Hope and Optimism, Improving Memory, Viewing America with Foreign Eyes

Sunday August 29, 2021

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What Happens Next is a podcast where experts are given just SIX minutes to present. This is followed by a Q&A period for deeper engagement.

This week’s topics include Hope and Optimism, Improving your Memory, and Viewing America Through Foreign Eyes.

Our first speaker will be Martin Seligman. Marty is the Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and Director of the Positive Psychology Center. Marty has written an autobiographical book entitled The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist’s Journey from Helplessness to Optimism. Marty is the former President of the American Psychological Association and is a giant in his field. Marty’s work includes learned helplessness and for the past few decades, Marty has focused on positive psychology, optimism and happiness.

Our second speaker will be Michael Kahana who is also a Professor of Psychology at UPenn. I met Michael at a Penn Day event that I hosted and was incredibly impressed by Michael’s intellectual curiosity and his passion for his research. In fact, I was so moved by Michael’s presentation that I decided to invest in his new company Nia. The company uses brain implants to improve a patient’s memory. The results have been incredible, and I want you to hear what progress his team is making in brain science.

Our final speaker is Jorge Castañeda. Jorge is the former Mexican foreign minister and presidential candidate. Jorge has written extensively on Latin American left-wing politics, and has also authored a biography of Che Guevara. Today, Jorge will discuss his new book America through Foreign Eyes. Topics will include the world’s reaction to the debacle in Afghanistan, the likelihood of a democratic revolution in Venezuela and Cuba, Mexican and Central American migration to the US, and Hispanic partisanship.

There will be NO What Happens Next the following Sunday as we will be celebrating Labor Day.


Martin Seligman

Topic: Hope and Optimism
Bio: Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and Director of the Positive Psychology Center
Reading: The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist’s Journey from Helplessness to Optimism is here


Larry Bernstein:
Let’s begin today’s program with our first speaker Marty Seligman.

Martin Seligman:
Here’s my grandiose hypothesis. It is that agency, the mental belief that I can influence the world, has changed the course of history. In particular, when individuals, cultures have a belief in agency, that’s the immediate cause of progress and innovation. And in the absence of this mindset, the belief that “I’m helpless, I can’t influence the world,” humanity stagnates. Now, the last 40 years of my work has been to show that in the laboratory and in present day real life, agency is causal, as there’s 40 years of experiments which show that when a person has this mental state, “I can influence the world,” she tries harder, she persists, she innovates. Conversely, when you undermine this mental belief in agency, she’s helpless and none of this occurs. Now, what I’m going to do in the next three minutes is go through the sweep of human history now and ask, what do we know about the relationship of a belief in agency to human progress?

The first epoch for which we have writing is the Divine Age in which the gods command and we humans obey. Philosophically, during those times, we have limited agency and not even much self. Then, after the Bronze Age between 1100 BC and 600 BCE, the balance between the agency of the gods and the agency of humans’ tilts toward humans. Greece develops much expanded agency by 400 BCE and material, technological, artistic, and political progress all follow from the presence of this agentic self. And this is true about the same time, not only of Greece, but of Judeo-Christian biblical civilization and of China. In each of these three, when there are periods that believe in agency, you get progress. When you get periods in which humans don’t believe in agency, progress comes to a halt.

Now, going back to Western history, as Rome declines, the theology of Augustine takes over. Augustine says we don’t have agency. Anything good that happens, any avoidance of bad is God’s grace. And from Augustine’s anti-agentic stance, 1000 years of stagnation occur, Middle Ages. Very little is invented. And then around 1450, when these beliefs have theologically cracked, an age of agency begins in the West, but not elsewhere as human beings reacquire substantial agency. Then, enormous progress from 1450 to about 1525 when the Reformation occurs, and contrary to what you were taught in school about the Reformation, the Reformation is predestination, the belief in the lack of human agency. Lutheran Calvin out Augustine and progress grinds to a halt. With the overthrow of Puritanism, Calvinism, in England in 1660, progress resumes.

You get Newtonian science, medicine, wealth, capitalism, political revolution, all which occur from a rebirth of agency. Agency then democratizes, particularly in America, during the Industrial Revolution, and around 1950 it becomes universal as technology explodes. The future, what’s next? The world is now in labor. It’s about to give birth to an age of agency populated by fully agentic individuals who peer far into the future in order to flourish. If the following potential barriers can be overcome, nuclear war, pandemic, climate catastrophe, racial warfare, financial collapse, if we can avoid these things, we are coming to an age of unprecedented progress. Mindful of the limits of human agency, this will be our first age of well-being.

Questions for Martin Seligman

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Michael Kahana

Topic: Improving your Memory
Bio: Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania


Larry Bernstein:
We’re going to go into our second speaker. You’ve already met him a little bit in the Q and A. It’s Michael Kahana. Michael is a Professor at Penn in psychology and has been doing cutting-edge research with regard to memory. Go ahead, Michael.

