Why the “You” in an Afterlife Wouldn’t Really Be You

July 23, 2017

The Discovery is a 2017 Netflix film in which Robert Redford plays a scientist who proves that the afterlife is real. “Once the body dies, some part of our consciousness leaves us and travels to a new plane,” the scientist explains, evidenced by his machine that measures, as another character puts it, “brain wavelengths on a subatomic level leaving the body after death.”

This idea is not too far afield from a real theory called quantum consciousness, proffered by a wide range of people, from physicist Roger Penrose to physician Deepak Chopra. Some versions hold that our mind is not strictly the product of our brain and that consciousness exists separately from material substance, so the death of your physical body is not the end of your conscious existence. Because this is the topic of my next book, Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia (Henry Holt, 2018), the film triggered a number of problems I have identified with all such concepts, both scientific and religious.

First, there is the assumption that our identity is located in our memories, which are presumed to be permanently recorded in the brain: if they could be copied and pasted into a computer or duplicated and implanted into a resurrected body or soul, we would be restored. But that is not how memory works. Memory is not like a DVR that can play back the past on a screen in your mind. Memory is a continually edited and fluid process that utterly depends on the neurons in your brain being functional. It is true that when you go to sleep and wake up the next morning or go under anesthesia for surgery and come back hours later, your memories return, as they do even after so-called profound hypothermia and circulatory arrest. Under this procedure, a patient’s brain is cooled to as low as 50 degrees Fahrenheit, which causes electrical activity in neurons to stop—suggesting that long-term memories are stored statically. But that cannot happen if your brain dies. That is why CPR has to be done so soon after a heart attack or drowning—because if the brain is starved of oxygen-rich blood, the neurons die, along with the memories stored therein.

Second, there is the supposition that copying your brain’s connectome—the diagram of its neural connections—uploading it into a computer (as some scientists suggest) or resurrecting your physical self in an afterlife (as many religions envision) will result in you waking up as if from a long sleep either in a lab or in heaven. But a copy of your memories, your mind or even your soul is not you. It is a copy of you, no different than a twin, and no twin looks at his or her sibling and thinks, “There I am.” Neither duplication nor resurrection can instantiate you in another plane of existence.

Third, your unique identity is more than just your intact memories; it is also your personal point of view. Neuroscientist Kenneth Hayworth, a senior scientist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and president of the Brain Preservation Foundation, divided this entity into the MEMself and the POVself. He believes that if a complete MEMself is transferred into a computer (or, presumably, resurrected in heaven), the POVself will awaken. I disagree. If this were done without the death of the person, there would be two memory selves, each with its own POVself looking out at the world through its unique eyes. At that moment, each would take a different path in life, thereby recording different memories based on different experiences. “You” would not suddenly have two POVs. If you died, there is no known mechanism by which your POVself would be transported from your brain into a computer (or a resurrected body). A POV depends entirely on the continuity of self from one moment to the next, even if that continuity is broken by sleep or anesthesia. Death is a permanent break in continuity, and your personal POV cannot be moved from your brain into some other medium, here or in the hereafter.

If this sounds dispiriting, it is just the opposite. Awareness of our mortality is uplifting because it means that every moment, every day and every relationship matters. Engaging deeply with the world and with other sentient beings brings meaning and purpose. We are each of us unique in the world and in history, geographically and chronologically. Our genomes and connectomes cannot be duplicated, so we are individuals vouchsafed with awareness of our mortality and self-awareness of what that means. What does it mean? Life is not some temporary staging before the big show hereafter—it is our personal proscenium in the drama of the cosmos here and now.”

This article was originally published with the title “Who Are You?”


Michael Shermer is publisher of Skeptic magazine (www.skeptic.com) and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His next book is Heavens on Earth. Follow him on Twitter @michaelshermer


In ‘Self/less,’ a man cheats death by transferring his mind to another body — here’s how close we are to making that reality

July 16, 2015

sergio canavero

In the new movie “Self/less,” which comes out Friday, July 10, a wealthy man dying of cancer (played by Ben Kingsley) cheats death by transferring his consciousness to the body of a younger man (Ryan Reynolds).

Thanks to the help of a secretive doctor and a lot of money, all the procedure requires is going for a short spin in a device that looks like an MRI machine.

Of course, the mind that originally belonged to the younger body still exists — which creates some problems for the mind that has now taken up residence there — but the new body’s original mind can be “suppressed” by taking special pills.

