A Yale experiment which reanimated the brains of slaughtered pigs has prompted speculation that human trials could be next, renewing ethical concerns over the pursuit of immortality.
As the quest for everlasting life appears to be stepping up a notch, and in alarming fashion, what are the key concerns raised by the pursuit?
Nottingham Trent University ethics researcher Benjamin Curtis says ending up as a disembodied brain might just be a “living hell.” Writing in The Conversation he suggested that living 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 wrote.
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.
Speaking to Eyes On Events.com Curtis explained 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.
That view was echoed by Dr. Evan Thompson, professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia. Thompson told Eyes On Events.com that consciousness and mental function require that the brain be 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 says that even the promise of eternal life is not worth the risk of subjecting a disembodied 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 Eyes On Events.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 doesn’t end with a ‘brain in a jar,’ however, and for some the ultimate goal of preserving their brain would be a shot at eternal life.
In March, new startup Nectome revealed it is trying to develop technology that would 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 still determined to carry out the world’s first human head transplant. At the end of last year he claimed 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.
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