Which Part of You Is Irreplaceable?
Today science and technology have enabled us to live with different donors’ organs, with artificial organs or limbs, more recently 3D printed, or with newly grown parts from stem cells. We have the ability to change body parts like we do for our cars, yet we are still capable of identifying ourselves as being the same person as before. What is this thing that makes us form and keep an identity, a basic feeling of who we are?
It’s ok to change a limb, or an organ – even as crucial as the heart. But what if we were to change, for instance, our brain, in a head transplant? Would we still keep your identity after that?? For my part, what makes me be who I am is not my hair, or liver, or legs, but my mind (ok, maybe my soul: my brain and my heart), because it’s behind the way I feel, think, remember, act and react. So, I guess, identity is mostly provided by our mind.
Which brings me to this crucial question: If a doctor were to transplant a head on a different body, who would the new person be – what would be his identity? If we had a John’s head on a Bill’s body, would that be Bill, still, but with a different head? Or would that be John, “wearing” Bill’s body??
As absurd that this may sound – and it did seem so out of this world to me when I first heard about it, this is a real scientific project, already performed on dogs, rats and monkeys. But between a monkey and a human there is not much of a difference, right?
Why would scientists do that? I think that people, when they do crazy things, they do it firstly because they can; many things are happening in the world today because of the high disproportion between wisdom and intelligence, and power doesn’t seem to care about wisdom – not even when it comes to science. Is it in quest of fame? Even though this fame may well turn into notoriety a few years ahead, when the results may turn out to be disastrous?
Dr Sergio Canavero of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group proposed to use surgery to extend the lives of people with degenerated muscles and nerves or cancer-permeated organs: “I think we are now at a point when the technical aspects are all feasible” – he is preparing to do it himself in two years from the date of the announcement (June, 2015, according to New Scientist). The head will belong to a 30 y.o. Russian patient who is trying to offer himself a chance this way. He is suffering of a rare degenerative genetic disorder, a muscle wasting disease, which would be the main reason behind operating head transplants. Now, if the volunteering patient feels and knows for sure that there is no other way for him than do it or die, it’s easy to understand: the guy is kind of playing the “Russian Roulette”, but in reverse: of all the deadly bullets, there may be a single one to shoot life back into his body, give him a probable chance to life.
I have no doubts that, if this experiment will fail in 2017, chances are that it may become routine in 2020. That is why I would like to take you off the course of current way of thinking: “Let’s take the next step ahead, even though, who knows, the stepping stone my foot is currently on may go tumbling down into the abyss as soon as I move it, leaving me stranded above a gaping void.” What sort of a life would that be? How, and who could one feel with a new head, or a new body?
Identity – What Makes Me Be “Me”?
I know who I am not only because I read, studied, listened, exchanged information with the world outside of me. But I am who I am because this body of mine that I’ve been gifted with years ago has been the source of endless experiences, pleasurable or not, but mostly through my senses – my body has provided them to my brain, and my brain has been labeling them in categories and memories from least to most joyful or painful. I am a full package of all this, a whole circuit of an entire chemistry between my brain and my body – a package of memories of sensations and emotions provided by my brain-body system. To these I add my dreams (wishes and literal dreams), my ambitions (which mostly are not for recognition, but for realizing, I hope, happiness), my relationships – I can’t see my life without them (would they relate the same way to me when I’m no more the one they knew??). This is what makes me and defines me, gives me the feeling of who and what I am, and I wouldn’t exchange them with anybody or anything. This is how I relate to my inner self and to the world around me.
When I feel tired, or sad, if there is a breeze of wind, a fresh scent of freshly cut grass, some scented oil on my skin after a relaxing bath, a beautiful plateau with mountain flowers and grazing sheep with bells by a gurgling spring nearby, or the taste of freshly picked, ripe raspberries, any of these would immediately project me into a different dimension, and would effect a sudden change to this complex “I am”: any of these can instantly change me from a grumpy person into a five-year-old jumping bundle of joy. I am not so sure that my head alone could provide me with any of these – I can read about a love scene, but it would always leave inside me a craving for the real experience – to me, quality of life is not tradable in exchange for longer life, not even for the long-held humanity’s dream, immortality.
What brought me to these musings is all this talk about the increasing role that information technologies (IT) and artificial intelligence (AI) are going to play in our lives sooner than later. Maybe I am old-fashion, but I am not such a big fun of virtual reality, and in the next post I am going to explain why.