Don’t get upset. I’m not here for the usual reason. I don’t do this very often, but I wanted to speak out after I heard that some folks were trying to cheat death yet again, this time by doing a head transplant. Yes, that’s right, transplanting the head from a failing body to someone else’s body.
Let me start by saying that I am not the bad guy here. Death is a feature programmed by nature for every living organism; it’s not my fault. My job is simply to shepherd you out of this dimension. Don’t kill the messenger, OK?
So what about head (or body) transplantation? My instincts are good; I know a rat when I smell one. Still, I’m no scientist, so I looked into it a bit. The idea that you could freeze your head, attach it to another body, and then unfreeze it—and still be you—just doesn’t add up.
What makes you who you are? The best science says that part of the answer lies in the brain connections that can be mapped akin to an extremely complex transportation network of highways and roads. While these might be preserved frozen or even replicated in silico, that is still only part of the answer.
Your consciousness is a fickle maiden. It arises from couplings of cell assemblies oscillating in multiplexed synchrony from two to two hundred times per second across those roadways in your brain. These oscillations or brain waves are generated from chemoelectrical signals emerging from a soupy mixture at the cellular level. And these signals themselves arise from fluctuations in concentrations of ions across cell membranes.
What’s more, the head is attached to the body. Your brain cares a lot that it’s your body and not someone else’s. That is the one with which it formed connections before you were even born, creating a substrate for awareness and modification of physiological states (pain, pleasure, hunger) that are fundamental to conscious identity. This holds not just for your nervous system that extends through the body and into the brain, but also for your endocrine, immune, cardiovascular, digestive, reproductive, and respiratory systems, all of which connect to the brain structurally, chemically, or both.
Your very essence—your habits, likes, loves, and quirks—is sculpted though all of these connections in the depths of your brain. The experiences that form your life’s story are encoded, activated, updated and modified in the context of distributed activity patterns across the brain that bind your thoughts with your sensations (both internal feelings and perceptions of the external world), location in space, and movements. These packets make the autobiographical episodes that you register and revisit as an embodied agent moving through space and time.
The notion that the head can be interchanged across bodies is worse than nonsense. In my humble opinion, it is highly unethical, immoral, and even criminal if realized. At the time of this writing, there has been no experimental animal evidence that the procedure would work. But things could change. I am busy and I don’t intend to write about this again over the next few decades. So let me say now that in the unlikely future events that the systemic couplings with the body could be formed through surgery, and some rudimentary version of consciousness achieved, the resulting short-lived experience could be nothing short of the most horrific torture ever imagined. My gig has plenty of horror already, thank you very much.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned across the centuries, it’s that the futile resistance to the inevitability of life’s end is one of the most preventable causes of human suffering. I understand why. It is has been my sombre duty to attend countless deaths that violated society’s cherished sense of justice and decency. That is why I heartily applaud traffic lights, vaccines, hand washing, antismoking campaigns, flush toilets, international diplomacy, biomedical research and all the other nifty advances that have extended life. But this benefit has been largely enjoyed by the young, so that more of you get a kick at the can to make it into old age. The maximum age at death—100 years, give or take a few—has held steady for quite some time now. Fact is, death wins, every time. Not that I am keeping score, but the dead outnumber the living, by a lot.
If you ask me, many of those privileged with the resources to entertain the likes head transplantation, or its little sister, cryonics (don’t get me started!), fail to enjoy their lives to their fullest precisely because they are so ill-equipped to deal with death. The longest life is nothing but a flash in the course of time. Even when plagued with regrets and failures, it is to be lived forwards and not backwards. Each moment is a precious gift. Savor as many of those as you can, because at the end of the day, there will be no do-overs.
The Grim Reaper is a humble servant of humanity and infrequent contributor to these pages. She or he generously shared this opinion with Dr. Brian Levine, a cognitive neuroscientist at Toronto’s Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Centre