Archive for the ‘mind transplant’ Category

Lessons of Human Fusion

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

The story of Jerry and May (“Coed”) should give pause to anyone who invests all his or her self-concern in psychological continuity and connectedness.

To summarize the plot: Jerry, a 40-year-old neuroscientist, is diagnosed with devastating rapid-onset dementia, a prospect which he regards as equivalent to death.  To save himself, he hits on the plan of copying his psychological attributes to the brain of a graduate student, a young woman named May.  The copying process ‘reads’ his brain-states and ‘writes’ them to her brain, effectively reproducing his memories, abilities, personality, and other psychological dispositions.

Sticklers would regard this as a breach of academic ethics.  But Jerry, although manifestly self-centred, is not without a conscience.  The process he employs does not damage May’s psychology; instead, it takes advantage of redundant capacity in her brain to add his psychological attributes to her own.

Before the mental merger takes place, Jerry sees transference of his psychological attributes to May as a way to escape the fate of his disease.   He anticipates having a future in May’s body, which he expects to share with May herself.

The procedure works according to plan.  When they wake up, the personalities of both May and Jerry are recognizably present in May’s body.  All is not smooth sailing – May and Jerry find themselves in competition for motor control of a single body.  In order to act effectively, they must cooperate.  Sometimes the best way is for one to sit back passively and ‘let the other drive.’

But it is not an equal relationship – Jerry is at a distinct disadvantage.  May is at home in her body, and perfectly competent to manage it, but Jerry finds it foreign and difficult.  When he planned his transformation, he failed to anticipate the full impact of the physical dissimilarity it entailed: the sex change, the reduced physical stature, the girlish voice, loss of the gravitas that society concedes to the mature.  With May’s body, Jerry is more awkward than a pubescent teen. (more…)

Coed – episode 3

Monday, June 21st, 2010

This is episode 3 of “Coed”, a short story about fusion – two persons coming together to share a single body.  If you haven’t yet read episode 1, start here.

The next few days of cohabitation are comparatively peaceful.  Although more spills occur, they are genuine accidents, the inevitable price of learning.  Once May realizes the futility of obstructing him, Jerry’s motor skills improve.  In exchange for her cooperation, Jerry observes certain taboos.  She does not need to tell him, even silently, what they are; his awareness of her sensibilities has sharpened remarkably.  He does not mind too much, finding an unexpected, heady pleasure in his new situation – the joy of youthful health.  I had no idea how my vision was greying out, he announces one sparkling morning, the same day be begins seriously thinking how to get his job back. (more…)

Coed – episode 2

Monday, June 14th, 2010

This is episode 2 of a short story about fusion – two persons coming together to share one body.   If you haven’t yet read episode 1, start here.

When consciousness returns, May finds it cluttered, like a room in which she can’t find something she’s looking for.  Adrift in the jumble, she clutches at anything familiar.  She knows she’s in the lab – she remembers the looming, blinking machines.  Other, more important things are hidden.  She can’t recall her age.

She used to sail with her dad up and down Ghost Lake, in strong winds.  If she was scared, she only needed to look at his face.  He grinned at the sun and wind, embracing any weather.  He worked in forestry.  The memory of a year ago chills her, like a snow cloud blown over the sun.  A sudden headache at breakfast, her mother said.  Then he doubled over and vomited on the floor.  How could that happen?

The enormous prickly helmet, she notices with relief, has been removed.  Stretching, wriggling her toes, she grows annoyed that no one is there to attend to her.  She cranes her neck, looking for her clothes.  She can’t remember what she wore to the lab.

I am now familiar with the entire literature on hemispheric specialization, she thinks, to comfort herself.  Or most of it anyway.  I’m a leading expert in computational neuroscience.  Now I know descriptive and inferential statistics, and ASL. She pictures Nina and Tina going through their intricate routines.  But the meanings are as dark as ever.  I don’t know ASL! she realizes in astonishment.  Didn’t Jerry know it?

There was never enough time, she answers herself defensively.

Nervous, she wishes Sam would come with her clothes – whatever they were.  She vaguely recollects a purple departmental T-shirt, which needed washing, with a picture of a nerve cell.  But that wasn’t mine! She even remembers its sour smell as she pulled it over her head.  It must have been mine. And down, over her flat, sparsely-haired chest…. (more…)

Coed – episode 1

Monday, June 7th, 2010

“Coed” is a fictional exploration of fusion – two persons coming together to cohabit in a shared body.  Fusion cases are more complex than fission, involving greater discontinuities, botb physical and psychological.  You may find that contemplation of fusion cases fosters real doubt as to whether two persons are present, or one.

