Wind Beneath My Surgical Wings, Part 1


Can science give us the wings we've always envied in birds? Can plastic surgery elevate us to a higher human form? In this episode, Robert and Julie discuss Joseph Rosen's posthuman philosophy and ponder what we'd have to do to transform arms into wings.

Robert: This episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind is brought to you by Jack Threads.

Julie: Welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind from house.works.com.

Robert: Hey, welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind. My name is Robert Lamb.

Julie: And I'm Julie Douglas.

Robert: Julie, who has not dreamed of either having wings themselves or just dreams of winged humanoids flying about. I mean it's the stuff of just ancient myth, the stuff of fantasy, the stuff of religion, the stuff of art. There's something just irresistible about the idea of a human with the wings of a bird or even the wings of a bat.

Julie: Yeah, the desire to fly I think is pretty universal, even Dorothy from Oz, right? Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly, birds fly over the rainbow. Why then, oh why can't I?

Robert: Yeah.

Julie: Are they singing through us?

Robert: No.

Julie: Okay.

Robert: But yeah, one example that always come to my mind, I mean there's a lot of concocted ones obviously, but the myth of [inaudible] gave the idea that they built these wings, and then they fly too close to the sun and then they plummet. It's just a fantastic metaphor for so much in human endeavor, human technology. Human reaching to achieve things that they were not necessarily biologically gifted with, but via their intelligence are innocence genetically gifted with.

I also think back to a book called Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves. British author who famously wrote I. Claudius is probably what he's most known for, but this was his biography, and he was talking about his service in World War I. There's a bit about mountain climbing and that as well because he was one of these just really adventurous dudes. He'd go out with his pals and they would scale these towering cliffs, and there was one point where he's talking about clinging to the side of this rock face. Pretty - just someone like me who is not a mountain climber and will never mountain climb. Terrifying idea just to imagine myself clinging to the side of a mountain face, but he wasn't phased by it. He was an adventurous dude, had bravery and just a natural inclination for this kind of thing.

But one time he said they're scaling, they're a little tired clinging to the side, and a bird like sort of flies by, but given the altitude and the wind kind of floats out there to the side, and he mentions how it was just so unnerving the idea that it was like the bird was coaxing him into letting go as if there was another way. As if he could fly, which also gets into these weird impulses we sometimes have of almost like self-destructive impulses. The idea of that oh, if I get too close to the edge of a building I might jump off.

Julie: I was just about to say because I have that, so even if I meant let's say like a fairly like simple structure like a mall on the second floor, I don't want to go to the edge because I feel as if I'm going to plunge off. So it's kind of interesting that there's this idea of him clinging to the side and this bird sort of mocking him to the limits of his own morphology right?

Robert: Yeah.

Julie: I hate it, you're never gonna have wings. You might think you're this cool, but you can rock climb up here, but you know let me juts buzz around you and remind you of this.

Robert: Yeah, it's like in a sense we see the birds flying and we envy it, and we feel to a certain extent like it's our birthright because vast empty air, vast heights are terrifying because we know that that's a limitation to us. We know that those are heights we cannot really ascend to. Yes, we have airplanes at our disposal, we have various methods of flying and gliding and skydiving and everything, but they're all kind of cheap imitations of the natural biological gifts of a bird.

Julie: That's right, we're greedy, we want it for ourselves. It's not enough that we have created flight in the form of jets and planes and you know various other modes of transportation. So the question and the question for this podcast is, would it be possible, is it really possible that we could somehow create wings for ourselves, and I'm not talking just like strapping on some wings.

Robert: Right because there are wing suits, which are phenomenal. There's been an article on how stuff works.com how wing suit works, and its phenomenal technology, and the people who use them are insane and also highly skilled. But yeah, could we actually have biological wings that are a part of us that are an extension of us?

Julie: Right, could we game our bodies and our minds in order to actually have this be a part of our own morphology and why not right because we've talked about this. This is not so crazy, I mean it's absolutely out there, but there are so many different ways that we have augmented our reality and our physicality that no doubt one day this could be a possibility.

Robert: Yeah, like you said there are so many things we do to our bodies anyway. We got into this a number of times. We talk about post?humanism quite a bit, and cybernetics. We did an episode called the Werewolf Principle, which probably wasn't the best title in the world because it doesn't have anything to do with werewolves. It's about - it has to do with sci-fi story I was reading at the time, but the idea that we change our - we potentially change our bodies in order to explore space and to explore the world.

