It had been almost exactly fifty years since the first successful human head transplant. The first attempted one was in 2017, and while there were some organic signs of life in the head for 6 days, the person never appeared to wake up or become conscious. For both moral and medical reasons, another one wasn’t attempted until 2023, and this time it went much better. The resultant head actually did regain some minor control of the hands and arms and lived for approximately two years until the complications from unforeseen autoimmune issues ultimately led to the rapid deterioration of the body, head and all. But that success ushered in a new era, and brain-only transplants gradually became perfected and not uncommon. With the success of the transplant process came unprecedented understanding of the physics of the brain, but the connection between our minds and consciousness remained mysterious. There had been attempts to transfer brains into traditional electronic computers, but even while there had been some success transferring sets of memories to computer storage devices, no person had ever been truly “downloaded” into a computer. If such a thing were possible, then a deteriorating brain would no longer be an impediment to life; it would just be another disease with a regular course of treatment. While a computer transfer seemed too complex to be accomplished in the near future, Alan had another idea, and he was seeking a volunteer to be his first test subject.
“I guess I’m still not entirely clear on how this will be any different than the failed computer download attempts of the past. Believe me, I have put much thought into trying those, but I’m not sure I would survive through the whole process,” Greg asked Alan from his hospital bed.
Greg was the perfect test subject for Alan. He had been involved in a bizarre accident in which almost a third of his brain had been completely destroyed while the rest of it and his body were left intact. Most of the time in these cases, the remaining part of the brain “re-programs” itself to assume those functions the missing part of the brain once performed. For unknown reasons, Greg’s brain was not fixing itself, and, in fact, it seemed to be getting worse. If something weren’t done, it appeared his brain would slowly continue to die until it were entirely gone, with his body inevitably soon to follow. He had only some control over the left half of his body remaining, and the atrophy from disuse was on the verge of causing permanent damage to his body. On top of his unique medical condition, Greg had also been childhood friends with Alan, which gave Alan a slight edge in convincing Greg to try the procedure.
“In one sense, it’s not much different, you’re right. It might not even work, but without it…well, you’re aware of your fate better than I am,” Alan paused, to ensure he had Greg’s attention. “Look, I can understand your hesitation. Not only do computer transfers appear to only be capable of capturing a small portion of our minds, the process itself is unfortunately entirely destructive. You can’t survive any mind to computer transfer attempt, and my brain transfer process works the same. Whatever the results are of what I am proposing, the brain you have now will be, for lack of a better word, fried. Your brain and mind as they are now, in this physical form, will not survive. However, there is one crucial difference in my process: rather than transferring you into traditional computer media, I have – I believe – successfully recreated the human brain using entirely inorganic materials. Every little part of the brain has been meticulously reconstructed, down to the smallest component of every axon, in complete parallel to a healthy human brain. The difference with my process is that I don’t want to, nor need to, translate anything in your mind into another language, the way a normal brain to computer transfer would work. I merely want to copy and replicate exactly what is in your brain into an inorganic recreation of your brain,” Alan said, speeding up near the end of his monologue as he became increasingly more excited and confident in his work. He continued, “It will be you when we’re done, I have no doubt about that.”
“I guess I’m still not entirely sure about that,” Greg whispered. “I can’t shake the feeling that this brain, with its headaches and problems, will be gone, but I won’t be. Am I now defined by my disabilities? Will I be an entirely different person without these problems? If I go through with this procedure, will that be the same as death?”
“We’ve discussed this before. You said you were persuaded by my presentation of the philosophical views on these problems by John Locke. Is this no longer true? Need I remind you that Locke sees no better way of understanding who we are than by identifying our most important aspects with our memories,” Alan reminded him.
“I know, but I am still worried by these notions. What if my memories are copied? Would there then be two of me? We already know that we can insert fake memories into people and have them believe they’re real, and that makes me second-guess identifying ourselves with our memories. How do we know what’s real and what’s not? Were we really childhood friends or did you just make me believe that?” Greg responded worriedly.
“I understand your concerns, but we both know that if I could make you falsely believe all the memories we made as children, I’d put my skills to better use than trying to save you. No offense,” he caught himself. “Look, if it’s not your memories, what then defines you? What matters?”
“Well, what about my personality? All the subtle biochemical interactions in my body help make me who I am. All different parts of the body play a role in this, and who is to say that this new brain won’t change me completely? Remember the cases of Eadweard Muybridge and Phineas Gage,” Greg reminded him.