She knows he’s in there – she can see him brokenly through the office door’s bevelled glass, framed and backlit by the window, inert in his chair.  “It’s me, May,” she calls softly, not wanting to attract attention in the hallway.

The last thing Jerry wants now is to be bothered by students.  With time suddenly so precious to him, he is not prepared to squander it on their all-too-protean intellects.  The knob rattles, making him seethe.  Typical of students nowadays; they’ll barge in anywhere.  They hardly care which washrooms they use.  Even May startled him at the urinal, once.  They were both convulsed by giggles, meeting like that.  He scolded her, but she didn’t care.  Abruptly, it occurs to Jerry that it’s probably May now – she said she’d drop by this afternoon.

At last she sees the fragmented figure inside lurch to its feet, lean towards the door.

He was right – May stands there with her shining golden hair and the essay-in-progress which has been her excuse for visiting him during the entire term.  Playfully, she kicks the door closed behind her.

Instead of reaching out to her, Jerry stands listlessly, his arms limp.  She wonders what’s wrong.

He realizes he will lose this too.  In six months – a year at most – she will avoid his gaze.  Not only she, but all the other tantalizing female students.  And even the ones that aren’t tantalizing.  But now she is waiting for him, to say something.  “How much have you written since last time?”  His tone is collegial, only a little condescending.

“Nothing,” she admits without a trace of guilt.  She dares him with her eyes to reprimand her, but her playful invitation is rebuffed.

That’s how he feels about her too – absolutely guiltless.  It’s a wonderful relationship, even more so than his relationship with Carole, which he once thought wonderful enough to justify the unpleasantness and expense of a divorce.  And now when he has achieved this, and so much else – when his life has at last taken a finished shape, with full-professor status, four-month European vacations, and a conscience mature enough to allow him the things he really wants – now, at age forty, it’s over. (more…)

The Plastic Self

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

Neurologists have demonstrated plasticity in the spatial sense of self, or body-image.  Not only are the ‘phantom limbs’ of amputees somewhat malleable, under special circumstances (and also remarkably intractable under others), but we can be induced to perceive a detached rubber hand, lying on a table, as our own hand, and even to feel that the table-top itself is part of our own body.  But how plastic, if at all, are our ideas of ourselves extended into the future and the past?

Published in 1970, Bernard Williams’ “The Self and the Future” is one of the seminal papers that gave rise to the contemporary philosophical debate on personal identity.   Williams presents two series of thought-experiments, which lead his own intuitions in opposite directions on the question whether a future person, described as having a certain relationship to his present self, would be himself or someone else.  One set of cases tends to persuade him that what matters in personal identity – the relation that makes us the same person over time – is psychological continuity.  The other set of cases makes him think that bodily continuity is more important.  Williams reports being left “not in the least clear” which is right.

Williams presents this as a philosophical problem.  I suggest it is more fruitfully regarded as an experimental result – a single data-point in a psychological experiment, with Williams as both subject and experimenter.  If repeated with a larger, and less contaminated, sample population, such an experiment could shed the light of empirical research on the question with which I opened this post.  I hope someone will undertake such a study, which could lead in interesting directions. (more…)

Phantom Self at the movies – Avatar

Monday, January 18th, 2010

Phantom Self at the moviesAudiences of the movie Avatar are asked to accept that, by means of a vaguely-described technology, Jake Sully’s mind is transferred into the body of a blue-skinned, nine-foot native of the moon Pandora.  And they do accept it, with ease – even I, who consider myself attuned to issues of personal identity, bought the story without thinking about its strangeness until later.

The strange thing is that it’s not strange.  We have no trouble at all accepting that the able-bodied Pandoran is the paraplegic Marine.  Why?  Because the personality, memories, desires, and so on, of the human are transferred to the Pandoran.  There is no physical connection between the man, motionless in a pod, and the alien who is learning Pandoran ways; the two are linked only by the flow of information.   The fact that this does not bewilder viewers is strong evidence that they – we – regard this psychological connection as identity.  We follow Jake through interleaved episodes as human and Na’vi, convinced that it is one person’s story.

The movie can be seen as a giant psychological experiment on its audience, who might have reacted differently.  (more…)