In the movie Self/Less, Ben Kingsley plays a wealthy industrialist with only months to live who pays an enigmatic and secretive medical organization to transfer his consciousness to the body of a younger man, one they tell him has been grown in a lab, an empty vessel of youth, strength and vigor waiting for him to enjoy.
The idea of transferring the mind to a new body – or even another substrate like an electronic machine – isn’t new in movies or fiction. We saw it last year with Transcendence, the most successful film of all time in James Cameron’s Avatar, and in the classic anime Ghost in the Shell. The earliest known reference to mind transport is in Fredrik Pohl’s 1955 novel The Tunnel Under the World.
But with our expanded knowledge of neuroscience and computing power the likes of which were science fiction even a decade ago, might such a thing be possible – even close?
Some of the breakthroughs of the late 20th century in both data processing and cognition promised great things when many claimed brains and computers were similar. Both displayed emergent complexity of action that arose from the delicate dance between huge numbers of relatively simple individual parts. The on/off state of a computer bit seemed uncannily like the firing/dormant states of neurons.
If such mechanics gave rise to something as detailed and rich as human consciousness in the latter, couldn’t it somehow be captured and transposed to the former?
Lifting the ghost from the machine
Now, we’re not talking about transferring the brain itself. If that were the case we’d be talking about transplanting heads (although it might surprise you to know that’s been done. A Chinese scientist at the University of Cincinnati successfully transplanted the head of a mouse onto a new body and hopes to do the same with a monkey. A Russian man has already said he wants to undergo the world’s first head transplant, and an Italian neurosurgeon says he can do it with 90 percent success).
That would open up a whole other can of worms, overcoming not just the body’s tendency to reject transplanted organs as foreign invaders, but the brain’s inextricable links with the other systems in its own body (more on that below).
But when it comes to capturing and transferring the activity of the mind, imagine some sort of neural scanner that can read the on/off state of every neuron in your brain, and transpose it into a computer program or even another human brain. Might the ‘I’ you can feel living in your body shake its new head, blink its eyes and say ‘I think, therefore I am’?
Even if we’re not at that stage yet, surely we have the computing power to isolate and transport a certain ‘piece’ of ‘mind stuff’ (known by the term ‘qualia’ in philosophy, the individual instances of subjective, conscious experience).
Why isn’t there an iPhone app that can scan and send me the knowledge of your spouse’s birthday you hold inside your head, or send you a few seconds of my experience of the immediate environment as I wrote this paragraph?
Baroness Susan Greenfield is a British scientist and author who’s been writing about minds and brains for decades. She’s had controversial views on how exposure to technology affects development in the young and her research also focuses on the effects of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, and as she reminds us, the brain isn’t Google where you can download and transmit a fact.
“Say you know the word for ‘table’ in French,” she says. “That’s called semantic memory, which is memory for facts that isn’t really personal to you. Now say you went to the seaside with Auntie Flo when you were five years old. Each time you recall it, it will be from a different perspective colored by changing attitudes to Auntie Flo, changing attitudes to holidays and other associations. Every memory you have is nested in other memories and other values, so it’s not as if you can take a snapshot and download it.”
As such, the memory of that seaside holiday when you were five isn’t a discrete ‘piece’ of information, and qualia is only a philosophical term. In the world of physics and biochemistry, a subjective memory or any other qualia (and the changes it undergoes) might be located in neural networks or maps spread all over the physical brain that changes shape, position and configuration all the time.
As a matter of fact, it’s the only way a brain is like a computer – that icon for a file on your desktop makes it look like a single entity, but the bits and bytes that comprise it are spread all over your computer’s hard disk as magnetic impulses – the position and arrangement of them shifting every time you edit and resave it or any other file on your system.
The brain as distributed processor
All of which means that no memory, thought or emotion exists in isolation. Miss out on one neural impulse that fires when a memory is recalled or an incident experienced and you’re likely to miss or mix up critical data in the transfer. Maybe the memory of the holiday when you were five will be about Uncle Max, even though he wasn’t there. Maybe you’ll be certain it was at Martha’s Vineyard and not Laguna Beach. Maybe the ocean will be purple.
So might the obvious solution be – as we wondered above – to scan the entire brain and have a ‘snapshot’ of the brain state? If the state of your brain in a given moment gives rise to your mind state and consciousness (we know that happens because we can all feel it), won’t capturing that let you move your state of consciousness somewhere else?
We’ve entered the realm of functionalism, a school of thought that everything we think, feel, remember and know indeed arises simply from the mechanical architecture of brain cells and electrical signals between synapses.
Let’s say we had the technology to replace a single neuron to do exactly the same job with a futuristic version of a vacuum tube or microprocessor. As you get older and succumb to the inevitable physical breakdown of aging, we do so with more and more components until eventually your entire biological brain has been replaced with bits of machinery. Will the ‘I’ you can feel living inside you still be there?
Functionalism says it will, and it’s a belief we ascribe to the rest of the body with surprising conviction. If you lost an arm in an accident and had a prosthetic, would you feel any less ‘you’?
So functionalism also contends that if we can create a brain from a lab-grown sample or computer program and then move the ‘brain state snapshot’ of your mind to it, it will go on to feel, emote and experience everything to the same degree you can.
The illusory soul
A follow-on effect of functionalism many find disturbing is that the ‘I’ inside is just a byproduct of the brain reacting instinctively to the environment, no different than we assume it does in an earthworm or flea.
Computer scientist Anthony Simola’s book The Roving Mind: A Modern Approach to Cognitive Enhancement explains more. ‘…Marvin Minsky and Steven Pinker have both argued that consciousness is an illusion constructed by a brain’s subcomponents and there is no real “I” inside our heads making independent decisions.
