If the novel is dead, so are we.
Author Junot Díaz reminds us why fiction isn't just “nice to have."
Junot Díaz is a Dominican American writer, creative writing professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and fiction editor at Boston Review. He also serves on the board of advisers for Freedom University, a volunteer organization in Georgia that provides post-secondary instruction to undocumented immigrants. Central to Díaz's work is the immigrant experience. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, in 2008. He is a 2012 MacArthur Fellow.
Born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Díaz immigrated with his family to New Jersey when he was six years old. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Rutgers University, and shortly after graduating created the character "Yunior", who served as narrator of several of his later books. After obtaining his MFA from Cornell University, Díaz published his first book, a short story collection entitled Drown in 1995. In 2007, he published his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, for which he won the Pulitzer.
Junot Díaz: One of the functions that art has is not only is art didactic; art can be in many ways persuasive or seductive. But art is also transgressive and the transgressive function of art is fundamental in a society that often shies away from the difficult topics, the difficult subjects and the difficult conversations it needs to engage in.
We all live in societies that repress and silence what’s troubling, what’s naughty, what’s sort of, in some ways, I think threatening. But art has this way of provoking us. Art has this way of imposing these silences, breaking these silences and posing these conversations on us. And I think it’s absolutely important that we as a society think in ways that we often don’t imagine subjects that we often sort of shy away from and enter silences that we’re not often encouraged to do so. Because in these silences, in what’s disavowed awaits who we really are as a culture and a society. And I think art has been great for this.
But as people, you know, members of a civic society, we also have to push ourselves into the places that are not entirely comfortable. In silence is where tyranny and oppression really does its work and therefore the conversations that are often relegated to the margins, the conversations that are considered impolite, those are the conversations that are much more likely to lead to a more fair and just society. It’s not readily apparent to folks, but literature is one of our great artistic mediums. It’s one of our great innovations, which allows a reader to not only transport themselves temporally, but also spatially — that permits them to enter not just other people, but other worlds.
It’s the closest that we come to telepathy, to be able to inhabit other people’s minds. It’s a wonderful exercise in compassion and sympathies and when one thinks about it sort of, you know over the long term, a relationship with literature produces extraordinary effects in that it brings the reader not only in contact with other times and other places, but it brings the reader in contact with themselves. Literature opens inside of a reader a space of deliberation, which allows them to not only reconstruct their own subjectivity, but also to dialogue with themselves and with other conceptualizations of other selves. It’s an extraordinary art and I think that it’s one of the best ways that people can educate the soul. And simply because it’s not as popular as, say, as like Twitter doesn’t make it any less significant or any less important.
Literature, explains Pulitzer-winning writer Junot Díaz, is the closest that we've come to telepathy. It's through literature that we educate our souls by transporting ourselves into some other character's mind. It builds empathy. It allows for new perspectives. It triggers provocation in all the best ways. Novels aren't as popular a medium today as something like Twitter, but that doesn't mean they're not still hugely important.
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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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