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Afterlife for Atheists

published February 2016
Can a brain’s connectome be preserved forever?
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The soul is the pattern of information that represents you—your thoughts, memories and personality—your self. There is no scientific evidence that something like soul stuff exists beyond the brain’s own hardwiring, so I was curious to visit the laboratories of 21st Century Medicine in Fontana, Calif., to see for myself an attempt to preserve a brain’s connectome—the comprehensive diagram of all neural synaptic connections.

This medical research company specializes in the cryopreservation of human organs and tissues using cryoprotectants (antifreeze). In 2009, for example, the facility’s chief research scientist Gregory M. Fahy published a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Organogenesis, documenting how his team successfully transplanted a rewarmed rabbit kidney after it had been cryoprotected and frozen to -135 degrees Celsius through the process of vitrification, “in which the liquids in a living system are converted into the glassy state at low temperatures.”

Can brains be so preserved? Fahy and his colleague Robert L. McIntyre are now developing techniques that they hope will win the Brain Preservation Technology Prize, the brainchild of neuroscientist Kenneth Hayworth (I’m on their advisory board as the advocatus diaboli). As I write this, the prize is currently valued at more than $106,000; the first 25 percent of the award will be for the complete preservation of the synaptic structure of a whole mouse brain, and the other 75 percent will go to the first team “to successfully preserve a whole large animal brain in a manner that could also be adopted for humans in a hospital or hospice setting immediately upon clinical death.”

I witnessed the infusion of a rabbit brain through its carotid arteries with a fixative agent called glutaraldehyde, which binds proteins together into a solid gel. The brain was then removed and saturated in ethylene glycol, a cryoprotective agent eliminating ice formation and allowing safe storage at –130 degrees C as a glasslike, inert solid. At that temperature, chemical reactions are so attenuated that it could be stored for millennia. If successful, would it be proof of concept?

Think of a book in epoxy resin hardened into a solid block of plastic, McIntyre told me. “You’re never going to open the book again, but if you can prove that the epoxy doesn’t dissolve the ink the book is written with, you can demonstrate that all the words in the book must still be there … and you might be able to carefully slice it apart, scan in all the pages, and print/bind a new book with the same words.” Hayworth tells me that the rabbit brain circuitry he examined through a 3-D scanning electron microscope “looks well preserved, undamaged, and it is easy to trace the synaptic connections between the neurons.”

This sounds promising, but I have my doubts. Is a connectome precisely analogous to a program that can be uploaded in machine-readable format into a computer? Would a connectome so preserved and uploaded into a computer be the same as awakening after sleep or unconsciousness? Plus, there are around 86 billion neurons in a human brain with often 1,000 or more synaptic connections for each one, for a total of 100 trillion connections to be accurately preserved and replicated. Staggering complexity. And this doesn’t include the rest of the nervous system outside the brain, which is also part of your self that you might want resurrected.

Hayworth admitted to me that a “future of uploaded posthumans is probably centuries away.” Nevertheless, he adds, “as an atheist and unabashed materialist neuroscientist, I am virtually certain that mind uploading is possible.” Why? Because “our best neuroscience models say that all these perceptual and sensorimotor memories are stored as static changes in the synapses between neurons,” which is what connectomics is designed to record and preserve, allowing us to “‘hit pause’ for a few centuries if we need to.” Imagine a world in which “the fear of death, disease and aging would have been mostly removed,” he says.

It sounds utopian, but there’s something deeply moving in this meliorism. “I refuse to accept that the human race will stop technological and scientific progress,” Hayworth told me. “We are destined to eventually replace our biological bodies and minds with optimally designed synthetic ones. And the result will be a far healthier, smarter and happier race of posthumans poised to explore and colonize the universe.”

Per audacia ad astra.

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16 Comments to “Afterlife for Atheists”

  1. ML Says:

    Would you really want the responsibility of caring for a “thawed-out” caveman?
    I hear Ted Williams is on the “seeking a sponsor ’til the end of time” list. (Yes, he’s the head of the roster)
    Let’s just wait for the transporters, replicators, warp drives and sub-space travel tubes to help us locate some kind of intelligent life in the universe and maybe they can inform us where we went wrong.
    “Vanity, thy name is humanity”

  2. Ed Graham Says:

    “As I write this, the prize is currently valued at more than $106,000…”

    Or, they could get a million from Randi.

  3. Shobhan Says:

    Just a thought on uploading our brains. Uploading in the classical sense won’t work, in my opinion, because it will create a new copy of the existing mind. Then when we copy ourselves, the new copy becomes a different entity and we won’t be able to identify it as ourselves.
    To preserve ourself, I think, we’d need to come up with a quantum-mechanical method (similar to teleportation of q-bits) so that the information present in our mind is ‘moved’ to the computer.
    I get the idea of copying our minds to a machine. I can form a faint mental picture of the process taking place. But the idea of ‘moving’ our mind is a bit disorienting.
    Also, maybe a better way to preserving our consciousness (whatever exactly that is) is to let our minds grow into computers and then slowly reducing the role of our organic brain…?

  4. Michael Gione Says:

    It is wise to consider all the medical and scientific accomplishments that have taken place in just the last 25 years.Take for example the use of nanotechnology to detect disease on a molecular level . Thought to be impossible then not true now in 2016.
    I believe so goes or eventual mapping and copying of the human mind .
    We have suffered long enough as a species by backing away from true intellectual exploration . Naivete be dammed

  5. Dan Vignau Says:

    ML, Do you have a caveman frozen as described in the article? This research preserves organs for future use. Organs are simple. Brains are not. This is pure science fantasy, as such it will go down in history with worm holes and alchemy. The example of slicing the book is enough for me. Will we slice the brain? When they freeze a watermelon and thaw it its original form, to eat, I will reconsider.

