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The Weird Neuroscience of Immortality --Uploading the Human Mind




Neuroscientist Kenneth Hayworth, 41, recently of Harvard and a veteran of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, believes that he can live forever, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports. "The human race is on a beeline to mind uploading: We will preserve a brain, slice it up, simulate it on a computer, and hook it up to a robot body." Hayworth wants his 100 billion neurons and more than 100 trillion synapses to be encased in a block of transparent, amber-colored resin—before he dies of natural causes. Why?  Because Hayworth believes that he can live forever.

"If your body stops functioning, it starts to eat itself," Hayworth says, "so you have to shut down the enzymes that destroy the tissue." If all goes according to plan, I'll be a perfect fossil." Then one day, not too long from now, his consciousness will be revived on a computer. By 2110, Hayworth predicts, mind uploading—the transfer of a biological brain to a silicon-based operating system—will be as common as laser eye surgery is today.

Haysworth is pioneering the field of connectomics --a new branch of neuroscience. A connectome is a complete map of a brain's neural circuitry. Some scientists "believe that human connectomes will one day explain consciousness, memory, emotion, even diseases like autism, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer's—the cures for which might be akin to repairing a wiring error. In 2010 the National Institutes of Health established the Human Connectome Project, a $40-million, multi-institution effort to study the field's medical potential."

Connectomics scholar Sebastian Seung, a professor of computational neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a prominent proponent of the grand theory, describes the connectome as the place where "nature meets nurture."* Hayworth looks at the growth of connectomics—especially advances in brain preservation, tissue imaging, and computer simulations of neural networks—and sees a cure for death. In a new paper in the International Journal of Machine Consciousness, he argues that mind uploading is an "enormous engineering challenge" but one that can be accomplished without "radically new science and technologies."

"There are those who say that death is just part of the human condition, so we should embrace it. 'I'm not one of those people," he adds.* Hayworth ansers critics his many doubters in academia saying that science is about overturning expectations: "If 100 years ago someone said that we'd have satellites in orbit and little boxes on our desks that can communicate across the world, they would have sounded very outlandish." One hundred years from now, he believes, our descendants will not understand how so many of us failed for so long to embrace the idea of immortality.

"We've had a lot of breakthroughs—genomics, space flight—but those are trivial in comparison to mind uploading. This will be earth-shattering because it will open up possibilities we've never dreamed of."* In 1986, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education, "researchers did manage to map the nervous system of a millimeter-long soil worm known as C. elegans. Though the creature has only 302 neurons and 7,000 synapses, the project took a dozen years. (The lead scientist, Sydney Brenner, who won a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002, is also at Janelia Farm.) C. elegans's remains the only connectome ever completed. According to one projection, if the same techniques were used to map just one cubic millimeter of human cortex, it could take a million person-years."

"In 2010, Jeff Lichtman, a professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard and a leading light in connectomics, and Narayanan Kasthuri, also of Harvard, published a small paper full of big numbers. Based on their estimates, a human connectome would generate one trillion gigabytes of raw data. By comparison, the entire Human Genome Project requires only a few gigabytes. A human connectome would be the most complicated map the world has ever seen." State of the art methods of preserving brain tissue top out at around one cubic millimeter—far, far short of an entire human brain.

"Mind uploading is part of the zeitgeist," says MIT's Sebastian Seung. "People have become believers in virtual worlds because of their experience with computers. That makes them more willing to consider far-out ideas."

Taking a stark contrary view, J. Anthony Movshon, of NYU, says that more than 25 years after the C. elegans connectome was completed, he says, we have only a dim understanding of the worm's nervous system. "We know it has sensory neurons that drive the muscles and tell the worm to move this way or that. And we've discovered that some chemicals cause one response and other chemicals cause the opposite response. Yet the same circuit carries both signals." He scoffs, "How can the connectome explain that?"

"Our brains are not the pattern of connections they contain, but the signals that pass along those connections," concludes Movshon.

The Daily Galaxy via http://chronicle.com/article/The-Strange-Neuroscience-of/132819/

Image credit: With thanks to Shutterstock.com


I've made no secret here that I'm a major skeptic when it comes to the idea of uploading our consciousnesses into computer systems.