Instead of attempting to bring a portion of our atmosphere and our environment with us and our limitations with us we instead falter ourselves. And certainly we make a lot of augmentations to ourselves anyway, so many things such as glasses, contacts. Various biomedical equipment is added to the human body. We're making these changes anyway for things that are generally thought of as necessary. And then we also make changes that are cosmetic in nature, but what about wings?

Julie: Well, in order to actually really get to the meat of this conversation, we have to bring up Dr. Joseph Rosen. He is a Dartmouth plastic surgeon and reconstructive surgeon. I think it would be pretty mild just to say that he's a futurist.

Robert: Yeah, he's definitely a futurist, definitely a post-humanist. He's one of these amazing individuals that if you look him up, you'll find various articles about his work, but in particular there was a 2001 interview/profile in Harper's Magazine by Lawrence Slater. Highly recommend anyone read who's fascinated by this topic. It was called Dr. Dadilus.

Julie: It's an excellent article. Actually, the way that it was written reminded me of Mary Rich, in the way that she approaches her material, so it was well worth checking out.

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Julie: So with Rosen, here's the thing. He is, he's totally steeped in his profession. He takes on things like 500 patients a year to do mostly reconstructive surgery, but some plastic surgery as well. I mean this is someone who is an absolute expert in his field. He's steeped in the practicalities of it, but he is also a big thinker.

Robert: Yeah, he's a plastic surgeon, but not a mere cosmetic surgeon, and the article in question went into sort of around the turn of the millennium where plastic surgery stood. About the idea that it's sort of in this place where it's often looked down on by people outside of the medical profession, and sometimes within the medical profession maybe seen as a lesser medical practice, which of course is not the case when you look at the non-cosmetic applications.

When you're looking at people who've undergone a serious injury, particularly facial injuries for instance, and finding ways to correct that and bring a certain amount of normalcy back to the person's life when you look at clef palette and clef lip reconstruction. There's a lot that goes on in plastic surgery that is not breast jobs, but that tends to be sort of the easy association that people make when you just hear plastic surgeon on T.V. Oh, she went to the plastic surgeon office, that means she had something superficial and unnecessary. But plastic surgery is bigger than that.

Julie: Much bigger, and you know as you had said he's worked on reconstructing faces.

Robert: Winded warrior.

Julie: Winded warrior causes right, so we're talking about catastrophic polytrauma, so if you're a soldier and you have undergone this trauma what that means is that you have so many various problems going on that you can't necessarily find a solution to all of those injuries. But what Dr. Rosen can do is he can fashion a new nose, but he can't restore that soldier's sense of smell. He can at least give some sort of normalcy back to that person. So that's a lot of work that he does there.

He also is working on healthcare reform.

Robert: Oh cool.

Julie: This is really interesting, this is in a form of cyber-care. He argues that our hospital system is just an outgrowth of the Civil War. In other words, it was set up to administer to a huge amount of massive casualties. And he's saying that's just not the way that the world works today, and he is helping to revving up the National Healthcare System in Vietnam using cell phones and laptops to link clinics, hospitals and rural physicians.

So this guy is a renaissance man, and like I said he's a big thinker, which has extended over to his ideas about what we can do in terms of improving, not just augmenting I should say, but really heightening our senses as a human being and augmenting our experiences as a human being.

Robert: Yeah, he's an amazing thinker in that he really, to use the cliché, thinks outside the box. He's a bit of a rebel, he's questioning authority and questioning sort of normal approaches to things all the time. And you see that with various gifted minds out there you know. It's not merely that they work really hard and are just geniuses within the confines of their professions. Within the confines of their role in society, but they actually think beyond the typical constraints.

Julie: It's true, like for instance he says that a salamander can regenerate a arm in 42 days, so he says somewhere in your own genom that ability still exists. He says why can't we go ahead and find that, figure that out so that we can regenerate a whole limb for ourselves. He says we can do it, it's just a matter of 20-50 years to coming up with that, so he also looks at soldiers again who have had those catastrophic polytraumas, and he says why can't we use a whole body prosthesis that's made out of an exoskeleton.

Obviously, cost is a factor and perception because it's not too normal, they see someone tracing through a hallway who's in case an exoskeleton. But he's got these ideas of how to make it work for humans and how to, as I said, augment the experiences for people and make it better.

