Overcoming Objections to Brain Preservation
By John M. Smart, 2010-2015
The Scientific Advancement Defense
The Exceptional Cases Defense
The Social Benefits Defense
The Religious Objection and Defense
The Natural Aging and Death Objection and Defense
The Patternism Hypothesis
A Number of Non-Obvious Proposals
A Brief Bibliography
Nine More Objections and Defenses – For the Scientists and Philosophers
Challenges for the Future
In just the last ten years, neuroscientists have been using powerful new tools in genetics, molecular biology, biotechnology, microscopy, systems biology, data science, and other fields to finally uncover the set of epigenetic, extracellular, and synaptic changes that form the molecular basis of memory. The 2014 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience was won by three neuroscientists for the discovery of specialized brain networks for memory and cognition. The 2016 Brain Prize was won by three neuroscientists for elucidating the molecular mechanisms of long-term potentiation, one of the keys to storing and sustaining lifelong memories in mammalian brains. With all this progress at hand, human brain preservation at the end of our lives, as a personal choice, is a more viable and compelling idea than ever before.
This page discusses some common objections to and defenses of the value of brain preservation as a social option. We humans are only now coming to understand ourselves as informational entities. In so doing, we are learning the use and value of our information. In considering whether brain preservation is a wise and ethical use of resources, one must ask under what circumstances information itself, both generally and within unique human minds, is worth preserving as an individual choice in free societies.
I firmly believe that giving each of us more options to preserve any information we individually may want available for the future, including our own memories and identities, is a wise and ethical act, as long as a minority of neuroscientists expect that the act of preservation may have future informational value, and preservation can done sustainably with respect to the environment.
If we had a validated and affordable brain preservation option available to us at the end of our lives, some of us would presently choose to preserve our mental information. Many others would presently not, and many of us have strong views on the nature of death, both for ourselves and others. Nevertheless, if preservation can be validated to preserve even simple episodic memories in well-studied synaptic circuits in any higher model organism, a validation that has already occurred for lower organisms and which may arrive long before we have a complete theory of all the ways memories and personality are stored in the brain, a compelling case can be made that making the preservation option available for all who might want it, and championing the ability of each of us to make our own free choices on this matter, will be a great advance in building the kind of world we want.
In coming to understand ourselves as informational entities, one important insight is recognizing the patternist nature of self. What we call our memories, our personality, and our “self” is not our matter but is in fact a complex and special informational pattern held in our biology. We know this because when sufficiently complex patterns in our brain are replicated in technology, as happens when a cochlear or retinal implant is integrated into a deaf or blind person’s nervous system, this small part of their self now operates as technology. It is thus the pattern that matters, not the “substrate”.
As we will argue, our science and technology are presently engaged in an accelerating process of replicating, preserving, and “uploading” our biological patterns into significantly faster, more durable, and capable technological ones. This process of “pattern uploading” from biology to technology may be as natural, useful, and universe-driven as it is human-chosen. If brain preservation works, a question the BPF was founded to investigate, it will only be the latest in a long series of technological advances on Earth that increasingly capture and improve our all our unique and valuable biological patterns.
Perhaps the most common argument for developing better brain preservation techniques is to advance our sciences and technologies, including neuroscience, medicine, microscopy, cognitive science, and computer science, and to gain more of the social benefits they provide. This is a good place to begin a discussion of brain preservation, as most will see this value. But while the scientific advancement argument recognizes the value of preservation of samples of medically unique brains (from individuals with mental disorders, or other functional differences or abilities), and a sample of individuals with “typical” brains (to understand the range of healthy function), note that it does not consider the value of preserving memories or identity in these or other individual brains.
Some individuals who have no interest in brain preservation for themselves will nevertheless grant the potential value of brain preservation for others who might wish it, in exceptional cases. They may grant its value for a child or young adult who has been struck down early in life by disease or accident (or perhaps for the benefit of the child’s parents, to aid their grieving process). They may grant its value for those individuals who feel they have unique and unpreserved culture, history or knowledge they wish to pass on to the future. They may grant its value for someone who believes they have unfinished creative goals that they feel uniquely capable of pursuing, relative to other minds, for many years or decades to come. Albert Einstein’s brain, which has been chemically preserved, has been cited by some in this regard. Helping people to understand and support such “exceptional cases” can begin to move society toward acceptance of this technology, and is a reasonable next step. David Ewing Duncan, in When I’m 164, 2012, has found that only 1% of individuals in developed societies are presently interested in living beyond their biological lifespan. We can call this 1% the “exceptional cases” who might presently consider the brain preservation option, if it were validated, which today it is not. However, this minority could easily grow if neuroscience advances, validation emerges, cost comes down, and social behaviors change. Emergence of the brain preservation option could also have positive effects on the larger society, as we argue next.
If any brain preservation technology can be proven to preserve the key morphological features, and any molecular features, that neuroscientists presently believe contain our memories or identity, and if neuroscience and computer science can show that those features alone are able to preserve and create memories in both animal and computer models, then the availability of affordable and environmentally sustainable brain preservation services, the option and freedom to use them by anyone in society, and their use by a socially significant minority may begin to change those societies for the better today, regardless of how much or how soon anyone’s personal neural information is retrieved at a later date.
