The New Face of Uncertainty

In my last post, I talked a bit about the fundamental purpose of technology: reducing uncertainty.


Uncertainty is a double edged sword in the human experience - it provides us with excitement, but it also causes us a great deal of stress and discomfort. One of the tricks of life is learning how to stay on this razor’s edge between adventure and catastrophe.

However, the battle between our drive for certainty, and our drive for excitement, is not evenly matched.  We have a cognitive bias towards the negative or dangerous aspects of our experience. This is why we’re taught the “criticism sandwich” (give critical feedback in-between two compliments), and told to do five nice things for every mean/hurtful thing in our personal relationships. The negative grows particularly large in our predictably skewed perceptions.

Yet, from this seemingly unfortunate bias grows much of our drive to create new technologies. In our battle against the dangerous and uncertain aspects of life, we’ve come up with things like bridges, airplanes, spaceships, and vaccines.

But we must also remember that there are no absolutes in human perception. $100 is a large amount of money to some, but pocket change for others. 5’11 is a towering, and overwhelming, height for a toddler, but normal and expected for an adult. Our life situations determine our baselines, and our experience is bounded by these happenstance dimensions. And, in the opening decades of the 21st century, many of the great uncertainties that have been a mainstay of the human experience have been wiped from the modern world.

In developed societies, the chances of dying in the initial decades of life are extremely small, and overall life expectancies have never been greater. Food is so easily available, and abundant, that overeating is the dominant nutritional problem facing Americans. So, when all of the big uncertainties in life have been tamed, which remain? Which new ambiguities enter the spotlight?

That’s when the complex and nuanced uncertainties of life come into focus: social uncertainties, spiritual uncertainties, purpose-driven uncertainties. In other words, the obsessions of modern iPhone wielding, Facebook friending millennials entering the workforce today.

“Am I missing out on fun things to do? Did I get more birthday wall posts than so and so? Am I still popular?” The social realm is fluid and unbelievably complex. We humans are, in many ways, the most unpredictable and complex force on the planet. While we’re getting quite proficient at statistical prediction for simple behaviors, predicting the behavior of any given person is an impossibility. A friendship between two people is an ever-evolving entity that morphs and changes based upon context, mood, and so on. And, that’s just the complexity present in a diad. Now, let’s expand our scope to groups of friends, all interrelating in a larger community, such as a college. The complexity of the social graph at even this scale is astounding. And, since we’re wired to pay constant attention to the social connections, status, etc. of all those people, staying current in our social worlds is an endless job - as over a billion Facebook users can tell you.

In addition, with our general safety guaranteed, we can spend time asking questions like: “What am I really meant to do? What is my passion? Which career would best suit my unique skills?” While these are interesting questions, they are also unanswerable. Each of us is capable of performing thousands, if not millions, of jobs. Each of us can also choose between studying millions of different topics in a depth never imagined before the advent of the Web and Wikipedia.

As a species we have started to unshackle ourselves from the great behemoths of corporeal uncertainty. But, in the same stride we’ve attached ourselves to lesser, but more devilish concerns that keep evolving at a blistering pace. And, as a look around any train or bar will show you, these concerns, while less existentially threatening, have grabbed our attention and have created obsessions just as powerful as those we’ve left behind. 

Image credit:  alphaspirit/Shutterstock

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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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. 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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