At first glance, this sounds like a pretty sweet deal. But just how far off is this kind of technology? Do we know enough about the brain to even begin to undertake such a procedure?

In recent years, scientists have been making impressive strides toward understanding and manipulating the brain: We have rudimentary technologies for listening in on, and even altering, the mess of complex activity in the three-pound hunk of flesh in our skulls. Scientists have even developed methods for probing the brain using light, a technique that has been used to implant or erase memories in mice.

But as far as transferring the brain’s consciousness, a concept scientists still have yet to completely understand or define, we’ve got a pretty long way to go.

Problem #1: Everybody has a different brain

While the movie makes it seem like we could simply swap memories between two people, it’s not that simple: We’d have to also transfer the process our brains use to generate thoughts, Wolfgang Fink, a neuroscientist and roboticist at Caltech and the University of Arizona, told Business Insider.

“The reason why [the “Self/less”-style body-swapping procedure] isn’t really possible is that everybody has a different brain,” says Fink. “You would have to transfer not just the memories, but the same thought-generating process.”

In other words, it comes down to not just what we think, but how we think. Each of us has unique mental hardware, which is why it’s likely not possible to simply download your consciousness onto another person, or to a computer, for that matter.

Scientists have developed computer systems modeled on this hardware called artificial neural networks, some of which can flip back and forth between two different “mental” states. “That is sort of the closest to what we saw in the movie,” Fink said — which is why the main character had to take pills to suppress the other personality coming through. You have these two competing personalities, and we can mimic this competition in software. But a computer may not be able to reproduce you.

Which brings us to our next problem.

Problem #2: We can’t just implant memories

For much of its history, neuroscience has been confined to passively studying the brain. But in recent years, a technique has been developed that allows scientists to actively manipulate its activity using light.

Known as optogenetics, the technique involves injecting a harmless virus (containing DNA found in glowing algae) into neurons in the brain, which causes them to produce a protein that makes the cells active in response to light.

By shining a laser onto these cells, scientists can essentially turn them on or off.

In 2013, scientists at MIT used this method to implant a false memory in the brains of mice. In the study, the researchers placed the animals in a chamber where they received mild foot shocks, creating a fearful memory stored in a brain region called the hippocampus. Then, by shining light on the neurons that encoded the shock memory when the mice were in a different environment, scientists made the mice “remember” getting shocked in the new place even though it hadn’t happened.

lab mouse mice ratFlickr/Global Pandora

The same researchers took things a step further in a study this past June, when they activated happy memories in mice that were behaving as if they were depressed. They lost their usual appetite for sugar water, and didn’t put up a struggle when picked up by their tails, for example. But when the experimenters shone light on the mice’s neurons that activated a memory of a happier time (which they’d found by peering into their brains while allowing them to enjoy some time with female mice), it “cured” the animals’ depression, the researchers said.

Of course, the studies were in mice, not humans. And implanting or altering a simple memory is a long way from transferring the entire set of thoughts and memories from one brain to another.

That brings us to our next problem.

Problem #3: There’s an alternative, but it’s even trickier

Rather than transferring someone’s mind to a different brain, it’s more likely we would transplant your entire head to a new body, said Fink.

An Italian neurosurgeon hopes to do just that. Sergio Canavero of Italy’s Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group announced his plans earlier this year to perform the world’s first head transplant as early as 2017. He has already secured a volunteer for the procedure, a Russian man with spinal muscular atrophy, a disease that causes the muscles to waste away and is ultimately fatal.

TheWhyA clip from the Konami video game “Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain,” shows a man who shares Canavero’s exact likeness.

Canavero’s proposed procedure, which he calls the HEad Anatomosis VENture, or “Heaven,” involves finding a brain-dead donor whose body is intact, severing the heads of both the donor and the patient, and attaching the patient’s head and spine to the donor’s body.

While Fink thinks the head transplant may actually happen on schedule, critics say there are a lot of challenges to overcome.

For one thing, the new body’s immune system could reject the head, just as your body can reject a transplanted organ.

In addition, once the patient’s spinal cord is severed and attached to the donor body, the body may end up paralyzed. Canavero has claimed he can get around this problem by using a very sharp knife to make a clean cut that would allow remaining nerve fibers to repair the incision, but this has yet to be demonstrated. (In the past, scientists have performed head transplants with monkeys, but the animals only lived for a few days.)