Specifically, social values in such societies may move measurably toward what we can call a Preservation Value Set. Imagine any country where a socially significant minority, let’s say 100,000 individuals, have personally made the brain preservation choice at death. Given the conversations that must have occurred in the larger society during the creation and access of this freedom, and the predictable lowering of cost and improvement of access that comes as any technology becomes more widely adopted, we can expect some measurable changes in those individuals social values and perceptions, and to some degree, within the wider society as well. As a result of this level of use and access of the brain preservation choice, a politically-significant fraction of individuals in such societies may become, as measured on social surveys, noticeably more science-oriented (more willing to advocate and fund rapid and responsible scientific advances in their society, given the increased personal benefit they may receive), more progress-oriented (more willing to see and support signs of social progress, as they desire to be revived in a measurably better world), more future-oriented (more comfortable making long-term plans in more facets of their life), more sustainability-oriented (less willing to harm their environment today, as they realize they may return in the future), more preservation-oriented (more motivated to preserve the unique species in our natural environment and the unique information in human culture and minds), more truth- and justice-oriented (better behaved today, as those who have experienced injustice may donate their memories so that present crimes may be righted via future forensics, and so future laws may better match true human behavior), more diversity-oriented (more motivated to live in a “usefully unique” way themselves, to increase the value of their memories and mind to future generations) and ultimately, more community-oriented (more desirous of living in a way that makes them valuable not only to themselves, but also to loved ones and society). For many, achieving a significant shift toward preservation values in our societies today, regardless of how much neural information is eventually recovered in the future, is the most important reason to support the brain preservation effort.
Why are we suggesting 100,000 adopters of brain preservation before measurable positive social changes may occur? Humanity is naturally set in our ways in our thinking about death, and confronting many aspects of death. This can be observed whether we are talking about the death of an idea, a social theory, a spouse, or of ourselves. Changing our thinking regarding death and the proper ways we should deal with it often roughly follows the DABDA stages (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and eventual Acceptance) identified by the psychologist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. In the beginning of any proposed new social freedom involving death (in this case, the death of the idea that biological death is and should be final for every individual), some degree of social denial and resistance are to be expected. Thus brain preservation technologies will very likely require a politically significant minority of Early Adopters, willing to lobby for it in political and legal ways, in order for access and affordability to grow. The majority of the public will very likely continue to ignore and discount this personal option for some long time to come, as a natural and expected response. We suggest that 100,000 adopters and their friends is a politically significant minority. Consider the Netherlands, which has a population of 17 million. In that country, the Levensiende (“Life End”) group, and advocacy and support organization for the right to physician-assisted suicide and personal choice in confronting death, has slowly grown to its status of 130,000 members in 2012. Physician-assisted suicide, usually with less than six months of life expectancy left, and earlier in special cases, has been legal in the Netherlands since 2002. Roughly 2% of all of those dying in the Netherlands now annually choose this option. But it wasn’t until May 2012, after much lobbying from Levensiende and other groups, that it became legal for Netherlanders to choose physician-assisted suicide in their homes, in addition to hospitals and hospices. It took the lobbying and stories of a politically significant minority to change the laws and increase access, and push the general public into acceptance of this expanded social choice regarding death. The same denial and resistance dynamic is likely to be expected in early efforts to increase social access to the brain preservation choice. But at some point, social acceptance occurs, and we have a society considerably more aware of and willing to advocate for “preservation values”, whatever those may be.
As another way to speculate on what those values changes will be, some research indicates that changing our perception of the finality and unfairness of death may even make us measurably less dogmatic in our beliefs, more tolerant of social change, and more willing to champion cognitive diversity. As Sam Harris notes in The Moral Landscape, psychologists have discovered that merely reminding judges and juries of the fact of death increases their inclination to automatically punish those who have violated the law, and to reward those who uphold cultural norms. Others have replicated this association between death awareness and cognitive dogmatism and intolerance.
Awareness of our eventual death can be a great motivator, as Steve Jobs eloquently reminded us in his Stanford Commencement Speech in 2005, before his own death from the cancer he had recently acquired. But there are many great motivators to live purpose-filled lives: awareness of our limits, curiosity, passion, honor, duty, ethics, hope, vision, and intelligence, for example. Those who currently choose to preserve their brains at death for the possiblity of future revival are no less motivated to live full and valuable lives.
I do believe that death is ultimately inevitable. Nothing ever lives “forever.” All living things have eventually grown into something else, die, or are themselves eventually outmoded and outgrown.
But what is different now is that for the first time, due to our advancing science and technology, we can hope that in the near future, our outdated ideas and behaviors will die appropriately, inside our own minds, to be forgotten and outgrown by the individual who carries them, only when they have outlived their social usefulness, as judged by the individual who carries them and by the society in which they were created. An increasing number of us don’t want our minds and ideas to die inappropriately, often long before their usefulness has ended, due to the current limitations of biological nature.
Since the dawn of civilization, millions have lamented the loss of personal history and unexpressed insights that occurs with their own death. Our lifespan is surprisingly short by contrast to the appropriate lifespan of the unique experiences and ideas we gain and create during our lives, much of which we are not able to express in our behaviors or works prior to death. It seems to some that just as we are reaching an age where experience leads to wisdom, we must end our lives. Much of this unique internal information is presently lost at death, and only some of it is eventually reinvented by others.
Even if our children were to wear a camera their entire lives, as may one day occur, much of their unique subjective personality, thinking style, experience and insights may never be reinvented by anyone in the future. Each human mind has an astronomical number of connections that are unique only to that individual, and the present and future value of that diversity is far beyond our current ability to estimate. If future society continues to have finite computing capacity and limited ability to recreate its diverse history, as it does today, valuable information will always be lost with involuntary death. Soon brain preservation may offer a powerful new way to reduce this loss. For an excellent overview of how the advance of civilization is directly tied to the effectiveness and efficiency of the preservation and exchange of our unique history and ideas, see The Guardian of All Things: The Epic Story of Human Memory, by Michael S. Malone, 2012.
Evolution loves diversity, and life’s diversity has constantly increased over the entire history of biology, human culture, and technology. Even the great extinctions further increased our genetic and species diversity. When one considers how much unique information presently dies with an individual without being sufficiently shared through that individual’s behavior or works, the increase in useful diversity that is promised by brain preservation may be a social advance on par with writing, moveable type, mechanical recording, and other major historical advances in our cultural memory.
