Thursday, April 22, 2010


The futurist folks tell us it may be possible to upload the brain to storage, to be installed in another body, in the not-ridiculously distant future. I’m sure hijinks will ensue, as Ben says. I’m picturing that guy, who is me, but in another body. If one puts it far enough in the future I like him alright, I suppose. But if you bring it really close, with me dying in a hospital and they hook me up to transfer my brain to a new body, I don’t like that guy at all. I’m not seeing him as me, I’m seeing him as a monster or demon that needs to be strangled. I don’t want a recreated wife or kids being palmed off on me as the real thing either. Drown them. I can’t even bear to imagine that with any precision.

Well, that uploaded brain, now in a body, feels just the opposite. He thinks he’s the real me and that shriveled collapsing heap on the respirator is the ex-me, mostly just a mass of tissue at present. The old joke about the woodsman’s axe: six new handles over the years, two new blades, but it’s the same axe - begins to take on a grim reality.

It’s not like cloning, where there’s a what-I would-have-been-like element that provides some emotional distance. Meeting my father’s clone, my age, or imagining my clone growing up best friends with a descendant of mine – doesn’t sound creepy at all. Sort of cool, actually. This would be more like a robot being taught to be you, then taking your place. Sound creepy? Because installable parts will become more common, the final leap will be much shorter than we imagine now.

But that final step may be larger than advertised. We grow very attached to what we consider the essence of a person, especially ourselves. I am not being silly with that. When people are treated for mental illness they sometimes have the subjective impression that their real selves are being taken away and some similar but not identical person is being installed. And they don’t like the feeling. Even with family members saying “No, you’re coming back to your real self, the one we all knew and loved,” or hearing reports about out-of-character things you have been doing, or even seeing films of yourself or reading your own writings from the period of illness (or brain injury), the subjective impression of the self being taken away is very powerful.

Watching relatives with dementia or stroke can give us much this same feeling from the outside. My mother is not really present in that body. That’s some robotic thing that has some of my mother’s mannerisms, but she has left the building. Sense of self – ours, others – is one of the central characteristics of the human personality. But it is having its supports removed. Will crossing those lines provoke a crisis, or will they just slip by, to be discussed at leisure years later, as we now discuss the changes in marriage or communication?

1 comment:

terri said...

An interesting idea that has been explored in many sci-fi books/movies.

Because of the way I process things now, theologically speaking, I don't think it's even possible to do such a thing. This dualistic idea that we are separated into mind and body just doesn't work for me anymore.

Without realizing it, we sublimate all the physical senses that contribute to our understanding of ourselves and ignore how much of our mental state is largely due to biological factors.

There was an interesting show about twins who had grown up separated from each different homes with no knowledge of the other.

When researchers put them in a room and made them dance to some music, it was amazing how similarly they moved. Each set of twins dancing was different from the other sets of twins but shockingly similar to their own sibling in the particular style in which they moved their bodies.

The point I got from that? The body has a way of moving and being which is not controlled by the conscious mind. Even when we think we are controlling it by picking out dance moves, it has its way with us guiding us into what feels "right" in its skin.

I think it might be possible to replicate a person's mind....or create artificial intelligence at some point....but I don't think a person can be transferred to a machine or a new body.