Experts Weigh In On 'Self/less' and the Science of Immortality

Experts Weigh In On 'Self/less' and the Science of Immortality

Jul 08, 2015

On the surface, Self/less looks like just another implausible movie involving the transference of one person's mind into another person's body. But it's not quite the sort of fantastical body-swap movie Ryan Reynolds previously took on with The Change-Up, nor is it totally far-fetched sci-fi a la Face/Off. There are enough down-to-earth ideas here for Focus Features to be inviting real-life neurological experts to screenings and giving them a voice afterwards to comment on the science on display. 

I attended one such screening in Atlanta, and after watching the movie, about a wealthy businessman with a terminal disease (Ben Kingsley) who pays to "shed" his skin and have his mind implanted into a new, younger body (Reynolds) for the sake of immortality, I listened to three local scientists weigh in on the premise, addressing the challenges in its likelihood and its ethical issues, as well as relevant innovations that exist or may soon exist in the steps toward our ability to live forever.

Here's what they had to say on the science of Self/less as moderated by Atlanta radio personality Melissa Carter:

Is "shedding" possible, as we see in the movie, or could it ever be possible?

It's not really a matter of whether we can swap bodies, as it is a question of should we. "The largest challenge," said Eric Schumacher, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Georgia Tech, "is that the immortality is a consequence of taking someone else's mortality." 

"There's so much more we need to understand about the brain," added Matthew Bezdek, a postdoctoral researcher also at Georgia Tech. "It has 100 billion neurons in it, and we're just starting to map out what all of those neurons do. We have some idea of how consciousness is related to different regions in the brain, communicating with each other, over time. But it's still a long way off, understanding it to that extent."

"If there was this ability to shed," came back Schumacher later, "it would decrease our ability or propensity to deal with challenges. You learn from overcoming your experiences and difficulties. But if you can just say, well let's just get rid of this body and try a new one, your ability to grow as a person, there are unperceived consequences."

So, it's not just unethical but also harmful to human evolution?

"Evolution is not a fast process," answered Karen Rommelfanger of Emory University's Neuroethics Program, "and even if we intervened, people hope there will be an acceleration of evolution. I'm not really sure that's true. Something we tend to ignore is our bodies have already evolved to create immortal cells. It's called cancer. We're very good at creating cancer. In fact, we're very bad at stopping it. One of my first projects in the lab was to work with immortalized cell lines, essentially cancer cells. There are not clear benefits to how we would manage living forever."

What are the alternatives to "shedding" and inhabiting another person's body?

"If you think about real research into immortality we're talking about longevity -- what does it take to live longer," Schumacher explained. "There's lots of research going on now identifying how different aspects of DNA or genes decay over time that decreases our ability to regenerate. The biggest challenge now is in understanding the aging process. If we can understand how our cells break down, we can develop therapies that can increase the longevity. So we don't have to transfer our consciousness to a new body. We can actually live longer in the body that we were born into."

Will any sort of immortality innovation only be possible and available to the extremely wealthy?

"Basically, with any new technology we've seen that trend where it takes a lot of money to create these innovations and the access is always a question," Rommelfange replied. "There is a project, actually ongoing now, called The 2045 Initiative. If you are really, really wealthy and have at least $3 million -- wait, is it $3 million or $3 billion? (it's the same to me; I'm an ethicist, so I don't get paid those numbers) -- as a minimum, you have to have that amount of money to register for them to begin building your avatar. And they have stages of A, B, C and D bodies that you can purchase with different plans. You can create an avatar that has prosthetics or an avatar that has an entire body. [But] the founder says, 'Immortality should be a right for everyone, and the way to make this affordable is for you guys to basically get off your seats and help me with this project.'"

What does it even mean to live forever, though?

"What the movie brings up is questions of identity," said Rommelfanger. "I think we commonly have a belief, especially in our Western world, that there's this identity associated with this continuity of memory, and that is the continuity of an individual self. The idea of living forever would mean different things for different people, and what it would mean to actually live forever. Would it mean your body lives forever or would it mean your consciousness lives forever? For Eastern cultures, for instance, an individual continuity of self is not actually an individual. An individual would be a collection of their relationships."

"I think one of the strong assumptions in the movie is that our consciousness is completely housed in our brain or our mind and the body is just the vessel," said Schumacher. "But we're really understanding with new research that our perceptions, who we are, is actually an interaction between the environment, our brain processes and our physical processes. Our stomach lining, our pancreas release chemicals when we eat that tell us when we're hungry, satiated or not. The same thing happens with our taste buds and things like that. If you transferred your brain into some different body, you're going to have an entirely different experience, because that body responds to the world differently than the one you were born in."

"We've been using a lot of terms that actually are difficult to test, that don't have clear definitions even amongst the neural community," Rommelfanger added. "Like 'consciousness,' for one. So, one of the researchers now in Italy who you may have seen in the news, a neurologist, says he can do a head transplant by 2017. He says the brain is a filter for the mind, but it's not the mind interchangeably. In this movie, it's very fuzzy what exactly they transfer. They said they're transferring your self, and then there are a lot of assumptions and the word 'mind' is bandied about, but I defy you to find the scientist who can very clearly explain what that is." 

Won't physical immortality for humans lead to severe overpopulation?

"I think it could potentially be a net positive," argued Bezdek, "because if you could live forever, then you could carry out your legacy yourself and you wouldn't have to have children. So, that would save a lot of resources and maybe drive down the population."

"Spoken like a panelist without children," Schumacher replied. "We have trouble enough taking are of the number of humans that are on Earth now. If none of us die, then there will be a natural stress on the environment. But what if we transferred our consciousness not into another body but into some digital medium? Then you could solve the problem of resources."

Could two minds share a brain, as happens to be the case in the movie?

"There are patients who have lost certain kinds of memories, like declarative memories, and yet they were able to perform repeated procedures they'd done before," explained Bezdek. "Patient H.M. is a famous case. He couldn't form new memories of what was happening, but he could learn skills and repeat those. Not quite the same as having two minds inside the same brain, but there are different skills that could come back, I suppose."

"There's also work related to split-brain patients," Schumacher added. "We have two hemispheres in our brain and they're connected by a bundle of fibers called the corpus callosum, and for some people the connection doesn't exist. In other people, it has to be cut to treat epilepsy or other diseases. There is research that suggests that when the corpus callosum and those other fibers are disconnected, each hemisphere has its own consciousness. You can do experimental tests that suggest that the right hemisphere knows something that the left hemisphere doesn't know."

"I think that's what makes neuroscience and all the findings so powerful," replied Rommelfanger, "because when you manipulate the brain, people have a strong sense that you're manipulating their selves or their identity. And those people I've mentioned who talk about life extension, one of them also has a company where he will sell you his pills [that he takes] to extend his own life until we can get this silly dying thing sorted out. And what his thinking is, explicitly, is that brain electrical activity is what we're going to be able to transfer over and that will entirely be sufficient to be 'me'." 

So, is a Vulcan mind meld possible, then?

"For the first time in human history," Rommelfanger answered with all seriousness, "two brains were connected, and one brain was able to convey to another without a conversation. What it simply was, was electrodes around one person's scalp that collected some activity and sent through a wireless connection a simulation to another device, which stimulated a part of the brain associated with movement, and it made someone's finger hit a mouse so they could both effectively play a video game. That wasn't information about words or sentences, just a simulation, but technology like that does exist now." 

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