Robert: Yeah, he wants to make it better, he wants to fix it, he said that both in healthcare reform as he mentioned, but more importantly in the human body. There's a great quote from that article that I think really sums up a lot about Rosen's outlook on not just plastic surgery, but life. He says you know, I'm really proud of that face, and he's talking about some facial reconstruction he performed on an individual who lost a lot of it to cancer.

He said I'm really proud of that face, I didn't follow any protocol. There's no text book to tell you how to fashion a face eaten away by cancer. Plastic surgery is the intersection of art and science, it's the intersection of the surgeon's imagination with human flesh, and human flesh is infinitely malleable. People say cosmetic surgery is frivolous, boobs and noses, but it's so much more than that. The body is a conduit for the soul, at least historically speaking. When you change what you look like you change who you are.

Julie: Well, doesn't that kind of speak to you a lot of what we've talked about in the podcasts in terms of studies having to do with psychology, the whole take it till you make it or you know if you assume a powerful posture, than your body will respond physiologically, so you know a lot of what he's saying is there's a truth there that if you can change yourself in that way, then certainly physically and mentally things will follow.

Okay, so let's get into some of his really fun post-humanist dreams for the human body.

Robert: Again, he's all about making the changes necessarily, arguably, necessary in some cases to make us better beings. For instance, cochlear implants, new rods for the eyes to give us super binocular vision, solder implants. Like this is great, a nose flashlight because serious, your nose is just there. It's important for breathing, but you know optic technology grows smaller and smaller, why not have a light up there. Imagine you sort of - you click one nostril, and then a light shines out the other nose. It's perfect for reading, it's a great idea really.

Julie: I can see eight year olds really having fun with that when they blow their nose.

Robert: Yeah, like light flashes, like really bright light every time you sneeze, but its stuff like that. Like when you say it, we're even laughing because it's ridiculous, it's so different from what we're used to. But Rosen's the kind of guy that says no, why are you laughing because this is actually really practical.

Julie: Right. He's saying in military sense, why wouldn't you want your soldier outfitted for this right because it makes perfect sense. Cochlear implants of course are already in existence, but what he is suggesting is that you have cochlear implants that enhance your hearing essentially giving us far superior auditory powers, so we'll be able to detect things my own way, again becoming super human.

Robert: We've mentioned before the senses that we use to perceive the world are in varying degrees limited or extremely limited, even compared to other animals. Like the mantis shrimp, which sees all of his vestry of colors we can scarcely match, and we've talked about, when we're talking about bats, how it's almost impossible for us to really imagine what it's like to "see the world" as a bat. So instead of being limited by this world that we've painted in just a few different colors, he's saying why don't we paint the world in more colors. Why don't we update our machinery, so that we can paint a more brilliant world?

Julie: You know that's an interesting concept to think about, especially I guess in the context of how we are bombarded with stimuli these days, and we've talked about this in the multitasking episodes quite a bit. So I wonder if doing that, if sort of upping your experience of that stimuli would make sense in this sort of new world where you're getting thrown things all the time. So in other words, if you can kind of tune in a little bit more, things are a little bit louder. Things are a little bit brighter, does that makes sense for the modern human mind. Sort of opening ended question there, but I wanted to point out that Rosen is also a fan of eco-vacation implants and fins.

Robert: Fins yes.

Julie: Why not?

Robert: I mean it comes down to a lot of biomimicry. If you want to see how to swim, look at an animal that has evolved over the course of millions and millions of years to be an incredible swimmer. That's what you need to do, and we do that to a certain extent. Looking at that shark scan and then adapting that into swimwear, but he's talking about taking it even further.

Julie: And of course his pet project, his pet thought experiment I guess you could say, surgical wings because this is really where his engineering brain meets his reconstructive brain.

Robert: Yeah, and brushes up against the brain of mad science for sure. But it is important to think of it as a thought experiment. He is not trying to do this or anything that we know of, but it is a great thought experiment for just what are we willing to do, what can we do, and why do we feel weird about going in to some of these areas.

Like for instance, so one of the examples he brings up just in plastic surgery, and when I mean he brings it up, he brings it up at conferences because this dude has been an amazing figure in plastic surgery. He travels all over the world, speaks at big conferences, he's an influential character. So it's not just his voice out on a fringe, he's a leading figure. So he brought up for instance if a man who works into the surgeon's office and he has an extra thumb. He as a doctor is allowed to take that thumb off, but if a person comes in and says hey, I would like an extra thumb he can't do that. That's just completely crazy. I mean nobody adds extra thumbs to people.