For all of the reasons above, brain preservation, if undertaken by a socially significant minority in any society, may become a major social good.
While there has been very little guidance on this issue from religious leaders so far, adherents to most religions today might think that the preservation of their brains at biological death would go against their beliefs. We must be respectful of and sensitive to such statements, while at the same time recognizing that behavior and ethics here will never be uniform. Within every religion there will always be individuals and communities who do not believe that the preservation choice conflicts with their faith. There are already patients from several religious faiths in cryonic storage. These individuals expect or hope to be revived in the future, if their God or the Universe permits.
At the same time, there are individuals from a variety of faiths who would presently be willing to donate their memories to the future, but who would not wish to be personally revived in the future, given their particular religious beliefs. Some religious communities may consider brain preservation for memory donation to be acceptable, assuming that such a request is both feasible and would be honored by future society. The mother of one of us (J.S.), a devout Christian, would have gladly preserved her life’s memories for her family if affordable (low-cost) brain preservation had been available at the time of her death, but she would not have wished to be revived as an individual in the future. If brain preservation becomes increasingly accessible and affordable in coming years, and if the science and technology continues to improve, we can expect a variety of responses to the brain preservation question, from a variety of faiths.
Many people today feel that living a long natural biological life is sufficient for them, and they have little to no desire, at the end of life, to extend it beyond what has been given to them by God or nature. Helping us to gracefully accept our biological deaths is the fact that our bodies and minds naturally age and become increasingly frail and feeble after we reach sexual maturity. This makes the sudden cessation of life in our old age much easier to bear. As the American freethinker Robert Ingersoll says in On the Life Cycle, 1887:
“There is something tenderly appropriate in the serene death of the old. When eyes are dim and memory fails to keep a record of events; when ears are dull and muscles fail to obey the will; when the pulse is low and the tired heart is weak, and the poor brain has hardly power to think, then comes the dream, the hope of rest, the longing for the peace of dreamless sleep.”
But it is also true that the “natural” aging described here is being steadily minimized by advances in science and technology. Consider how sanitation, public health, and medicine have greatly extended our healthspan (the healthy period of our lives) improving average American lifespan from 47 to 77 years over the 20th century. More recently, longevity research and regenerative medicine are beginning to shorten our frailspan (the physically and mentally frail and enfeebled period of our lives), by slowing the basic processes of aging. For example, a 2011 study discovered that much of the physiological degeneration that occurs in adulthood, in a mouse population with a premature aging mutation, was due to a small population of senescent cells that produce inflammatory proteins. When these cells are removed in middle age or earlier, as in the mice in the study, the body doesn’t age “naturally”, but retains physical and mental vigor well into old age, with a much more abrupt decline much later in life – a process called “squaring the curve” of aging. The team that accomplished this, Darren Baker and Jan van Deursen at the Mayo Clinic, did it again in 2016, this time with genetically ordinary mice, extending their lifespans by 20-30% and making it clear that senescent cells are a key target for healthy life extension. If therapies to remove or block these cells or their inflammatory proteins can be developed for humans, as is now being explored, those who use them will feel like death is a sudden collapse and loss of function at the end of an even longer and more vibrant life than we typically have today. As our social acceptance of natural aging falls, our acceptance of natural death will also be challenged, at least by some.
Some individuals view the brain preservation choice as something that goes against the natural way of (biological) life. They remind us that in life, the old must be removed to make room for the new. Winter clears the way for Spring. This is true from a biological perspective, and yet biology is only part of the story of modern humanity. As our civilization has developed, our minds and our technology have come to play ever-growing roles in the nature of humanity. But increasingly, unique ideas, perspectives, and experiences in modern human minds die inappropriately, not archived or retired by conscious choice, as their usefulness fades, but lost because of the limitations of biology.
Anthropologists have observed that the more complex society gets, the greater the social (and economic) value of each individual human life, and the more elaborate our responses of grief and injustice to the loss of life. Society, via our cultural memory, and technology, via writings and recordings and science, are far better at preserving information than our biological bodies, which die on a cyclic basis. When our minds and science were less imaginative and less developed, this cycle of life was more acceptable. Today, the cycle has come under scrutiny, and we can now imagine less informationally destructive ways of life. We may soon have a choice to greatly increase the diversity of mind on Earth.
Information technology in particular is very good at preserving everything that has gone before it, and computers, using less and less physical resources per “bit” of information storage are preserving more and more of our past and present world, and enabling more social creativity, diversity, resiliency, and progress than ever before. As social and technological systems advance, they increasingly learn how to preserve each life’s learnings to allow our descendants to do and live better in the next life. In the future, we can imagine ourselves as technological or advanced biological beings, where the only deaths that occur are the “little deaths” that presently happen in our minds every day, when less fit ideas are replaced by better ones, and the old neural connections extinct themselves, making room for new ones – a life of constant growth and change, but no loss of information of value to us or to our communities.
Nature and life continually grow, learn, and change, and we must do the same if we are to understand ourselves as not only biological, but also social and now even technological beings. Today, no one would be considered fully human without learning the languages and social norms, the cultural technologies, that our society has developed over the last two million years. Our electronic technology, for its part, is not only the fastest new learning system on the planet, it is becoming an increasingly life-like and natural extension of both our environment and ourselves. When we enlarge our definitions of nature and self to include both our culture and our technologies, we can better appreciate and understand the value of brain preservation for all who might desire it. This is natural, but it is a new, more complex nature than the old, just as early life on Earth evolved and developed a new, more complex nature as it grew into our modern forms. In nature, change, growth, learning, and new forms of diversity, adaptibility, resilience and complexity appear to be among the few constants we can depend on.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to seeing the value of brain preservation today is the need to adopt a “patternist” understanding of the nature of self. The last 150 years of biological science have carefully uncovered the working hypothesis that our individual selves are entirely the result of special complex physical structures and processes, orpatterns in our brains, bodies, and their interaction with the environment. The patternism hypothesis proposes that it is a special physical pattern, not the matter, or even the type of matter (computer or biological), that stores the highest level information in living systems. If the special pattern that stores this information can be successfully maintained, and copied as necessary, the information survives.
