Neuroscientist Discusses Consciousness Transfer and the Movie ‘Self/less’

A new thriller starring Ben Kingsley and Ryan Reynolds explores the idea of transferring consciousness from one body to another. Unlike Freaky Friday or the myriad of other family movies and comedies that have examined the idea, this one explores the science of the process.

In the movie Self/less, a wealthy businessman (Kingsley) is dying of cancer. However, he can prolong his “self” by transferring his consciousness from one body to another. In the movie, this medical procedure is called “shedding.”

You may be wondering how such a far-out concept can have any science to it. I wondered the same thing, so I asked a neuroscientist.

I spoke with Dr. Charles Higgins, one of the movie’s scientific consultants, and an associate professor of neuroscience and electrical engineering at the University of Arizona. He has a particularly interesting perspective on this topic because he has been interfacing insect brains with robots. I started the interview by asking him more about this work.

Alejandro Rojas: In what ways do you integrate insect brains with robots?

Dr. Charles Higgins: To put it in a nutshell, since about 1987, I have been interested in trying to understand how it is that brains work, fundamentally, in the same way, we understand how computers work. And so, trying to put brains together with robots, I am working on many fronts. One is, I am working with insect brains, attempting to understand how their basic functions work and work our way up to more and more complex brains.

It is believed, but not known for sure that we have the same sort of the substrate that insects have, but we have many more layers built on top. In my past work, we have actually taken live insect brains and interfaced them with robots directly. It is interesting to think about what you could do if you had the best properties of living tissue and the best properties of computers in one device.

Computers are really good at crunching numbers and making quick calculations. Brains are really good at visual recognition and auditory recognition. If you could get the best of both worlds that would be awesome, and the best way to do that would be to genetically engineer something. I wasn’t able to do that, so I just took a living insect and interfaced it with a robot. So that is at least two ways I am addressing your question.

Rojas: You have been able to develop robots that are guided by insect brains, correct?

Higgins: We have done a couple of forays into that area. In one we took a moth and tapped into its visual system and used that to control the robot, so what the living moth saw steered the robot. But the moth didn’t have any choice in the matter. We tapped into its nervous system where it couldn’t help but respond.

We have been working on doing that with dragonflies, and that is more interesting, but that has been more difficult because in the last few years there have not been many dragonflies out in the wild, and we can’t raise dragonflies in the lab. That is something I am still interested in, in the long term.

Rojas: When trying to understand the brain in the way we understand computers, do you think consciousness might just be data?

Higgins: I sort of agree and sort of disagree with what you said. I fundamentally believe that the consciousness – thought, the self, all of that – is a phenomenon that results in the interaction of neurons and hormones and cells through the brain and all through the body, and there is nothing more to it than that. It is a biological machine.

That is a philosophical position. Nothing can prove it. Although, we have really good evidence that is true. For example, with people who have had brain injuries, you can see personality changes. So, it doesn’t seem as if there is a soul, which is that person inhabiting the body. When your car is broken down, you are still the same person, but when there is damage to the brain, it seems to make a different person.

That means in principle, whatever you want to call it, the self, your consciousness, knowledge, and information, your experience, is all stored in a pattern of interconnections in the brain and so you could potentially read it out and store it someplace. So, it might be information in some form. Although, we don’t understand how it is organized or at what level we would need to read it out.

Rojas: If we could understand that, do you believe that data could be transferred, like in the movie, from one brain to another?

Higgins: Fundamentally, yes. I mean, it is a huge technological leap, like a person from 100 years ago talking about an iPhone, but yeah. It is not impossible because I think one day we will understand it. What we are really talking about in this movie is immortality. You can go back as far as there have been humans, and they have been talking about immortality. Stories of Gods and immortals. That is really stemming from the dream that we all have that we should live forever. At some age we start to realize we are not going to live forever, we are going to die, and we think about what we are going to do to keep on living.

Now that we have technology, we think: “How can technology make my life better?” “How can I live longer?” It is very frustrating to me that someone with Alzheimer’s disease, their self just erodes away, and we can’t fix it. That is going to change. Not only the US government, but tons of governments are pouring tons of money into that. In the folds of time, we will understand that disease, we will understand more about the brain, and when someone has a stroke or is losing function, maybe we will be able to make a prosthetic for some portion of the brain. That will happen. It happens too often for us not to pursue it, so we will keep pursuing it until we get it.

Rojas: My last question is, how much does science-fiction influence you, and/or help your work?

Higgins: Actually, I think it is a huge influence. With people in my generation, it started with Star Trek. I was too young to watch the original Star Trek series when it was out, but when it came into syndication in the 70s, is when I started to watch it, and that is when it began to get popular. That has inspired me from the beginning. I am holding Captain Kirk’s communicator in my hand. We have gotten that far. But Gene Roddenberry’s other imaginative things from 1965 and 1966, like the transporter, we are still working on that one. The warp drive, physics may allow it, but we certainly can’t do it yet. So many cool things that he thought of. One of them was a reasoning computer, by the way. There was implications in the series that it had biological components and non-biological components.

So, I mean, scientists are still working on things from science-fiction from the 60s. And of course, this new movie has a device in it that we would all love to have. Who wouldn’t love to transfer into Ryan Reynold’s body when you are 80 and start over again?

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