Julie: But he was saying that there was one person that was a waiter, a server and have an extra thumb, and actually aided that person in their job. This is an actual person with a second thumb, and he was saying well, that was helping that person out, so yeah, why is it beyond the pale to add extra digits.

Robert: Yeah, and then there's also the breast example that he brings up. He brought this up when people were pressing him on the wing issue because he mentioned it before at a conference. Some people were a little freaked out by this and they were saying would you really do that, would you really give somebody wings or would you give somebody lizard skin. Would you really do any of these crazy things, and so he was bringing up various examples to make his point.

He pointed out that there was a lady he'd come across that was in need of breast reconstruction, and she wanted a blue areolas.

Julie: I don't think we have anything to say about that.

Robert: But he said what's wrong with that, why not? If the person wants to have blue areolas, let them have blue areolas. How is that different from a lot of the things that we do to our bodies.

Julie: You know for some reason out of all the things that have been said on this podcast, that's the one thing that made me blush. Don't ask my why, and its stuff like this I think that makes people sort of look at him a little sideways. But the fact of the matter as I said, this is someone who is an absolute expert in his field, and steeped in the technology, he's on the advisory panel for the Navy, as well as Nassau.

His insights on human machine interfaces bought him to the attention of the Department of Defense here in the states, and they've sought his views on virtual reality, future warfare, and bio?terrorism, so people want his brain. They want to know what's going and rumbling around in that brain is blue areolas and you know nose flashlights and surgical wings.

Robert: Yeah because again, he's one of these guys that he thinks or sees something in the world and like it's instantly the wheels are turning. Like he doesn't take anything for granted, he thinks about its possible applications, possible ways to improve it. Like for instance with rhinoplasty, which often is typically about correcting, rebuilding the nose or making cosmetic adjustments to the nose, but he's saying that hasn't even reached its full potential, that we can improve upon the nose, and then ultimately improvements that we make to the human body need not be a surgical and nature, but a genetic in nature.

Julie: Okay, so he's talking about gaining the body now through genetics as opposed to plastic surgery or reconstruction.

Robert: Getting there eventually.

Julie: Now again, you have to kind of take his perspective on a little bit if this seems odd to you. Again, here's someone who's doing 500 procedures a year and keep in mind that in 2010 Americans spent over $10 billion on cosmetic surgery, so if you're in this field and you see this over and over again, in your futurist, you can't help but sit there and say how can I actually improve upon this process, and if this is the way that humanity is going, why not make it really incredible. Why not chase after the idea of flight, which is something that humans have always secretly or not so secretly wanted for themselves.

Robert: Yeah. So he's at this conference, again, people keep pressing him on this issue, and finally he does answer because he's not the kind of guy that's gonna not tell you exactly what he thinks about a topic. He said would you perform the surgery on someone if they wanted it.

Julie: The blue areola, the one?

Robert: No, I think he was talking about wings in this case.

Julie: Oh, okay.

Robert: Hypothetically, and we'll get into the mechanics, possible mechanics of the surgery, but he said yes, I would. I could certainly see why we don't devote research money to it. I can see why the NIH would fund work on breast cancer over this, but I don't have a problem with altering the human form. We do it all the time, it's only our Judeo-Christian conservatism that makes us think that this is wrong.

Who here doesn't try to send their children to the best schools in the hopes of altering them? Who here objects to palm pilot, a thing we clasp to our bodies, with which we receive rapid electronic signals. Who here doesn't surround themselves with a metal shell and travel at death defying speed? We have always altered ourselves for beauty or for power, and so long as we are not causing harm what makes us think we should stop? And again that quote is from the excellent article by Lawrence Swayder, 2001 Harper Magazine, Dr. Dadilus, highly recommend everyone check that out. So we are going to actually close out this episode right here, Part 1 of Surgical Wings, and we're gonna continue this in Surgical Wings Part 2, where we'll really get more in to the nitty?gritty of how you could surgically make this seemingly impossible thing happen.

Julie: I like this analogy of surgery and here we are, we're gonna leave you guys in the middle, but we're gonna [inaudible] up in the next part, so stay tuned for that.

Robert: In the meantime if you want to interact with us online, reach to us, hear your thoughts on what you've heard so far in surgical links, you can find us on Facebook and you can find us on Tumblir. We are Stuff to Blow Your Mind in both of those. And we also have a Twitter account where we use the handle blow the mind.

Julie: And you can always drop us a line at blowthemind@!discovery.com. For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit howstuffworks.com

Robert: This episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind is brought to you by Jack Threads.

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Duration: 24 minutes