Remember first that our identities (our selves) are not contained in any particular biological matter. All our matter is replaced, or turned over, in our bodies and brains on a moment-by-moment basis. Some ninety-eight percent of the atoms in our body are replaced every few years (the number varies by study), by the food we eat, the air we breathe, the liquids we drink. This is a natural process of pattern copying. We are continually being “uploaded” into new matter with a very similar pattern all the time. Many of our cells (with the exception of the brain) are constantly dividing, replacing old with new. This copying process is never perfect, and certain useful molecular tags (methylation, phosphorylation, ubiquitination) are always lost in this constant and statistical process of molecular renewal and turnover. This copying happens so incrementally, and our patterns are altered so subtly, that we don’t notice it, until we study how the process works on the molecular level. Every living thing is constantly having parts of itself “uploaded” into subtly different to very different physical substrates, as a natural process.
Our identities, then, are our unique and personal collection of intelligent patterns, expressed by our matter as a series of predictable conditional and causal relationships within neurons and their interaction with the physical world. These patterns must be continually and imperfectly copied to keep us alive, and to keep our memories and mind relatively stable to time and change. Amazingly, these special patterns can even become independent of our biology, as we are now learning to recreate them in our technology, and intimately connecting this technology to our biological bodies and brains.
For example, artificial cochleas and retinas replicate and restore sensory aspects of the biological self. Even brain patterns are now being replicated in our technology – see for example Ted Berger’s work with the artificial hippocampus, and other projects in neuromorphic engineering, where chips are designed to replace brain circuitry. This work is simple today, as neuroscientists still do not fully understand all the ways neurons process and store information, but we have every reason to expect continued progress in these efforts. Accepting and understanding the patternist nature of self allows us to realize that one of highest purposes of humanity appears to be a responsibility to continually preserve and improve our best biological, social and technological patterns.
As we have said, what is natural changes as our species changes. As our physical patterns have grown in complexity, humanity’s natural abilities and responsibilities have grown in the same measure. Before humanity invented gestural and verbal languages, which were among our earliest “technologies,” we had no responsibility to pass on to others, or give extended lifespan to, our individual experiences. But after language arrived, we gained a new responsibility to teach our descendants, and thereby improve our families and culture. Once written language arrived, we gained further responsibilities to physically record and pass on, or give extended lifespan to, our discoveries and experience, and to further improve individual and social wisdom. Today’s digital computer and communications technologies are direct extensions of these earlier technologies. We have a new responsibility to improve them as well, to broadly distribute their benefits, to try to minimize their downsides, and to endeavor to use them to increase our ethics, wisdom, awareness, foresight, and resilience.
If inexpensive and validated brain preservation arrives, we will be endowed with new capabilities to pass on, or give extended lifespan to, our memories, learning, and identities to our descendants. In time, we will recognize new social responsibilities to do just this. Whenever we successfully improve the complexity and resilience of our individual and social patterns, and allow them to live for as long as they might be valuable, available to any who might be interested in them, we seem likely to achieve greater individual and social conscience and consciousness, new respect for the value, rarity, and uniqueness of each human life, and new levels of individual and social progress. This is perhaps the greatest potential benefit of the patternist perspective: we can be more effective and aware today, and make better choices in the present moment, choices ideally in greater harmony with the self-improving nature of life and the universe.
In summary, the past century and a half of research in cognitive science and neuroscience have increasingly established that the entirety of what we call our mind is a complex information processing stream computed by the circuits in our brain, and in the society and technologies in which that brain is embedded. Once we recognize that our critical physical patterns are not only biological, but also social and technological, we can resist the resignation, isolation, and apathy that can accompany biological old age. We can recognize that even as our biological minds begin to fail us, our social and technological ones are growing faster, smarter, and more intimately connected to our biology every year. Furthermore, growing knowledge of brain health and neural plasticity offers us new ways to reduce or reverse “natural” cognitive decline as we age, to restore our mental abilities to more youthful levels and to remain lifelong learners. We learn to see our selves as not just our biology, but also as our social minds and technology, we can become champions of the kinds of scientific and technological developments that will increase innovation, wisdom, resiliency, and social and individual empowerment.
If we wish to argue the potential value of brain preservation as a broadly available social option in coming years, it helps to make a number of not-immediately-obvious proposals:
- Brain preservation techniques may soon (perhaps within this decade) be validated to preserve useful neural information, including memories, in model organisms.
- Should brain preservation be validated to preserve neural information at death, this will be a natural process, once we acknowledge that not only our biology, but also our social minds and our technology are natural.
- The preservation of any amount of neural information upon our death could prove valuable to our loved ones and society both today and in the future, if it can be inexpensively preserved today, and if it is reasonable to expect that it could be inexpensively recovered by future technology.
- Low-cost preservation technologies may soon exist, which is relevant to the financial wisdom (expected benefit to cost ratio) of the brain preservation choice, as preservation always involves taking resources from loved ones or society today for an uncertain future return.
- Rapid advances in computing and scanning technologies argues that neural information might be inexpensively and automatically read from preserved brains even a few decades from now, while one’s loved ones are still alive.
- Not just memory retrieval, but full revival of the individual, and their indefinite lifespan in the future may also be an outcome of brain preservation, for those who might desire either option.
