Could You Transfer Your Consciousness To Another Body?


If you've been keeping up with Westworld, HBO's sci-fi show about artificial intelligence gaining consciousness, then you may be wondering: could we transplant our own minds? Is there a way we could become immortal after our bodies are defeated by aging?

First, we need to understand how memories are stored. Your brain is a three-pound lump of fatty tissue that contains about 86 billion brain cells called neurons. By passing electricity or chemicals between them, neurons can send signals to each other. Most neuroscientists believe memory is stored as a network of neurons that form links with each other and all fire at the same time. Each time a memory is recalled, the same network of neurons fires together. In fact, scientists have shown that if you stimulate certain parts of the brain with electricity, you can cause an individual to recall certain memories, like the smell of burnt toast for example.

So to download a memory, we could simply track which neurons are activated when you’re thinking about it. And, as we explained in a previous video, scientists have already done this. By using computers to match these patterns of firing neurons with real images or scenes, we can already read people’s minds to a limited degree.

Many scientists believe it should one day be possible to create a kind of map of all the neurons in the brain and the connections between them: this map would be called a “connectome.” Both the United States and the European Union have launched major research programs with this goal specifically in mind. This task will likely take decades, but once it’s done, scientists should be able to build a computer model of the connectome, a kind of virtual brain that would be able to send signals between neurons through artificial synapses.

So if downloading memories is possible, what about uploading? That, too, is becoming a reality thanks to a technique called optogenetics. This involves injecting specific neurons with DNA from algae that causes them to produce a light-sensitive protein on their cell surface. When light is shone into the brain, it stimulates the protein and activates only those neurons that express it. In this way, scientists can artificially activate groups of neurons associated with particular memories.

All this may sound pretty scary, but there a few reasons to relax. Our brains are unbelievably complex, perhaps, too complex to copy. The number of synapse connections is a thousand times bigger than the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy. On top of that, your brain is constantly remodeling itself, creating new connections and letting old ones expire. It’s a reflection of who you are at this specific moment in time, and it took your entire lifetime to create. A copy of your mind would be just an imitation. And the second it started integrating new thoughts, memories and experiences, it would become someone else. Which, in a way, helps us appreciate how unique we truly are.

Mitch Moffit