immortality

Seeking Immortality in Fact and Fiction

I just heard a really interesting piece on the science of brain preservation. Scientists are still working on it, with the intention that the information in frozen brains may be downloaded into… something, someday. You can read a synopsis or listen to the whole 20 minute article here.

Three thoughts I had while listening:

  • These guys are just like Herbert West!
  • Freshness is, indeed, important.
  • In the end, it’s a crapshoot.

To elaborate…

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Howard Phillips Lovecraft

Bringing people (or their brains) back from the dead is a stock element of science fiction. H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West is a quintessential mad scientist engaged with this effort. Like one of the present day real scientists on this quest for immortality, Herbert realizes you need a really fresh corpse to succeed. It seems it’s best to start the process before death occurs, meaning it might be necessary to kill the patient to save him.

The article examines this and other ethical and practical issues, concluding with the thought that even if the preservation and information retrieval techniques work (a really big if), by the time it’s possible to do all this, society will be totally different. The reactivated minds will find themselves in environments that may be alien and terrifying. And the uses to which the minds are put may be other than benign. Life after death for the awakened brains may be heaven, hell, or anything in between. Or it may never happen at all. Which is, when you think about it, pretty much where we are right now.

For fictional treatments of this topic, you might want to read H.P. Lovecraft’s stories Herbert West, Reanimator or, for a different take, The Whisperer in Darkness.” Then there’s my novel, The Friendship of Mortals, which presents my expansion on Herbert West and his motives.

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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.