- Memory retrieval or identity revival will very likely be done in computers in the future, and computer technology is dramatically more miniaturized and resource efficient per computation with each successive generation. If present accelerating, miniaturizing, and efficiency trends continue, technology will support far more living, loving minds in the future than biology ever could, and this ever-increasing diversity of mind, creativity, and intelligence appears to be the long-term trend of nature on Earth.
For inspiring evidence of how our biological brains and minds can be continually improved throughout our lifespan, even in advanced age, read Norman Doidge’s excellent book, The Brain That Changes Itself, 2007. For a general understanding of brains as connectomes, read Olaf Sporns’ Discovering the Human Connectome, 2012, and Sebastian Seung’s Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are, 2012. For more on how our mind and brain are embedded in their social and technological environment, read Andy Clark’s excellent general-interest book, Supersizing the Mind, 2011. For two good books that discuss our increasingly intimate brain-machine interfaces, and our progress in simulating modular subsystems of the biological brain within our technology, and implanting those systems in living human brains, read Michael Chorost’s very accessible World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet, 2011, and Miguel Nicolelis’s Beyond Boundaries: The New Neuroscience of Connecting Brains With Machines, 2011.
For a technical exploration of connectomes, read Sporns’ Networks of the Brain, 2010, and for a technical understanding of the physical basis of subjective experience and consciousness as emergent and nonmystical processes of neural synchronization, read Gyorgi Buzsaki’s excellent Rhythms of the Brain, 2006. For an understanding of how organisms are most essentially a type of computer at the genetic, cellular, and physiological levels, you may enjoy Uri Alon’s technical book An Introduction to Systems Biology: Design Principles of Biological Circuits, 2006, and Eric Davidson’s technical work The Regulatory Genome: Gene Regulatory Networks (Circuits) in Development and Evolution, 2008.
We will conclude this page by considering some common scientific and philosophical objections to brain preservation, and suggest some answers that seem reasonable to us. If you have a scientific or philosophical bent and do not presently see the potential value of brain preservation, either for yourself or for others who might choose it, please let us know if you still have questions or critiques after reading this article.
First, hypotheses in science are always conditional, including the patternist hypothesis of self. We may agree to tentatively hold the patternist hypothesis, but to do so also requires us to begin considering its implications with respect to the future of mind and technology. Some of these implications are abstract, unsettling, and not among our normal cultural concepts. Nevertheless, a large body of scientific evidence can be marshalled in favor of the patternist hypothesis, so it makes sense to hold the hypothesis conditionally, and to explore its implications, at least until contrary evidence against it materializes.
Second, many scientifically-literate individuals do not recognize how close our species has come to having the technology to make memory and mind preservation a reality. They are not familiar with the state-of-the-art techniques available for chemically or cryonically preserving neural structure at the synaptic level, and for verifying this preservation and circuit tracing with automated sectioning and volume electron microscopy techniques. Please see the Technology section of this website for references on the current state of the art in these areas. Fortunately, objections based on the lack of our capacity to preserve are easy to define. Overcoming them in a definitive way is one goal of our Brain Preservation Prize.
Third, some doubt that we will ever able to decipher the code for long-term memory storage in brains. Fortunately, this doubt seems unreasonable. Neuroscience is rapidly gaining a molecular-level understanding of processes central to long-term memory creation. Our brains store memory in at least three different ways. Working memory is stored in conserved electrical patterns, with a persistence of seconds. Short-term memory is stored in preexisting hippocampal and cortical synapses and preexisting signaling proteins, with a persistence of a few days. Long-term memory is written from our hippocampus to our cortex, primarily during slow-wave sleep every evening. It involves the synthesis of newsynapses and brain proteins, and modifications to synapse and nuclear proteins, and it has a persistence of a lifetime if it is periodically reinforced. It is long-term memory, encoded in durable synaptic and nuclear changes in neurons, that we particularly care about preserving. If we are revived with the loss of our working memory, as happens after a concussion or anesthesia, this is not of great concern. We are even able to bounce back well if our short-term memory is entirely wiped out, as sometimes occurs in anoxic brain trauma followed by short-term amnesia. There is some tentative evidence, for example, that the hippocampus might be uniquely vulnerable to damage during cryopreservation, unlike the rest of the brain. But as long as our cortical synapses can be well preserved, uploaded, and connected to an artificial hippocampus in the future, we’d likely lose very little useful information and personality, just the last few days of experience prior to preservation. Neuroengineer Ted Berger has been making early versions of implantable artificial hippocampus chips since 2005, for mice. Recall Henry Molaison (HM), the famous memory disorder patient who could not learn new memories after his hippocampi were surgically removed, but who kept all his older long-term memories prior to the surgery. What we care most about in brain preservation is that our long-term memory will survive the preservation process, and can be reinstated from appropriately detailed scans of the preserved brain. One critical proof of this ability will come when neuroscience sufficiently understands part of a model animal nervous system, such as C. elegans (the nematode) or Aplysia (the sea slug), well enough to train the animal associatively in one of several unique ways while alive, chemically or cryopreserve its brain, scan the relevant bit of brain tissue, and then correctly predict how it was trained by reading the scan of the appropriate neural circuits. This will require the ability to model, in a very well-studied behavioral subsystem (neural circuit set), the way both synaptic connections and neuromodulator proteins at these connections bias the pattern generators in that circuit into a particular set of output patterns, a field of research called behavioral plasticity. That demonstration may be ten or more years away, but if and when occurs it will be a major step forward in clarifying how robustly the brain preserves higher information, including memory and experience, in particular synaptic connections and their unique sets of molecular weights.
