A Yale University experiment, led by neuroscientist Nenad Sestanwhich reawakened the brains of slaughtered pigs has raised speculation that human trials could be next, renewing ethical concerns over the pursuit of immortality. In the experiments, 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.
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.
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 thoughts are simply not possible. That view was echoed by Dr. Evan Thompson, professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia. Thompson told RT.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”. “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.”
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 intact 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.
“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. 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.