‘Indeed, one of the long-standing tenets of neuroscience and philosophy is that minds are what brains do – in other words, our consciousness arises from electrical signals and there is no soul or ghost in the machine, so to speak. Consciousness, then, is a mere hallucination – we only feel like we are in charge and make free decisions, whereas in reality our decisions are dictated to us by the laws of physics and the motion of particles that were put in place 13.7 billion years ago at the birth of our Universe.’
Simola explains that if functionalism works, it’s because we actually can’t replace bits of your brain with technology and expect ‘you’ to remain inside it because there’s no ‘you’ to begin with. ‘What does exist – and only as an abstraction – is a pattern of continuation that can be stored somewhere as information, including your DNA, your memories, and the infinite number of iterations of your persona that followed each other.’
But the paradox of functionalism is that the being created when we somehow transpose a mind will think and feel, at least as we understand it. Regardless of whether the above is true, we’re still machines whose purpose is to think and feel, reacting to stimulus and with the illusion of free will. That means the facsimile will be too.
Joel Richeimer, co-chairman of the Neuroscience Department at Kenyon College, Ohio, says that if we gradually replaced the necessary parts with machinery it wouldn’t be human because of the unique confluence of what makes something human to begin with.
“A human is a member of a species that has a specific evolutionary history,” he says. “A robot won’t be human, but maybe that’s not question.” But he agrees that – according to functionalism – if we created a functional equivalent to a human being, placed it in a human environment and gave it the proper inputs, it would ‘think’ and ‘feel’ inasmuch as we know what such qualities mean.
“What is pain? It’s the function to warn us of possible tissue damage. If that’s the correct analysis of pain, then it’s theoretically possible to build a machine that experiences pain,” he says.
The nuance of flesh
Which brings us to the next hurdle. Those scientists excited by the advent of mind transplantation, artificial intelligence and every other technology tat would be enabled by the brain’s similarity to the computer were dead wrong – the two are nothing alike.
Rather than the neuron being a chemical-based instrument no different that the electromagnetic based computer byte, Susan Greenfield reminds us that they have far more analogue features rather than the binary on/off state.
“An action potential is the universal signature of a neuron,” she says, “so it made it easy for people to draw parallels with on/off switches, but we know there’s a lot more going on than just the generation of an action potential.”
Just one is independent events going on in the branches of an individual neuron (dendrites) that can make local changes in other brain cells without the firing of an action potential – a phenomenon called volume transmission. “We know it’s not just on and off and we know there are lots of different chemicals that will impinge qualitatively on the neurons,” Greenfield adds.
That means when we scan our hypothetical brain state, we have to do much more than just see whether all 100 billion neurons are on or off and which of the 7,000 synaptic connections they have at the same instant. To move or digitise the complete consciousness, we’d have to account for every possible chemical reaction and behaviour no matter how small.
The mind in situ
Given the technology computing power, maybe we can get over that, but a whole new problem awaits us, one we touched on earlier. The brain doesn’t exist in isolation. It both receives and sends a constant stream of communication to and from every other system in the body. One view of anatomy might be that the brain is merely a clearinghouse for disparate information, consciousness a mere foil to drive the body to meet needs (one of the views of functionalism).
You’re hungry or sexually aroused in response to needs communicated by the body, but they’re felt as brain states – some would say emotions – that are as much a part of your sense of self as your views on gay marriage or career ambitions.
It works the other way too. Study after study confirms that married people live longer and religious people are more satisfied not because of their piety but because they feel they belong to a supportive community.
“Think of the placebo effect,” Greenfield says, “We know your mental state can change things like your immune system physically. If you’re depressed you get more ill and so on.”
So maybe all that means that to take a complete copy of the brain we’d also have to scan and capture the complete state of everything connected with it (central nervous system, reproductive system, digestive system, etc)?
If you transposed the mind state onto another body without all that, might you end up with a catastrophic system crash because every individual body is so completely different? Not just at the micro/cellular level either – put the confident mind of a tall, strapping man into a short, pudgy body and who knows what kind of psychosis might result?
The memories and sense of self that form your brain state right now have been inextricably informed upon by everything from your upbringing to the foibles of your immune system, all of it a roiling cauldron of instinct and intent particular to your mind/body/brain nexus.
Joel Richeimer agrees, saying the ‘meaning’ of brain events depends on a working body interacting in the world. “Without it, a brain would be a bit like your desktop computer,” he says. “I can ask Google a question, but the answer would mean nothing to the computer, even if it is correct.”
All or nothing
All of which brings us to new territory entirely. In trying to transfer a mind and a sense of self successfully, it seems we have to take everything – every neural impulse, heartbeat, muscle tension and skin temperature reading down to the molecular level – and make a complete copy, either digitally or anatomically.
It can be said that once we’re at that stage of technology we’re not transplanting a mind at all but simply cloning an organism. Even if we manage that and make a perfect duplicate of you with your particular experiences, memories and sense of self, it would only be so for an instant.
“Let’s just say every last molecule of you at this very moment was somehow trans-located to another place,” Greenfield suggests. “As soon as that copy is in a different environment and a different place it would be a different person because the brain reacts to the environment. It will start to have a different experience from the real you.”
But is that finally a glimmer of hope in our endeavour? Does Greenfield therefore admit the copy would be living, feeling and conscious? “By definition if it’s a simulacrum of the brain rather than a model and identical in every regard then of course it would be, there’d be no difference between the two,” she says.
To Joel Richeimer, the key might be how close the theory of functionalism is to the way brains really are. “All the current evidence – which is of course not the same thing as all the evidence – is that such an entity would consider itself alive, thinking and feeling,” he says. The issue is whether functionalism is true.”
For now it seems we’ll just have to rely on authors and Hollywood to give us the visions of immortality we hope to achieve, but who knows how far behind science might be?