Rainn Wilson's Spiritual Journey

Question: How did your experiences growing up in a sort of unconventional family inform who you are today?

Rainn Wilson:  Well, I grew up a very dorky, weird looking kid in suburban Seattle and to make matters worse another way in which I didn’t fit in was my parents were Baha’is, members of the Baha’i faith, and I grew up a member of the Baha’i faith. And one of the great things about that was that I had a very Catholic—from the original use of the word Catholic—view of religions.  We soaked in all kinds of different beliefs.  Jehovah’s Witnesses would knock on the door.  We would invite them in and discuss the Bible with them.  We would have Buddhist monks traveling through town stay with us.  We had books on Sufism and Sikhism and I knew about all of these things and I was raised to think about philosophy and religious thought and the soul and the spirit of humankind in a different way, also really socially progressive teachings of the Baha’i faith, the equality of men and women, the elimination of racial prejudice, the equality of science and religion, so it was a big cauldron of big ideas in my household. And we were weird and unhappy family, but nonetheless that was a really positive thing that came out of it. 

Then when I moved to New York in my 20s, I really abandoned all that—and so many people do that grow up in religious households.  They just abandon the way of their parents.  I decided there couldn’t be a God, that there was so much suffering in the world.  Religion perpetrated so much evil.  I wanted to do my own way and take my own journey and what I did was I became an artist and I just focused on being an actor and all of my attention just went to... and my kind of my fervor went to theater and acting and I really thought with my friends that went to school down at NYU we would do little basement productions of Hedda Gabler or whatever and we really thought we could change the world.  If we did the right piece of theater in the right way with the right audience we could touch people’s hearts and we could just blow their minds and just open things up completely.

And I also focused on my career as an actor a great deal and I became very me-focused and me-centered, just myself and my career and what is next and how do I get a better agent and how do I get into TV and movies and then I you know I felt a yearning. I came to a crossroads.  I hit bottom, in a way.  I was really unhappy, and realized that I just wanted something more about.... from the experience of being alive.  I was like I was doing great plays.  It wasn’t changing the world.  I was getting good agents and doing film and TV and I wasn’t happier.  I was like "Wow, there is an unease inside of me." And that led me back on my kind of more spiritual path to the Baha’i faith in a new and fresher way and a more realized way and I came to also understand at that point that there was no difference between being devout and being an artist.  There is no difference between creativity and spirituality and philosophy and that is what Soul Pancake, the book, and SoulPancake.com are about is: it’s all about human expression and it’s all about seeking to transcend.  It’s about that yearning and whether it’s through science or through art, through service, through worship it’s the human experience of longing to connect with people, to connect with the energy throughout creation and we compartmentalize all of these things and I realized it’s all the same thing.  I play Dwight.  That is just much me being of service and worshiping as if I'm on my knees in some temple somewhere or bowing my head in prayer to God in some way.  It’s really all just the same thing.

Question:  What keeps you up at night?

Rainn Wilson:  Boy, I sleep like a log.  I always have.  I just I hit the pillow and it’s like [snore sound].  What keeps my wife up at night is my horrific snoring, which I got to get taken care of.  I need to get those nose strips.

Recorded November 11, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler

The actor grew up a member of the Baha’i faith, and "soaked in all kinds of different beliefs." He lost himself in his career when he was younger, but then found his way back to spirituality through art and creativity.

To boost your self-esteem, write about chapters of your life

If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.

Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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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.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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