Fourth, even if we understand the code, some doubt we can inexpensively and reliably retrieve memories from a preserved human brain. One doubt arises because of cost. But we are already using automated robotic systems to slice, scan, and upload very small animal brains (including the zebrafish brain, the size of the tip of a pencil) into computers today (these uploads don’t reproduce memories because they don’t yet have all the critical molecular features, and we still don’t understand the code). As technology advances, it is reasonable to expect that the cost of this scanning process will continue to drop exponentially, while capacity continues to grow exponentially. Also, new methods of brain scanning will surely emerge. One promising technology is molecular-scale MRI. Recently, MRI machines have been built that canimage individual cell proteins, and there appears to be no theoretical reason these machines could not eventually image whole human brains. Molecular-scale MRI may one day give us the ability to scan plastinated brains inexpensively and nondestructively, and to upload the critical molecular features that encode our memory and identity. Another doubt arises because modern neuroscience suggests that our molecular memories, when remembered, are not simply recalled but are actively recreated, in a holistic and electrical process, from molecular networks of stored synaptic potentials distributed throughout the brain. But this is not a problem, it is an advantage. We know from artificial neural network models that this holistic way of storing information is robust to damage. Memories are retrieved in a distributed, associational manner from molecular stores. Thus future scans should be able to retrieve memories even from partially damaged brains. Furthermore neuroscientists suspect that humans share a common, or “baseline” brain, in which the vast majority of cellular and molecular structures and processes are highly similar from brain to brain. Simulating this baseline brain is a top goal of current and future neuroscience, in the same way we try to predictively simulate bacteria today, down to the molecular interactions of their metabolome. Such simulations are quite limited today, but they get exponentially better over over time. On top of our shared baseline brain, we have neural correlates of individuality, or NCI’s, molecular stores that comprise our unique memories and individuality, and which are persistent, even in the face of chaotic electrical and molecular activity in the brain. Brain preservation is thus about saving the NCI’s, which appear to reside almost entirely in our unique synaptic connections, a few associated proteins, and a few nuclear modifications, and later placing these NCI’s in a baseline brain emulation in a computer. Fortunately, in addition to being predictable and persistent, molecular NCI’s are highly redundant and fault-tolerant. They survive even when the brain temporarily loses all electrical activity in coma, surgery, or cold-water drowning, and through all kinds of trauma and environmental fluctuations. For example, if you forget something because a particular synaptic connection weakens or breaks, you can very often recall and reestablish what you have forgotten simply by thinking of other aspects of the memory in question, routing around the damage and reestablishing the memory. All this suggests that memory and identity retrieval from preserved human brains will be a very worthy and exciting scientific and humanitarian endeavor with great chance of future success.
Fifth, while it may be possible to retrieve memories, some doubt that we will be able to retrieve them in a piecemeal, incremental fashion. In the worst case, for example, one might fear it will be necessary to resimulate an entire conscious individual in order to recall even a single memory from that individual’s life. Thus, those willing to donate their memories to the future, but who do not wish to be consciously revived in the future, might see brain preservation as undesirable. Fortunately, this fear looks to be unfounded. We can already reconstruct realtime experiences from very small populations of neurons today (e.g., 177 neurons holding visual working memory in a the cat’s brain, Stanley et.al. in 1999). Today’s early models of consciousness (e.g., Buzsaki’s neural synchronization and Tononi and Koch’s integrated information theory), though incomplete, are already powerful enough to suggest that this is a number of neurons far too small to be conscious. If long-term neural information is stored in a similar connectionist way to working memory, using small populations of distributed and redundant networks to encode information, we should in the future be able to extract memories and experiences from preserved brains in an incremental, divisible fashion, without restoring higher individual consciousness, if that is what the preserving individual desires. Neural synchrony and feature binding will be required to retrieve memories, but just as you can retrieve memories from local areas of the brain during dreaming, and not be in higher (globally self-aware) consciousness, it seems likely that memories can be retrieved in a similar fashion from a scanned brain, once we understand the long term memory code. Just as an anesthesiologist can prevent consciousness today by administering anesthetics which prevent neural synchronization and allow a neurophysiologist or neurosurgeon to operate without the patient’s awareness, future memory donation without individual identity or higher self-consciousness restoration may be a common option in the future, for those who desire this particular choice. Neural synchronization, the current leading candidate for a mechanistic understanding of consciousness, has made great conceptual advances in the last few years. See Wang’s Physiological Reviews article for a recent review of this exciting field. The neural synchronization model of consciousness is consistent with the way disruptions of synchronization with anesthetics remove consciousness, and with the way several patients who have been in a persistent vegetative state for years have been partially reawakened to consciousness and mental life by administering Zolpidem, a drug that modulates theta and gamma oscillations in the brain. We are beginning to understand consciousness as an entirely physical process, one we may one day replicate in sufficiently complex technology.