  6. Ron Says:

    How close are we to having a container large enough to hold a human connectome? Based on the above estimate of 100 trillion connections how might this be implemented. Assuming each connection could be implemented by a pair of transistors that would be about 200,000,000,000,000 transistors. Electronic circuits process information much quicker than neurons. The highest firing rate for neurons is estimated to be 1,000Hz. Computer clock speeds are now about 4,000,000,000Hz. So we could use reasonably use fewer transistors doing multiple duty and get the same processing capability. So say its not a 1:1 ratio we have some overhead and instead of a 1,000,000:1 reduction we only get a 1,000:1 reduction. Now we are at 200,000,000,000 transistors required to replicate the connectome. The largest current device has 20,000,000,000 transistors. So only a factor of 10 increase would be required. Using Moore’s law of a doubling every 1.5 years gives an estimate of only 5 years before a system capable of replicating a human mind can be built. Amazingly close!

  7. Peter Says:

    I think mind preservation either on a biological substrate like in this article or on a cyber substrate will happen a couple of centuries. The concern is the caveman though: I think the gap between the advanced in human technology and the prevalent psycho-social development is increasing to the point it might cause a catastrophe; unless some revolution happens in the socio-economic realm

  8. Thomas W. Cline Says:

    Has everyone forgotten that it is not just all the synaptic connections that would have to be documented, then reconstructed, but also the precise chemistry at all of those trillions and trillions of connections? The strength of the synapse and the nature, level and distribution on the neuronal membrane surface of the neurotransmitter receptors not just at the synapse but elsewhere in the neuron are critical to brain functioning, as is probably as well the precise nature and location of the support cells that surround the neurons. And what about the epigenetic changes in the nuclei of the neurons that occur as a normal part of activity dependent brain development? They matter. You lose almost all of this information by fixing the material. Given what has already happened in my lifetime (a lifetime already greatly extended due to technology that wasn’t available when I was born), I’d never say never — but I certainly wouldn’t pay anyone to pickle my brain and keep it in the deep freeze (many of these efforts are just money-making scams that prey on gullible rich folks). Maybe in 100 years, but the goal is silly anyway. The important thing about life is change and renewal, and preserving existing brains runs counter to that. I think we are far more likely to learn how to modify the human genome to make live brains more effective, and that is a far more effective way to improve humanity and cope with change than to greatly extend the functional life of brains that have already had their run. Immortality is overrated, and those who are worthy of vastly extended lifetimes already have a kind of immortality in the memories of their accomplishments by all the other mortals. That kind of immortality is already unique to humans and I think it should suffice.

  9. Phillip Gold Says:

    1. How many of those now living are worth preserving?
    2. Immortality in any guise puts a crimp in the ability of normal evolutionary processes to adapt to changing conditions as the immortals eventually take up all the available resources and space. No young people, no fresh ideas, just a gaggle of old farts reminiscing about the good old days.
    3. Who would want to live forever, anyhow?

  10. Brian Iverson Says:

    Why was this article written? It provides but useful information or critique save “…but I have my doubts.” Really? Just a free ad for the agency doing this ‘service’. The reply from T.W. Cline provided much more depth. Hire Cline to do writing for you.

  11. Robert R Newport Says:

    Wow! I sure would want to live “forever” but that is not the goal.A verl long life with death optional would be nice. Cryonics or Suspended Animation would be interesting and perhaps useful. And I see from this discussion even that will always turn some people off. So be it, others are excited by the prospect and so our research, thinking, hypothesizing, speculating, hoping, will go on. And, humanity will continue to advance, with us, or without us, unless we stupidly kill ourselves off. I for one would like to see what it looks like in a hundred years, so I am one of those who paid to be vitrified. Dr. Bob Newport

  12. Philip Says:

    Why can we not just go extinct like other life forms?

  13. William Says:

    > Why can we not just go extinct like other life forms?

    We will, at least on the planet Earth. It is a certainty.

  14. Carson Says:

    We can’t go extinct like other species but we don’t want the light of consciousness extinguished. We don’t know for sure that sentient ETI exists. Who knows. We have a moral and ethical responsibility to last and expand throughout the cosmos. I’m fine if Homo Sapiens goes extinct as long as it’s from the process of turning into something better like posthumans or leaving artificial intelligence descendants. We are an ordinary but also special ape. I think the cosmos should always be able to observe itself.

    I do think the goal of our species should be true intellectual exploration (Michael Gione), end suffering and death, reprogram/engineer this body/mind made by natural selection to experience more levels of happiness, bliss, higher levels of mental and emotional lives. Transcend our biology. Replace these bodies and minds with synthetic ones. Expand throughout space. If no life out there spread intelligence and culture everywhere! If intelligence is out there, create relationships with them.

    Also myth the youth bring new ideas. Think of all the wisdom and intelligence and experience we lose by people dying. It’s horrible. Think if Marvin Minsky, Einstein, Jefferson, ect were still around to interact with the youth? Resources and space is not a problem. We could create new beings and stay around once with expand throughout space. It’s our cosmic imperative. Life gives life meaning. Existing is what matters. Eternity of nothingness is shit.

  15. El Dunco Says:

    Carson is simply incorrect.
    We can and we will become extinct in any and all forms. Morality and ethics are human concepts that mean nothing cosmologically. I’ll move over now and make way for the billions of people who will no longer die, and who thankfully won’t be Minsky or Jefferson.

  16. I.T. Event Support Says:

    If a job is worth doing it is worth doing well

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