The Floating Brain: Learning in the 21st Century


Each of us, over time, builds a more and more comprehensive image of the world based upon our experiences and explorations. However, while this image of reality was traditionally grounded in tangible 3D experience, today this model is, more and more, getting built with pixels and simulated experience in the form of video and game-play.

If you ask 10 random Americans what it’s like on the plains of the African Savannah, chances are that most people can go on for 30 minutes about the color of the grass, the types of animals you could find there, the intense struggle for survival that persists season after season, and so on. These people could also probably tell you a bit about what it’s like to be in the mob. How mobster families are organized, etc. However, the curious thing is that most of these people have likely ever been to Africa, or met a real live mobster. But, all of these people have probably seen Planet Earth and indulged in Scarface, or at least The Sopranos, a few times.

With all of the video content available today, more and more of us are spending our lives in our heads - simulating the experiences of others from the comfort of our homes. As our lives become more and more sedentary, we need more and more content to watch. Fortunately, there is no shortage of imagination in this world and, when there is, “reality” can be commodified and packaged as television programming.

The result of all this content consumption is that much of what we learn is not learned through first-hand experience, but by observing others. And, unfortunately, much of what we’re observing is incomplete or has little relation to the way things actually are. When we see a TV drama about the meth trade (Breaking Bad), we build a mental model of what things are like in that subculture - even if the series has little relation to the actual workings of the industry. When we watch Lauren Conrad and her friends on Laguna Beach, we think that the life of a young socialite in LA consists of 24/7 parties, Bentleys, and passionate trysts on various darkened beaches. However, in actuality, these unbelievably enticing scenes are constructed by clever producers to make fairly normal and mundane existences seem truly unbelievable .

All of this is to say that our lives today are getting filled with disembodied knowledge - that is, knowledge gleaned by mental machination and simulation, not by active real-world experience. Traditionally, knowledge and information was acquired with our whole bodies in a specific context. We didn’t sit in a room and watch other people doing things, or read about other people doing things. Instead, we went into the world and tried things. When we failed we learned something. When we succeeded we learned something else. Learning, in these contexts, was an expression of our entire organism. It was the manifestation of the combined effort of our muscles, our eyes, our ears, our nose, etc. To learn meant to be as aware and as alive as possible.

Today, however, learning has been re-defined and re-imaged to be a solitary and sedentary process of extreme control and concentration. It’s a process by which we travel inward, into our own minds, and inhabit a simulator in our gray matter. This allows us to gradually construct scenes and scenarios in our minds,  from which we can start to figure out what *might* happen in the real world. However, no matter how good our model is, it will never be complete. The map is never the territory. And, as we construct our understanding of the world, we must be sure that it’s built upon rocks of reality and not wisps of fantasy. The more we rely on models that, however good, will always result in errors and surprises, the more we will retreat from the world and into our safe havens of certainty and control. Models inevitably breed a false sense of understanding and power. Embodied knowledge, however, contains within it the understanding of context and contingency. Everything happens in a specific place and is the specific result of a confluence of of myriad of factors, both known and unknown. When we learn through all of our senses simultaneously, and let experience be our guide, we come to understand this on a deep level.

So, as we continue to live and learn in the 21st century, we must not forget that there is no such thing is a floating brain. While we may love riding the waves of fantasy that course throughout our collective consciousness, we must always be sure to look life squarely in the eyes and know that behind those dark pools is a churning and buzzing cacophony that we can catch a firm grasp of, but never truly control.

 

Image credit:Sue Clark

 

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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. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. 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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