Eadweard Muybridge, a pioneer in the arts of photography and moving pictures, had a bad accident as a young man which he, and his friends, claimed altered his personality to the extent that he went from a compassionate individual to one that was unpredictable and could suddenly go from calm to extremely emotional in an instant. He murdered his wife’s lover and was found innocent, not because his insanity plea convinced the jury, but because they presumably believed he lacked control due to his brain injury. Phineas Gage experienced a similar fate: when a tamper (long medal rod) used in the process of repairing railroad spikes was shot clean through his head, his personality was said to take the same sort of turn. These cases are ones that helped illustrate a very clear, strong, and subtle connection between the health of the brains and our personalities. But no one knew just how close the organic connection was, for while partial inorganic neural implants had seen moderate success, a full replacement on this scale had never been considered.
“True, we do not know all of the subtleties that make our bodies work. Our body can maintain many regulatory functions even when the rest of the body is gone. Subtle changes in our blood chemistry can drastically affect our mood, and the brain and mind itself are still largely a mystery. There might be subtle organic chemicals present in the membranes that we have missed and this could have a snowball effect on your mind in ways we could have never foreseen. All I can tell you is that we have done our best, and I know that someone closely resembling you will emerge from the surgery,” Alan said to his friend.
“We never discussed him but the philosopher Derek Parfit has the most convincing argument for me. I read him a long time ago in one of my undergraduate courses, and his basic idea was that we are misguided when we think that our continued existence is what’s important. We obviously care that we survive, but what this ‘we’ means is not that ‘I’ as a unique person survive, but rather that what is important about me continues on. I am still afraid that it won’t be me that wakes up, but if there is something at the end of this all that is a lot like me, then that sounds like my best shot for surviving. I know that if I do nothing, everything about me will be gone. At least with your surgery, something about me might survive. And, who knows? Maybe you are as brilliant as you think you are and I will wake up as if nothing happened,” Greg replied.
“If we are successful, you will be changed – your brain is unlikely to ever age or lose function. We never much discussed the potential ‘positive’ side effects of success. You may have the most perfect brain to ever exist,” Alan told him.
“Hopefully my mind would be able to catch up to it then. Can I please have some time to think things through? I promise I’ll get back to you by the end of the day,” Greg asked.
“Of course,” Alan said as he got up to leave the room.
Only a few hours passed when Alan received the call from Greg. All Greg could get out was that he was ready and to perform the surgery as soon as he possibly could. Alan obliged and David and the operating room were being prepared for surgery as he arrived at the hospital.
“I know you’re frightened right now, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t, too. I wouldn’t have come to you with this if I didn’t truly believe it would work. I could never live with myself if I killed my oldest friend,” Alan said to Greg.
“Do you remember when we were in third grade and I was too afraid to climb up the tree onto the roof with you to watch the fireworks? You convinced me to try to climb up and that the tree was perfectly safe and that it was just like climbing a ladder. I believed you, but I fell anyway. I blamed you for months, but it was my own fault. I let my fear get the better of me and lost my grip. You never fell from that tree, despite my falling every time you convinced me to try again. I always wanted to climb like you, but I could never get over my fear, and my fingers would always stiffen up and I’d lose my grip time and time again. Your hands were amazing then, and they are amazing now. That’s why I feel safe in letting you do this. It was never your fault when I fell from the tree; it was always my decision. If I fall this time, it was only because you, just like then, were trying to make me into the person I wanted to be,” Greg told him softly.
“I never knew you felt that way,” Alan said, just as emotional.
“I thought I never needed to say it. If I have any chance of living through what has happened to me, you’re my best chance,” Greg replied.
“There will be someone that comes out of this that is like you, and I hope you remember this conversation,” Alan paused. “Are you ready?” he asked. Greg nodded, and they began to administer the sedatives.
“‘This above all…’” Greg trailed off as the drugs took hold.
“‘To thine own self be true,’” Alan finished for him. “It will be you that awakes, my friend.”
The operation took a total of 32 hours. They had decided to remove the brain first and keep it in stasis while they implanted the new synthetic brain. After ensuring that all the neural connections were working properly between the new brain and the body’s nervous system, they began the transfer of neurological information. That part took only a few minutes, and it had seemed to go as planned. The procedure had been successful in the final round of simulations, but they would not know if it worked in reality until it was all done. They brought Greg out of the operating room and began the process of bringing him back to consciousness.
Greg’s eyes slowly opened and adjusted to the light. The path his gaze took around the room did not betray the thoughts going on inside the head. Was the brain working as hoped? Was he aware of what was going on? At least, the surgery seemed to have been minimally successful and the eyes were searching with a purpose. Someone was thinking inside that head.
With some hesitation, Alan finally whispered, “Greg, can you hear me?”