Sixth, some doubt that the full identity and self-consciousness of any particular person could ever be “uploaded,” or emulated in a computer or other nonbiological life form. This objection often rests on the material identity hypothesis, the belief that the human mind must be indivisibly attached to the particular type of matter, in this case biological matter, that presently generates it. But what comparative psychology and computer science have taught us so far is exactly the opposite. Information processing is independent, to a surprising degree, of the particular physical substrate it is run upon – any substrate of sufficient complexity will do. As biologist Simon Conway Morris states in Life’s Solution, 2003, both simpler and higher features of the human mind and senses are shared in animals, including insects, with much-simpler and differently-built brains than ours, and a few mental features have already been successfully simulated (replicated) in computer technology. Furthermore these computer technologies, when integrated with biological brains, as in neural, retinal, and cochlear implants in humans, produce replicable components of mind. If we can recreate the relevant patterns of sensation, memory, emotion, experience, consciousness, and identity in a computer or robotic body instead of living tissue, we have recreated the mind. If future society scanned your preserved brain at the molecular scale, and could replicate a living brain in a computer that generates sufficiently similar types of patterns, this copy would truly “be” you. Certainly, as several biologists have noted, the ability to replicate all the critical patterns of one material system (wet biology) in another (electronic computers) is not guaranteed. But to date, every new computational substrate that has emerged at the leading edge of universal complexity has not only contained all the capabilities of the previous substrate, it has exceeded them. As universal complexity has journeyed from physics to chemistry to biology to (today’s still-primitive and non-autonomous) technology, each new substrate has grown to contain all the physical abilities of the previous, and has introduced powerful new freedoms and abilities as well. Certainly if future science discovered any pattern insufficiencies (structural or functional) in our computer simulation of human brains, we could always seek to use advanced nanotechnology to recreate a biological version of the person preserved. Advanced nanotechnology could even repair and reintegrate the same physical matter of the preserved brain into a future repaired biological form. In the very long term future, nanobots created by a society with advanced artificial intelligence might carefully remove the fixative or plastic resin embedding each neuron, repair aging and other damage, and revive the same physical brain that was preserved. Such a course of revival would likely convince even the most skeptical that “they” had been revived as the “same” individual. For examples of such revival scenarios, read Eric Drexlers’ excellent Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, 1987, or this “realistic” scenario for nanotechnological repair of the frozen human brain, written by an anonymous biologist in 1991. While these scenarios are both plausible and fascinating, material repair and restoration of the preserved brain may turn out to be a very uncommon pathway for the recovery and reanimation of mind. While many of us might desire to be revived as a biological body, patternism suggests that placing such a restriction on our revival would serve only our own vanity, and might be a hindrance to our rapid revival for ourselves, loved ones, and society. Those not willing to let future society create simulations of themselves first may delay their revival and return to future society by many decades, as nondestructive pattern reading and emulation technology for preserved brains may arrive long before advanced nanotechnology. We may think we presently understand the future optimal course of our revival, but the reality is, there are many ways future science might revive us, and many useful and “true” copies of ourselves that could come back. If we don’t let future science and future minds advise us on the best pathways for memory donation or reanimation, we are very unlikely to pick them today.
Seventh, while some will grant that all valuable biological structure and function may eventually be duplicated by technology, they believe that there is some metaphysical element of self which must exist independently of physical processes, and which could not be transferred in any material duplication. Such individuals would agree with statements like: “If you made an exact molecule-for-molecule copy of me, that copy might act just like me, have my memories and my personality, and would even think it was me, but it would still not be me.” The independent soul hypothesis is the belief that the mind is not only an emergent property of the brain, but is also independent from (has an existence separate from) the physical patterns and matter that houses it. This is a tradition of many, but not all, religious, philosophical and cultural heritages. At the same time, there are also subgroups of every one of our major religions, philosophies, and cultures which either do not believe, or have never even considered, the idea of metaphysical independence of mind from matter. Most religious scriptures are silent on this question. As philosophers from Descartes to Whitehead have argued, it is certainly useful and appropriate to see our minds as in a different category from physical things. We can observe an apparently fundamental body/mind, material/virtual dualism in all complex matter on Earth. Certainly complex minds are not only emergent, they do seem particularly special in the universe. As human minds grow, over both individual and historical time, they gain astonishingly greater influence over their local material environments, as is reflected in the popular phrase, “mind over matter”. We can even see an emergent dualism in the “virtual reality” that complements today’s physical computing technology. Several scholars have argued that our computer games and simulations are components of an emerging and still-primitive “technological mind.” Yet in all these examples, the material/mental and the physical/virtual are also fundamentally integrated (nondual) phenomena. Human minds have emerged on a smooth and divisible continuum from our physically simpler predecessors. While we can observe simple matter without higher mind, science has never observed, and we cannot reasonably imagine, mind without some physical basis to support its complex patterns.
Eighth, some who grant the scientific plausibility of reanimation of their pattern still have little faith that our future ecological or political environment will be either able to sustain, or will be socially hospitable to, such reanimation. Our existing population of seven billion humans is presently seriously degrading our planet’s environmental systems, while demographers are hopefully projecting an end to human population growth in the mid-21st century. Won’t adding more humans, even “virtual” humans, just make our precious planet a worse place? To answer this question, we must carefully consider the history and likely future of computing technology, which has seen exponential improvements in its speed, capability, efficiency, and miniaturization for at least 120 years, across at least five different design platforms, since our first complex mechanical computers, such as the 1890 Hollerith Tabulating Machine. This trend is commonly known as Moore’s law. What is less commonly appreciated is that our computers have also become astoundingly more energy efficient over the same time period. As Gene Frantz observed in 2000, and named Frantz’s law, digital signal processing power used per computation halves every 18 months in our leading computer chips. As computers continue to miniaturize, they also become exponentially more space-efficient and matter-efficient as well. While there are many short-term engineering blocks, physicists presently see no fundamental physical reason that will prenvent us from continuing to make accelerating advances in nanotechnology. If we are able to “upload” billions of human minds into future highly miniaturized computers, planetary resource issues will have little relevance. Resource sustainability is an issue for biological humans, which use roughly the same or more level of resources with each doubling. Physical resource accessibility is an increasingly less important issue for computers, which become ever more miniaturized, resilient to damage (as they are able to easily “back up” their complexity), and as their intelligence grows, increasingly independentof energy and material resources, per any standardized measure of complexity we choose (per computation, per mind, per society, per species). A world with widespead artificial intelligence will be both radically miniaturized and have abundances, such as fusion energy, that we can scarcely imagine today. Furthermore, the more minds exist, the more diversity, variety, and specialization society contains, and evolution always seems to maximize diversity, however it can. What about dystopian political futures? They certainly are possible, but as Matt Ridley notes in The Rational Optimist, 2010, it has been rational so far to expect, on average, social progress in surviving societies over the long term, even as exceptions always exist, and sometimes blind us to the long-term trend. Steven Pinker, in The Better Angels of Our Nature, 2011, makes an even more evidence-based claim with respect to the long-term decline in violence frequency and severity in human society, and the increasing subtlety and sophistication of human ethics. One injunction that seems necessary for all ethical societies will be the voluntary and reversible nature of all copying or reanimation when dealing with conscious organisms. If such procedures are voluntary, and if the person undergoing either of them claimed to be essentially the same or improved in some way at the other end, many of us might one day do them as well, to reap their benefits. We would not consider people uploaded from preserved brains to be “zombies” (fake copies, not “real”) and we would not view these technologies as violent or immoral, as long as all of those using them claimed to be real, used the technologies by choice, and some degree of reversibility (even if it was not a perfect or an inexpensive reversibility) was available to those who decide they do not prefer their new state. In practice however, even a less-than-perfect uploading of a preserved human into a virtual world might be desirable, particularly if the original pattern (the preserved biological tissue) was still available for future use. Any previously biological human not appreciating the benefits of their new digital form, and not willing to live with any drawbacks (such as, for example, some memory loss or other deficits), would ideally have the ability to shut down and suspend their life further, and await the arrival of better revival technology. Such reversible, voluntary, and suspendable uploading scenarios may be reasonably expected in future society if humanity’s moral development must also improve as a function of our collective intelligence, as several scholars (Norbert Elias, Ron Inglehart, Robert Wright, Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, etc.) have proposed.
