Is That Really You or Just Your Brain?
Recently, I spent a long weekend with a handful of the smartest people I know, including Juan Enriquez, a biotech venture capitalist and founding director of the Harvard Business School Life Sciences Project. Juan had sent each of us a draft of his new book, out now, called Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation Are Changing Life on Earth.
The book, written with his colleague Steve Gullans, who was a professor at Harvard Medical School for 18 years, is a fascinating, scary and remarkably optimistic tour of how quickly humans are becoming adept at changing their bodies and their own evolution. It’s a perfect primer for investors on the power of genetics research. I highly recommend you get a copy.
As my friends were discussing aspects of the book, we drifted into a really spooky conversation about the state of the art of transplant surgeries and various strategies for keeping the body from rejecting a transplant when it isn’t a perfect genetic match from an identical twin. The book delves into this subject wholeheartedly, discussing the ethical boundaries of transplanting parts, or all, of a human brain.
In the book, Enriquez and Gullans point out that when the first heart transplants were entertained, people wondered “if the recipient would fall in love with the donor’s wife.” That weekend, we got into a discussion about what the effects might be of a brain/head transplant. “Would memories and emotions transfer along with the brain?” ask Enriquez and Mullens in the book. Indeed. “Or will it turn out that that the brain, too, is simply a type of electrochemical organ and not the custodian of all emotion and consciousness?”
The question sparked quite a debate among us, and I’ve been carrying it everywhere with me since, asking neuroscientists, computer whizzes and biologists, among others, what they think. The range of answers is remarkable, but the level of uncertainty is too.
Danny Hillis, the computer genius who co-founded Thinking Machines, the company that built some of the first parallel supercomputers, asked me when I discussed this idea with him while we were both at the TED conference in Vancouver if I thought I’d be more feminine if my brain were transplanted in a woman. He guessed my personality would change in a different hormonal environment. Wow.
But so far, the killer question belongs to Enriquez. Starting with the assumption that most people think the brain is the center of consciousness — the “soul,” if you like — he innocently asked: “Suppose we do a head transplant and we don’t remember who we are. Then where is consciousness?”
What if there is a car accident and four people are nearly killed. Two victims have their bodies crushed beyond repair and two victims have crushed skulls. So doctors transplant the two savable brains into the two savable bodies. Do the brains have a continuous experience, or do they reboot and start over?
Is the brain so simple an organ, or something truly unique?
These are not idle questions. We are rapidly approaching the day when this level of surgical expertise will be a reality. Developments with stem cells will only hasten the day when the experiment can be done.
Meanwhile, we’re certainly not close to being able to handle the moral and ethical questions involved. So let’s continue the discussion. Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts about a brain/head transplant. I’ll publish the most interesting musings.
To a bright future,
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