I'm also very skeptical of Dr. Haysworth's assertion that "believe that human connectomes will one day explain consciousness, memory, emotion, [and] even diseases." I'm more of the opinion (which I'm willing to see proven wrong) that consciousness transcends the brain, and even the matter and energy of our universe.

But Dr. Haysworth's credibility takes a sharp downward turn when his sample "diseases" are "autism, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer's." Seriously? Putting autism in the same group as schizophrenia and Alzheimer's? Why not try to use your neuroscience as a "cure" for homosexuality and left-handedness while you're at it, Dr. Haysworth?

Hi Bob, can you elaborate on what you believe regarding conciousness transcending the universe? Do you think our conciousness may survive in some form after death?

Replicating the pattern of your neurons in a computer is not the same as living forever. Assuming it works, there would be a copy of your intelligence existing in a computer - it would probably think that it was you, and it would probably think just like you do, but it wouldn't be you. You would have died during the whole "slice up your brain" stage of the process.

How can you be sure? A simple thought experiment should suffice:

Imagine for a second that they eventually perfect this technology and develop a method to scan your connectome to "upload" your consciousness without physically destroying your brain (eliminating the painful "slice up your brain" stage in the process). You stick the high-tech helmet on your noggin, it scans your connectome, and then it recreates your connectome in the computer. Now there's an uploaded version of you in the computer and the original version of you wearing a silly helmet. So you take off the helmet.

Now, do you think your physical self (still alive) would share the perception and awareness of your digital self? Unless you're still connected to the computer, I don't see how you would. If a still-alive version of you doesn't share consciousness with the copy you've created, how can you say that it's actually you? You have not made yourself immortal. You've made a digital knock-off that thinks it's you.

The two of you get to chatting and you realize that the digital you is a bit of a dick. And it's going to live forever, while you will eventually get old, sicken and die. You go enroll in university to study molecular biology in the hope of finding a way of keeping your body and brain alive so you can outlive that smug bastardized electronic copy of you that thinks it's so smart because it can perform a hundred billion floating point calculations per second while you can't balance your chequing account.

Derrick: remember to backup often.

In my dictionary, you and a robot version of you are two totally different devices, running the totally same apps on two different operating systems. Besides, doesn't being immortal mean you are never going to go out of this life as a dead person?

Well if you beleive that consiousness, is bottom up evolution and not top down evolution. You might want to do what he's doing, but if you beleive the quantum scientific evidence points to an opposite view, then why would you stunt your growth or trap yourself by keeping this evolutionary design, when a much better one could be awaiting your consiousness to download into in the future ( see the Tibeten book of the dead). In my humble opinion, Consiousness is like collective computer information and the universe is the host server, the localization of consiousness is an illusion of the human machine. His idea to me, would be like preserving an old operating system and software from a computer, just to install it on a different machine later. How crappy is that. Id rather risk oblivion or getting new software and a new better operating system, and a new machine in the futer than keeping the same old junk. That would be my hell. I think nature knows what its doing.

Already done, except He didn't need computers to do it, and He only needed 3 days to do it.

@riz -

Consciousness surviving after death is one part of the idea of consciousness transcending matter. It also includes the concept of a great universal consciousness that existed before the universe, and brought it into being. (Yes, that means God, and while I do believe in the God of the Bible this part of it alone doesn't necessarily mean it has to be Him. There are several steps of logic from one to the other, and I don't think there'll be space to list it all here.)

One can imagine many possibilities if consciousness does indeed transcend matter. Several abilities that have generally been limited to science fiction become possible, at least potentially if not in actuality: telekinesis, clairvoyance, retrocognition, teleportation, polylocation, and more.

(Yes, that sounds flaky. Even I think so. But understand that this is the *maximum* effect; as I state above, I follow the God of the Bible, and there some of this is brought a bit more down-to-Earth. If you're not a believer in Him, don't worry about it; it'd be way too complicated to explain here.)

So we could completely map out a brain and replicate it in a computer... but we couldn't actually upload one's consciousness. As Derrick and Yella point out, that would be merely a copy, not the actual person. And without a transcendent consciousness, all those special abilities would be absent -- as would, perhaps, even some abilities we have now, and take for granted, but don't realize are a part of this.

