that computers inhibit "human interaction and attention spans." So more useful by far than iPads and Google are chalk boards, blackboards, bookshelves, No. 2 pencils, workbooks, and wooden desks.
Students, of course, really need to find better purposes for their hands than pounding on keyboards and clicking on various websites. So they should spend time honing their knitting skills, with the simple but most useful goal of making socks. To synchronize body and brain, nothing’s better than reciting verse while playing catch with beanbags.
The argument against this low-tech approach, of course, is that students have been brought up with computers, and they find them riveting. So there’s no way to hold their attention these days without them. Students lack the virtue or habituation to be approached "really" or personally—as opposed to indirectly or virtually.
But shouldn’t school be about facilitating education by fighting against the indulgent excesses of any particular time and place? It’s just not true that little kids or even college kids are so corrupted that they can’t be approached anywhere but online. It’s even true that they know they’ve been deprived of a lot in a society where everyone spends too much time in front of a screen. They long for better habits than our high-tech world automatically gives them; they long for the discipline that allows them really to learn for themselves with others.
Most students, of course, get computer literate at home. And everyone knows these days that being always online and compulsively Facebooking messes with your brain and makes you a less fit friend for real people. It’s great to be attuned to popular culture in all its forms, but those who really understand it—and put it in its proper, ironic perspective—have read lots of real books with the care they deserve. Maybe it’s true that much of what we really need to know can be found on Google, but Googling really doesn’t let us in on who we are and what we’re supposed to do with what we know.
UPDATE: When I wrote this, all I was going on was the NYT article. It's since come to my attention that Waldorf Schools are infected by the pseudo-philosophical and sometimes nutty ideas of their founder. I have no idea how infected the Peninsula school is. If you go to the comment thread to the article, you can see the controversy, and you can see more by looking to the article linked in the first comment in the thread below.
I actually don't think anything described in the article on which this post is based is nutty. Much of what I'm saying is summed up by an eloquent comment in the NYT thread:
We should not be so quick to flood grade school education with new technologies, simply because it's available or because we think it could give us an edge in global economic competition. Computers today are easy to learn to use at any age, quickly and effectively. But there are only a few short, critical years of early development in which to teach a child the basics of being human, how to love learning, and the best ways of working with others. There is no app for that, and there never will be.
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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.
- 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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