digital brain

The Disembodied Brain

Recently I heard an interview on CBC Radio’s program “The Current,” with Dr. Michael Graziano, a professor of neuroscience at Princeton University. He believes it will be possible to live on after death as a digital copy of your brain. “We could create a second you, or at least a second brain that thinks it’s you, has your memories, your personality.”

This caught my attention for a number of reasons. Cheating death (sort of) is important to Herbert West, the main character of my novel The Friendship of Mortals. A disembodied brain is featured in one of H.P. Lovecraft’s best stories, “The Whisperer in Darkness.” And it sounded like the sort of idea I might like to quibble with.

Indeed, there is lots to quibble with in Dr. Graziano’s scenario. He suggests that once this technology is perfected (in a century or so), one’s early years would be like a larval stage. Real life would come after your brain is digitally copied, and the copy would live an idealized life in some sort of digital paradise. The physical you would live out its bodily existence and die in the old-fashioned way, leaving digital you to live on forever, possibly interacting by means of technology with living folks, including your descendants, and with other disembodied brains.

Well. Where to start? The most important problem with this scenario, it seems to me, is that the digital brain would have no autonomy. It would be at the mercy of whatever or whoever controls the technology that maintains its digital environment. If someone decides to delete you, what can you do? Same deal if the powers that be decide that you will be the lucky brain to undergo experiments, which may be uncomfortable or even agonizing. (Dr. Graziano did acknowledge something of the sort in the developmental stages of brain scanning technology). And what about power failures, computer crashes, data corruption and similar events? Here I’m reminded of a Far Side cartoon in which a janitor in a cryopreservation facility trips over and unplugs the power cord of the units in which hopeful individuals are being preserved for the future. Oops!

And what if the digital brain decides it’s had it with life and wants to commit suicide?

Another disturbing issue is whether there could be multiple copies of an individual brain? Suppose you have your brain copied at age 35, and then decide at age 50 that you have developed into a wiser, more copy-worthy individual. Do you have age 35 you deleted, or keep both of them going, possibly in different artificial environments? The possibility induces a slight dizziness, because it reminds me of having more than one copy of a work-in-progress — a big, complicated document full of tiny details. Keeping them straight and deciding which is the “real” one can be a nightmare. And novels aren’t as complex as the brains that create them.

I thought it was a telling point that when asked whether he would want to copy his own brain and live on as a disembodied, digital entity, Dr. Graziano said, in effect, “No way.”

Even if this isn’t an appealing possibility in real life, it does offer a rich variety of scenarios to explore in fiction. Think about it — you and your digital copy. How would you get along? What if there were more than two of you? What would life as a disembodied brain be like? What if such a brain wanted to get re-embodied somehow, or rebel against its technological overlords? The possibilities are endless. Writers of hard SF, humour, tragedy, even romance, could make something of this.

Featured image: By DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Created with Canva.


  1. This idea was a theme in Clarke’s 2001 – the 1968 novel, where the aliens had ultimately gone even further and become pure consciousness existing in space-time lattices (whatever those are…). Kind of interesting as a thought experiment (as it were) but I doubt the practicality because, despite a lot of intellectual wrapping around theories of mind and such, nobody has actually found out how consciousness – which seems to be an emergent property rather than a direct outcome of both mind-and-body – actually works or exists.

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    1. Agreed. We don’t really understand the brain, never mind the mind, so it’s premature to think of copying it. But it certainly gave me something to think about, and could be revisited fictionally in the present technological and social climate. Clarke was, of course, a visionary.

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  2. Very interesting. Reminds me of a cartoon I saw in a magazine years ago. The scene was a laboratory. In the middle was a large jar with a disembodied head with tubes and wires connected to life-support machines. A white-coated scientist holding a clipboard was standing by the head. The caption read; “Good news, Mr. Jones. You’re going to live forever.” The head’s face had a look of horror.
    I suppose that existing in cyberspace would be less confining than a jar.

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  3. The Criminal, with Kevin Costner, has a similar scenario and the writers based it on real research (possibly Dr Graziano’s, I’d have to check.) It’s also been revealed that two US billionaires and the Bank of America are funding research to prove that humanity exists inside some AI, similar to The Matrix films. One of them is Elon Musk.

    I wonder about humanity sometimes, but I doub’t superintelligent computers would invent something as lunatic as the human being.

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    1. Well, but superintelligent computers invented by Homo sapiens? Elon Musk seems to be thinking really big these days — colonizing Mars once the earth can’t support human life (or most other kinds, one would think). Someone has suggested that he or other billionaires would do better for Earth (and humans) by buying up vast tracts of land and leaving it alone to act as carbon sinks.

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      1. I suppose spending his money the way he does creates some kind of employment, rather than shoving it into some offshore tax haven. But, yes, research into sustainable farming for a growing world population might also be useful…

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