I’ve said it before and no doubt I will say it again, many many times. Scientists are insane. What’s more, in their crazy pursuit of fame, glory and world domination they now seem to have thrown any pretence of ethics out of the window. What same human being could possibly think it is a good idea to reanimate human corpses after natural death, or to keep brains alive and fuctioning in a laboratory jar?
Nobody, surely, it is the stuff of ridiculous Hollywood B movies in the 1950s, mad scientists working in forsaken gothic mansions or the holowed out magma chambers of extinct volcanoes. Laboratoies filled bubbling, gurgling jars and the echoing sound of manic laughter as the main character contemplates his army of revenants conquering the world as he plays something spooky by J S Bach on a Cathedral organ. Yeah, it’s effing ridiculous.
Except it’s not.
A Yale University research team claim to have successfully completed and experiment which reanimated the pig brains after the animals had been slaughtered for chops and bacon. Neuroscientists being excitable creatures with all the intellectual depth of an oil stain, this has prompted a lot of babble and a few research grant applications based on speculation that human trials could be next. This in turn has reignited ethical concerns about scientists trying to usurp god and pursue the goal of of immortality.
As the quest for everlasting life appears to be something these science nuts believe could offer great advances for humanity rather than being inevitably catastrophic (imagine if no one died and no one was born, or worse if no one died and the population kept growing , what are the key concerns raised by these experiments?
Nottingham Trent University ethics researcher Benjamin Curtis says ending up as a disembodied brain is likely to be a “living hell.” Writing in The Conversation he suggested that living in total isolation with no external stimuli and without any actual contact with reality could be a fate worse than death.
“Some have argued that even with a fully functional body, immortality would be tedious. With absolutely no contact with external reality, it might just be a living hell,” Curtis has written.
In the Yale University experiments, led by neuroscientist Nenad Sestan, the pigs did not regain consciousness but Sestan acknowledged that restoring awareness is a possibility and that the technique could work on humans, keeping the brain alive indefinitely. We should not forget however, that in a prize winning experiment a few years ago, neuroscientists discovered meaningful brain activity in a dead fish. Now finding meaningful brain activity in the brain of a live fish might be miraculous, but finding it in a dead fish only proves the nerds don’t know much about how atoms work.
Speaking to RT.com Curtis explained (rather obviously to those of us who rely on common sense,) that the brain is highly integrated with the rest of the body in both humans and animals. It is constantly receiving and sending signals from and to it. “We have no idea what experiences would occur within a disembodied brain. But those experiences may well be deeply disturbing,” he said.
But what is a brain without a body to host it? Renowned neuroscientist Antonio Damasio says without a constant “feedback loop” between brain and body, ordinary experiences and thought are simply not possible. I remember being told in 1997, while in rehab, recovering 9somwhat surprisingly) from a massive brain haemorr”hage, that “We doctors are only now starting to understand that the brain and the mind are very different things.
Damasio’s view was echoed by Dr. Evan Thompson, philosophy professor at the University of British Columbia. Thompson told RT.com, “Consciousness and mind function are dependent on the brain being functionally integrated with the rest of the body.
In other words, it’s not possible for a disembodied brain to house a normal mind. “The brain and body are in constant electrochemical communication with each other with multiple and dense feedback loops. Take that away, and mental function isn’t likely to be possible,” he said.
Curtis expresses the opinion that the promise of eternal life is not worth the risk of subjecting a disembodied but conscious human brain to “an existence of hellish tedium, or to the mental torture of inescapable madness.”
He said that even if disembodied brains did function more or less as they do now they will still be receiving no input from the outside world whatsoever. “There would be no sights, smells, sounds, or tactile feelings at all. Just an enduring inescapable emptiness,” he said to RT.com.
“I suppose this might be OK for a short while, but for any length of time I doubt any ordinary person would be able to cope.”
“One could perhaps tell oneself stories, or write poems in one’s mind, but with no-one to communicate them to, I imagine this would be cold comfort. In eternity, one would most likely end up repeating the same kinds of thoughts over and over to oneself, a body-less Sisyphus with no way to bring an end to the futility and meaningless of your situation.”
The quest for immortality is going in differirections that take it beyond the the ‘brain in a jar,’ concept however, for some the ultimate goal of preserving their brain is at eternal life. Presumably they hope to achieve this by constantly patching us up with second hand parts from a human scapyard, the way old cars have been patched up with spares drom a scrapyard.
In March, startup company Nectome revealed it is aiming to develop technology that could preserve the brain while keeping all memories in tact and then upload these to a server so a person can experience eternal digital life. The team has already managed to fully preserve a rabbit and pig brain.
Meanwhile, Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero is determined to complete the world’s first live human head transplant. Last last year, he claims, he completed the world’s first such operation between two corpses.
A 30-year-old Russian man who suffers from Werdnig-Hoffmann disease put himself forward as a volunteer for the transplant in 2015, prompting ethical concerns from the wider scientific community.
“I would not wish this on anyone,”said Dr. Hunt Batjer, former president of the American Association for Neurological Surgeons. “I would not allow anyone to do it to me as there are a lot of things worse than death.”
In their paper‘Operation Frankenstein: Ethical reflections of human head transplantation,’ Joshua Cuoco and John R. Davy from the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine argued the procedure could cause substantial psychological difficulty and result in a dramatic alteration of a person’s personality and memories.
“The procedure of human head transplantation dangerously presupposes that transplanting an individual’s head will also transplant an individual’s mind including consciousness, personality, and memories.”
“On the contrary, cognitive sciences have suggested that human cognition does not solely originate within the brain parenchyma; rather, humans exhibit an embodied cognition where our body participates in the formation of self,” the scientists warned.
Let’s talk ethics
Neuroscientists at the fore of this experimental research are calling for discussion around the ethics of their work but argued that these difficult questions should not halt their progress.
In an essay published in Nature, a group of researchers, including Sestan, noted advancements in the field mean tough conversations need to take place: “As brain surrogates become larger and more sophisticated, the possibility of them having capabilities akin to human sentience might become less remote.”
For many on social media the prospect of this Black Mirror-esque concept becoming a reality has left them more than a little unsettled.