Interview: A neuroscientist explains the mind-blowing science behind ‘Self/less’

by Brandon Russell | July 4, 2015

If you had the opportunity, would you transfer your consciousness into an “empty vessel” to prolong your life? That’s the question pondered in Self/less, a new sci-fi thriller coming out on July 10.

In the film, a wealthy aristocrat (Ben Kingsley) undergoes a procedure known as shedding, which transfers his consciousness into the body of a healthy young man (Ryan Reynolds). The promise is to give Kingsley’s character, Damian, more time on Earth to accomplish his goals, and, ostensibly, reach his full potential.

Sounds like the perfect world, right? But is a procedure like that even possible? And what are the ethics of shedding?

TechnoBuffalo spoke with Dr. Charles Higgins, Neuroscientist and Associate Professor at the University of Arizona, to find out, and the answers may surprise you.

While a process like shedding sounds like complete science fiction, it’s not so much a matter of if, but when, Higgins told us.

“I see that this will be possible in time,” Dr. Higgins said. “It’s not possible yet, but it will be possible in time.”

Scientists have already figured out ways to stimulate a brain to recall certain memories, and there’s hope we might one day create a map of all the neurons (about 86 billion) in the brain and the connections between them. As explained by ASAP Science, scientists are working toward building a “Connectome,” which would make it possible to “download” someone’s brain onto a computer, essentially creating a digital imitation of an existing person.

So what about uploading someone’s brain? That might be possible through something called “Optogenetics,” which allows scientists to control the synapses that connect the different centers of the brain.

But our understanding of the brain still isn’t where it needs to be in order to perform the shedding process. As ASAP Science notes, there are 1,000 more synapse connections in your brain than the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy. Our understanding of how a brain works is elementary at best, so actually transferring a person’s mind to someone else will take many more years of research.

“On top of that, your brain is constantly remodeling itself, creating new connections, and letting old ones expire,” ASAP Science said. “It’s a reflection of who you are at this specific moment of time, and it took you your entire lifetime to create.”

If your consciousness was transferred to another body, it would immediately start to integrate new thoughts, memories and experiences, essentially becoming someone else—a combination of your old self and your new vessel. This brings up entirely new questions about whether shedding should be allowed when it does become possible.

While the trailers for Self/less have focused mainly on the science behind the transfer of consciousness, the real meat of the movie deals with the ethical fallout. Soon after Damian is in his new body, he begins to hallucinate memories that aren’t his, and realizes that his “vessel” was obtained under mysterious circumstances. I won’t spoil the movie any further, but it brings up a number of points that Dr. Higgins says we’ll need to address once a procedure like this is possible.

“Let’s say this becomes possible in the next 20 or 30 or 50 years. Even if it is possible, it’s going to be really, really expensive,” Dr. Higgins said. “So who gets to decide who gets to undergo this procedure? Only the super-wealthy? Who gets to be immortal? Does Congress get to decide? Are we picking great scientists? Great political leaders? What is the measure of goodness that is worthy for a human who gets to live on another lifetime? If it’s possible to live beyond a normal span, does that make for a better society, or a worse society?”

Self/less director, Tarsem Singh, wondered what the world would be like if someone like Steve Jobs underwent shedding. Would he have continued to rule Apple? Would the company be where it is today if Jobs was able to transfer his consciousness and ditch his failing body?

Shedding wouldn’t just be for people expiring of old age. In Self/less, Damian’s body is being ravaged by cancer—the same thing that happened to Jobs. Oftentimes, it’s a person’s body that goes before their mind; shedding would give people the freedom to live on in a younger, healthier body. One that was free from the irreversible fate of age.

“Knowing what you know, would you be motivated to improve yourself? Or would you act with an arrogant invincibility?”

That would create an entirely new dynamic within society. One would imagine that if shedding were possible, only the top 1-percent of humanity could even be considered for the procedure. But do they deserve to be immortal because they have the monetary means? These are the types of questions that arise in Self/less, and something director Tarsem Singh addresses as the movie plays out.

Let’s imagine that shedding was affordable. If you had multiple clones that you could just transfer your consciousness into, would you be more cavalier with your lifestyle? Or would you treasure the body you were born with? Imagine a professional athlete ditching their injured body for a new one. How would society react to the power of immortality?

If/when such a procedure is ever possible, Dr. Higgins is more interested in how shedding can advance the human race.

“In science and technology, it’s impossible to learn everything you need to know in one human lifetime,” Dr. Higgins said. “Our greatest scientists and greatest experts are in their 60s and 70s, and they have more to learn, and they know it. They’re not going to live long enough to learn all they could, which means they won’t be able to make contributions they might have otherwise made had they learned that knowledge. So what kind of scientific advancements could humanity make if scientists lived 1,000 years or more? What would science be like if we weren’t limited by such short lifespans?”

Indeed, if people like Einstein, Nicola Tesla, Benjamin Franklin, and others were given the gift of immortality, where would humanity be? That’s something we might find out sooner than you think, at least according to Dr. Higgins. While we’re still several decades away from shedding becoming a reality, imagine the possibilities.

“That would be really cool,” Dr. Higgins said.



Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...