Michael Kahana:
Thanks so much. Well, this was great to share the conversation with Marty. My comments will be all about agency and obedience, and I didn’t think I was going to start out that way. It all goes back to my beloved grandmother, who helped to raise me as a young lad. With her, the lesson was agency. “You must do it.” Whatever she wanted me to do, it was, “You must do it.” So it was agency and obedience all at once.

I’m going to talk to you about exciting recent advances and how we can address the tremendous challenge that we all face of memory loss. We want to come up with therapies to treat individuals who have memory loss, and that’s important, because we will all likely suffer from significant memory loss as we get older, and certainly individuals who have neurological injuries, neurological diseases, or brain injuries.

When I began studying human memory three decades ago, I was not thinking about brain signals recording from implanted electrodes or certainly not thinking about conducting, as I’ll explain in a moment, closed loop electrical stimulation of the brain in patients with memory loss. Instead, I began my scientific journey working on mathematical models, and my goal was to understand how neural networks as implemented mathematically as described by these mathematical models could perform memory functions in much the way that we do.

But my grandmother kept coming into my room, and she’d see me working on my computer or doing my math. She would say, “But how is that going to help people?” I don’t know if it was agency on my part or obedience that led me on the journey that I’ll describe. Maybe it was a mixture of both, or maybe that’s the fundamental challenge in life, is how you reconcile those two things.
Well, I guess they say that good things happen when you’re prepared for them to happen, and in my case, I stumbled into studying the brain when I met a neurosurgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital who invited me to speak about memory at the Harvard neurology neurosurgery grand rounds. After my lecture, Dr. Joe Madsen, a good colleague and friend, took me to the epilepsy monitoring unit, where I saw a teenage boy lying in bed and playing video games, another example of agency. In his case, he had wires coming out of his bandaged head that were connected to a reporting system that measured signals from deep inside of the brain.

When I saw this, I was mesmerized. I was doing mathematical modeling. I was doing experimental studies. But the idea of studying the brain was not part of my research program, and when I asked Joe Madsen and the other physicians there, “Who’s analyzing these precious data? These are electrical signals that you could somehow correlate with actions in the game, what the subject, the child is doing.” What I found out was that every day, they delete the data at the end of the day, because there’s not enough room to store all the data. So that night, I drove to the Micro Center computer store in Cambridge. They had computer stores back then, and I started buying hard drives.

My research on the neural basis of human memory grew into a large multicenter collaborative effort that over 25 years led to the discovery of various patterns of neural activity that mark moments of successful learning, successful memory, recall, and recognition. These studies were principally conducted in patients who had drug-resistant epilepsy, who were fitted with hundreds of electrodes implanted throughout the brain. Why? In order to map seizures, figure out where the seizures come from so that their seizures could be treated neurosurgically.

I was fortunate that my group, along with maybe a half a dozen other groups around the world, created the field of human cognitive electrophysiology by really systematically studying these patients as they performed a variety of cognitive tasks, memory games, perceptual, other tasks as well.

Now, every once in a while, the doctors would do something called stimulation mapping. Because they want to avoid cutting out a part of the brain that’s important, let’s say, for speech. You don’t want the person to have a deficit. So, they would electrically stimulate that part of the brain, and they would ask me, “Could you do the same kind of stimulation for memory?” I said, “Well, we could cook something up.” The IRB approved it. We did it. Maybe it could help this patient so they wouldn’t have a memory deficit.

Well, I noticed a few things about brain stimulation. First, often it didn’t do anything, and often it would impair memory. But a couple of patients showed very clear definitive evidence for improved memory when we stimulate it. Weird. Why does that happen? The question was, could we somehow scale that up and turn it into an actual therapy?

Well, fast-forward years later. The type of brain stimulation that was done in the clinic was done in a very haphazard manner. Every patient was done differently. In 2015, the Defense Department through DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, funded a proposal that I had submitted for very large grant, much larger than typical research grants, about $25 million, that allowed us to conduct brain stimulation experiments at 10 medical centers in collaboration with engineers, scientists, and two medical device companies at the time. And what we were pursuing was an idea that I had, and the idea is very simple. It’s premised on the notion of good days and bad days, good moments and bad moments. So sometimes memory works well, sometimes it doesn’t work well. We all have good days and bad days. And if you ask anybody who treats patients who have memory loss, they particularly have good and bad days. And I was able to quantify the good days versus bad days and show that the difference between a good day and a bad day is almost a factor of two in memory performance.