Ninth, the patternist perspective leads us to anticipate some of the unusual mental capabilities that our future selves and societies may one day possess, and these can seem so strange or unsettling that we may reject them intuitively, or decide they belong to a world that has no relation to our own. Consider the following thought experiment. Imagine that you have the ability to reanimate a true copy of yourself using advanced brain scanning and simulation technology. Notice now that this allows you the ability to create many true copies. Recall for example the “duplicate” humans that were occasionally created in the transporter in the Star Trek science fiction series. If two copies of yourself were uploaded, and you found yourself in a room with your exact copy, there would, at that moment, simply be two self-aware versions of you in that room, no matter how counterintuitive to some that this may seem. Just as biology can today make genetically identical twins, technology will one day be able to make mentally identical twins (triplets, quintuplets, etc.) of individual minds, as strange as this seems. Of course, these twinned selves would begin to diverge from each other the moment they were created, as they would begin to have different subjective experiences. But at the start they would simply be two identical, true copies of “you.” If this duplication process wasn’t too costly or difficult, we can also imagine that our future selves might engage in such mental “forking” on a regular basis, to generate two or more slightly different personal perspectives on complex and subtle problems. We might also reintegrate (merge) these separate selves later, after the problem was solved or no longer relevant. Science fiction authors like Phillip Jennings, The Bug Life Chronicles, 1989 and Charles Stross, Accelerando, 2006, are among those who have described this strange idea. We can imagine this future ability as a natural extension of the way we presently argue with ourselves, using slightly different yet largely similar neural structures within our own brain, whenever we are “mentally split” over the course of action on a difficult problem. In fact, we must admit that any human being today is already a Society of Mind, a collection of somewhat independent and arguing “mindsets,” as Marvin Minsky observed in 1987. We might reintegrate these twinned minds/selves eventually, after some period of exploration and experimentation, and such a process, while it might involve the elimination of less adapted mental structures in the process of reintegration, would very likely be seen as growth, not death. We can understand this in the same way that, after long arguments within our own mind today, one set of synaptic structures may end up prevailing, and one or more of the less-fit synaptic structures end up dying. In this process, the less-fit connections end up being reweighted, in a way that involves effective information destruction in the network within our own brains, as the less adaptive behaviors, once ignored long enough, attenuate to extinction. To a healthy and mentally integrated self, this kind of information loss feels simply like creativity and growth, not death. So too we can forsee how a future technological self, which has the ability to make multiple copies, backups, and “instances” of itself, would be a system in which “little deaths” were constantly occurring, but in which deep resiliency, continual learning and growth, indefinite lifespan, and substantially less fearfulness and stress over the consequences of conflict would also be achieved. The inevitable competitions and deaths in such a future should feel far less subjectively violent, and involve far less informational destructiveness, than the world we live in today.
At present, roughly 57 million unique and precious human beings die every year, or 155,000 people every day. It is hard for us to comprehend the scale of this catastrophic loss of human experience. Thus today we largely avert our minds from this unparallelled daily loss of diversity, wisdom, social history, and individual life, except on those occasions when it touches us personally. Meanwhile, medical science makes slow progress in preventing biological death and extending our health and lifespan. Fortunately, technology is accelerating in its ability to record and augment our lives, and now the preservation and later revival of human memory and identity appear on the verge of scientific reality.
By advancing the appropriate sciences and technologies we can accelerate the arrival of the brain preservation choice for all of us, and end the tyranny of an unchosen death. Given historical rates of accelerating scientific and technological change, it is even reasonable to expect reanimation technologies to be available not centuries from now, but possibly even within this century, while our loved ones are still alive. Furthermore, all of our friends and loved ones who have also chosen preservation will also return to interact with us. For many, this is one of the most important personal motivations for preservation, the likelihood that one’s individual pattern may remain useful to those we know today, and remain connected to and supportive of the social community from which it emerged. Once we understand and have internalized the implications of accelerating change on our science, technology, and economy, we can recognize how extraordinary the human future will be, and by direct extension, how extraordinary and opportunity-filled our own lives are here today.
As we consider our extraordinary present and future, each of us has the ability, regardless of our honorable religious, philosophical, or cultural backgrounds, to internalize the implications of accelerating technological change, to consider some version of the patternist hypothesis of self, to champion scientific and technological progress and evidence-based inquiry, and to gently reform our esteemed religious, philosophical, and cultural communities of heritage until they are in better alignment with apparent evidence and scientific truths.