EXCLUSIVE: Scientist digs into the real science behind the sci-fi flick Self/Less

Self/less, which hits theaters on July 10, is about a rich man (form of Sir Ben Kingsley) who pays to have his personality transferred into a younger, more healthy body (shape of Ryan Reynold). It’s not a new premise, as anyone who has read Robert Heinlein’s 1970 novel I Will Fear No Evil will tell you, but with advancements in technology, the actuality of personality transference has become increasingly more likely. And as one professor says, “In the fullness of time, I have no doubt we’ll accomplish it.” 

Charles Higgins, a professor of neuroscience and electrical engineering at the University of Arizona, spoke with Blastr about mind/body transfers, how important the body is to the self...and whether or not a transferee will be able to play the piano again.

Will we be able to upload our minds into other bodies?

We will get there, but the technology doesn’t exist and is not even imaginable yet by current physics. We are very primitive in our understanding of the human brain. But even though we don’t currently have a machine that would allow this, in the fullness of time, I believe we’ll be able to read knowledge out of the brain. 

Unfortunately, everything that we know and everything we are is stored in a physical structure the brain, which is a very three-dimensional device. We have to read it out to very great precision—and you can’t do it with a dead brain. It has to be alive, because once it’s dead, you don’t know how it might have reacted to something. 

Will this consciousness transfer, when it eventually does happen, occur between two brains...or between one brain and a computer? 

Transferring our knowledge into a computer is the first step. Transferring into another another living body is much harder. 

Once [scientists] can create better artificial intelligence devices than we have now—which is obviously a very hot topic of study—it seems reasonable to read information out of the brain, one way or the other, impress [the information within] on an artificial intelligence, and get sort of a copy of a person. I think that’s going to be the first technological possibility.  

But [as] our instruments get better, it won’t be that long before we start to see our ability to replace small parts of human brains. If somebody has a stroke and it kills an important area in the brain, I think we ought to be able to build a device that we can implant or lay on top of the brain to replace that function.  

If we upload our “selves” into a new body, will we really still be the same people?

The self is not just the brain. Like most scientists, I believe what we call consciousness, the self, is a phenomena that results from interactions of all the neurons of the brain, other cells in the brain called the glia, the spinal cord, all the glands in the body, and the enteric nervous system that’s down in your gut. The thing that other people perceive as your personality is a result of all of that working together.   

"[I]n the fullness of time, I believe we’ll be able to read knowledge out of the brain." - Higgins

(The gut has a very powerful interconnection with the brain, and when you have anxiety, your gut will tighten up. It changes everything. The hormones that are released when you’re excited stop digestion and tighten up these muscles and get you into flight-or-flight mode. In recent decades we’ve only come to understand that the phrase “having a broken heart” is silly and old fashioned. We’ve been saying "I have a gut feeling, a gut reaction," for years. It turns out that that’s actually truer than we thought.)

Also, your body, the shape of your mouth, and even your vocal tract shapes how you were perceived and how you perceive yourself. I think many of us would be a different person if we were suddenly transferred into Ryan Reynold’s body.

When we are eventually able to transport our personalities into a new body, how important is that body?

[In Self/less], Ben Kingsley’s character discovers he has these crazy martial arts abilities, which makes for a great movie. But it’s not bad science either, because those sorts of things are stored in the spinal cord. 

The way you train in martial arts is you’re trained to react without thinking. It’s what people refer to as muscle memory. But really what’s going on is you have a spinal reflex reaction, so something happens, you perceive it, but not consciously. And you’re already reacting while your conscious perception is getting started. 

I play guitar. The fine movements of my fingers are not stored in my brain at all: It’s in my spinal cord. This will be disappointing to a concert pianist who has his intelligence transferred to a new body and find he’s unable to play the piano. You’d have to train your muscles again.

The fact that Ben Kingsley woke up in Ryan Reynold’s body and had martial arts abilities doesn’t surprise me at all. Ryan Reynold’s body was trained to respond to that. Those responses were still there in the spinal cord. I was happy to see that.


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