You could take somebody and double their function in the memory test by making all their bad days good days, if somehow you could magically do it. Now, how would you do that? Well, maybe you can’t do it. Well, around the same time, around seven, eight years ago, there was machine learning. Marty was talking about using machine learning for decoding ancient texts. We’re using machine learning to decode the brain. And the idea here is simply to take all the data that we get from hundreds of implanted electrodes in a patient, and try and build a predictive model of when you have your good moments and bad moments with respect to memory. Now, if you can get that model to work, and we did and published many papers, showing that it works, if you can get that model to work, then maybe, just maybe, you could use that model to have the brain tell itself when it needs to be stimulated and how it needs to be stimulated and where it needs to be stimulated.

And we were able to do this. We published three articles in peer reviewed scientific journals demonstrating that by stimulating the brain at the moments when it is predicted to have a lapse of memory, and when you stimulate using parameters that modulates the machine learning classifier in a positive direction, you can produce an 18 to 19.5% percent boost in memory function. Now, we did this in the clinic with a big machine sitting beside the patient’s head. And the next step is to say, well, okay. If Moses has to pick up the staff, what are we going to pick up? What can we do to address the fact that memory loss afflicts one in 12 Americans, and there’s no effective treatment currently available? And the answer is to build a device that can be implanted in the brain that is small enough that you can slip it under the temporalis muscle on the side of the head, powered from a hearing aid, that would control a stimulator that would know when, where, and how to stimulate the brain using these machine learning decoders.

With support from the Federal government, the University of Pennsylvania, and some private investors, we spun out a company, Nia Therapeutics, that I co-founded. And Nia will complete the functional prototype device this January. And at that point, we will be about a year and a half away from running a, FDA approved clinical trial. And our first target population will be people who have significant memory impairment due to traumatic brain injury, because there’s no therapy at all for traumatic brain injury. And from there, the therapy could be extended to a variety of other indications.

And just to paint a vision for the future as I see it, many of us have issues that need to be treated in various ways, whether it’s a hip replacement or a cardiac pacemaker. These are relatively safe interventions that can cause a dramatic improvement in quality of life. Brain surgery has become very, very safe. Speaking with a colleague brain surgeon who did over 320 surgeries in the last several years, he had 321 out of 325, I have the number now, no complications whatsoever, and four patients with minor complications that resolved with no lasting impairment. So very, very safe, about 1% chance of a complication, and the complications are usually easily treatable when you’re in the clinic. My vision is that someday we will all be able to have a treatment for memory loss, using devices like hearing aids or cochlear implants, that would restore memory functions to some degree. And we’ll find out soon when we run this clinical trial just how good we can make it work.

Questions for Kahana

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Jorge Castañeda

Topic: Viewing America with Foreign Eyes
Bio: Former Mexican Foreign Minister and Presidential Candidate, Global Professor of Political Science at NYU
Reading: America Through Foreign Eyes is here


Larry Bernstein:
Our next guest is Jorge Castañeda. Jorge is a Global Professor in NYU’s political science department, and he is the former foreign minister for the country of Mexico. Jorge was a candidate for president of Mexico in 2006. He is the author of several books and his most recent is entitled America Through Foreign Eyes. Jorge, please begin.

Jorge Castañeda:
The recent events in Afghanistan and the way the American withdrawal from that country has been handled by the Biden Administration have led many people all over the world, and in the United States, to question whether this marks the end of American hegemony or the United States as a superpower. These are issues that I addressed directly in my book, America Through Foreign Eyes.
I particularly address the issue of as an American characteristic, a lack of a sense of history, going back to Dickens and Tocqueville and as recently as people like V. S. Naipaul, foreigners looking at the United States have been forced to deal with this issue of why history is not as important in the United States as perhaps elsewhere, and why that matters because it might be that Americans don’t care about history because they don’t look backwards, they look forward. And what’s wrong with that?

Why does it matter? Well, one of the reasons it matters is that if you don’t pay a lot of attention to history, you can get into trouble, for example, on foreign policy issues.
It’s not that there are not a whole bunch of American historians who would not have been able to tell the Bush Administration, because this began with Bush 43, really, he is the one most responsible for the whole debacle, that the US would never be able to fix Afghanistan the way he wanted, that it would not be able to build the nation where there is none, that it would not be able to build Western style institutions where there are none and that this was a lousy idea, an idea that the Brits first tried to do back in the 19th century and Kipling wrote a sort of scoff of all of this and this book called The Man Who Would Be King in a theoretical kingdom, which in fact was Afghanistan. And this of course happened to the Soviet Union between 1979 and 1989.

It’s not that historians in America didn’t know this. It’s that the policymaking people didn’t listen to them. They thought they knew better, the ones who made the decision, not necessarily to invade Afghanistan in 2001, but to change the mission or the purpose of the invasion.

And I end up being highly sympathetic to almost everything that is proper to American civilization, including the limits to American hard power. But increasingly, I make the point in the book and many others have made it that the United States really should depend more on its soft power than on its hard power. American civilization is extraordinarily powerful, potent. It is not anywhere near to being eclipsed by the Chinese or by anybody else.

Questions for Castañeda

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