The takeaway

Even if the procedure were technically possible, it brings up a host of ethical and philosophical issues. Should you be able to inhabit another person’s body? Would you still be you? Furthermore, any life-extending technology would undoubtedly be very expensive, so would it be fair that only the rich could have access to it?


Silicon Valley Investor Backs $1 Million Prize to End Death

September 14, 2014


Based on the rapid rate of biomedical breakthroughs, we believe the question is not if we can crack the aging code, but when will it happen,” says Keith Powers, the producer of the prize group.

On Tuesday a group of doctors, investors, and researchers announced the Palo Alto Longevity Prize. The latest attempt to crack the code of life, it will award $1 million to teams of scientists that demonstrate a reversal of the aging process in test animals. About 10 teams have already signed up to compete for the prize, including researchers from nearby Stanford University, as well as the Texas Heart Institute in Houston and Washington University in St. Louis. “We spend more than $2 trillion per year on health care and do a pretty good job helping people live longer, but ultimately you still die,” says Dr. Joon Yun, a doctor, investor and the main backer of the prize. “The better plan is to end health care altogether.”

Mankind has spent centuries obsessing about ending aging for obvious reasons. Of late, Silicon Valley has emerged as one of the places most interested in the topic. Google (GOOG), for example, has created a biotech research house called Calico to develop therapies that may increase lifespans. It also employs Ray Kurzweil, who has proposed downloading one’s brain into a machine as a means of cheating death. And just last month, a Hyatt hotel in Silicon Valley played host to the Rejuvenation Biotechnology Conference at which top scientists discussed “emerging regenerative medicine solutions for the diseases of aging.”

In the case of the Palo Alto Longevity Prize, the antiaging focus will be studying and altering heart rate variability. HRV is the measure of the change in time from one heartbeat to the next. Instead of looking at a person’s average heart beat of, say, 60 beats per minute, HRV monitors performance at the next layer down, providing a better indicator of how a person is reacting to stress or injury. A $500,000 prize will go to a team that can take an older mammal and bring its HRV characteristics back to those of a young adult mammal; another $500,000 will go to a team that can extend an animal’s lifespan by 50 percent.

Participants will be able to review the rules and register to compete until January 15 of next year. A number of research groups were consulted about the effort ahead of its official announcement and have already signed on to have a go at winning the prize. Their approaches include experiments with stem cells, gene modification, and electrical stimulation, all aimed at tweaking HRV.

Yun, a radiologist by training, served on the clinical staff at Stanford Hospital. He’s also spent about 15 years working as an investor at Palo Alto Investors, a hedge fund with more than $1 billion in assets that has focused on health-care companies. The firm is known for making on average one large investment per year. One of its recent successes was InterMune, a biotech company thatRoche (ROG) just agreed to acquire for $8.3 billion in cash. Palo Alto Investors had put $200 million into the company.

According to Yun, the health-care system has not focused enough on restoring the body’s homeostatic capacity, its ability to operate at a healthy equilibrium. “Your intrinsic homeostasis erodes at 40,” he says. “Hangovers that used to last a day now last three days. Coughs drag on for months. You come off a roller coaster, and you feel awful, because you can’t self center and your blood vessels don’t recalibrate fast enough.” The goal with the prize would be to find a way to reverse these degrading processes and return the body to a more youthful state.

Yun says his father-in-law recently passed away at the age of 68, and this, combined with conversations with his friends, inspired him to tackle aging. “I come from an old school Korean farming family where you were just expected to till the farms and die,” he says. “There was something grand and dignified in that. But after my wife’s father died of something pretty preventable, I asked myself, ‘Why am I waiting to do something about this?’”

The idea to offer a prize came from Yun’s nanny, who is an acquaintance of Google’s Chairman Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy. The Schmidts have sponsored, among other things, a $2 million prize to study the health of the ocean.

“Based on the rapid rate of biomedical breakthroughs, we believe the question is not if we can crack the aging code, but when will it happen,” says Keith Powers, the producer of the prize group. Yun has set aside a large chunk of money to fund not just this initial prize but subsequent attempts at solving the aging puzzle. “The prize is winnable, but I don’t think we will hit a grand slam on the first one,” he says. “I expect to be writing lots of checks.”


Palo Alto Longevity Prize: http://paloaltoprize.com/