Interesting... may I ask what makes you a believer in the god of the bible? I'd like to get more of your thoughts, I've sent you an email at your gmx address.

@Matt - go find another bridge to live under. Going biblical in a science site discussion is trolling.

I'm more inclined to think that consciousness trancends space, time and matter. It's more fundamental than space, time and matter in a sense. It permeates everything in existance and gives rise to reality or should I say our perception of reality.

For anyone interested in this topic I recommend this lecture by author Peter Russell, where he speaks of the relationship between science and consciousness. www.youtube.com/watch?v=-d4ugppcRUE

Over millions of years we have evolved. To invoke to be immortal. Not even the stars themselves could concise such a idea .. move on DR.

@Bob Greenwade & TugFooo,

The concept that we have a retained consciousness after physical death isn't too hard to imagine if we are correct in the assertion that the brain operates as a sort of "Quantum Machine" (http://www.quantumconsciousness.org/penrose-hameroff/quantumcomputation.html).

In this study (http://www.scribd.com/doc/23078820/Spin-Mediated-Consciousness-Theory-I) posits that electron spin is fundamental in the process of storing an experience, memory, sensation, etc. These spin-mediated "bits" which can later be reconstituted as electrical. or more precisely, neural actions.

Additionally, if we can accept a sort of "holographic" approach to storage, it becomes obvious that portions of the brain can indeed be destroyed and yet the brain appears to re-wire to circumvent the damaged neurons. Another clue is how the brain seems to have varied regions for activity for recalling a dream, as an example. (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/dream-catcher/201109/how-brain-activity-shapes-dream-recall); and perhaps more strongly (https://sites.google.com/site/gallantlabucb/publications/nishimoto-et-al-2011).

So where does all of this lead to? Good question!

If, indeed, these connections are holographic in nature and shaped by patterns stored in spin-mediated electrons, the electrons are essentially "immortal" and will exist into perpetuity, hence the memories, experiences, and sensations as well.

The stored consciousness could remain coherent, or certainly lend credence to a kind of "Collective Consciousness", and remain so providing the spin-state doesn't become modified. Even then, the holographic nature would preserve the information (albeit at lower resolution, or recall threshold).

teleporting yourself means kill yourself and reconstruct another you some other place. Upload yourself through this slicing method means same thing, kill yourself first and maybe they will simulate your neurons in a super-computer. But, there might be another way of uploading yourself without loosing consciousness and kill yourself, but i'm writing about it and cannot disclose yet :-p

@Singaporistu - There are means of teleportation other than destroy-and-reconstruct. Quantum tunneling is the cleanest, but one could also use a space-time wormhole.

rick, derrick and bob are all cool in my book.

How could you recreate your consciousness in a computer without your sensors? Smell, Touch Taste, Sound, Sight?

Whatever is stored in a computer may be a copy of yourself but it would be a vastly different experience in interpreting the world.

I wonder if we could just keep the part of the mind that makes us who we are, or what gives us consciousness and determines who we are. Then the rest of the mind we could upload it with any memory that we download or reconstruct. I'm wondering if nature had this on plan and made it so it's almost if not impossible to remake who we are in a individual way. As if we were meant to die for a reason. Or it's a direct consequence to the life that we live. I hope we figure it out in my life time cause I would LOVE to search the universe through my mind and learn about things we never thought possible.

This article and discussion are incomplete without mention of Dr. Rothblatt and the Terasem Movement with projects like Bina48, Cyberev and Lifenaut.

I think they were just giving examples and not generally grouping anything. Take a deep breath bro.

Interesting to see this discussion here.

As a transhumanist, I resonate with this article, although "weird" isn't the right word to describe these ideas.

Derrick: if you're interested in a couple of books on this topic, try "I am a Strange Loop", as well as "The Singularity is Near". In "Strange Loop", Douglas Hoffstadter goes through just the same reasoning as you do: if you make a virtual copy of yourself, that copy will think that it is "you", but you'll still be you. That's what you might call a branching of consciousness. That's why Hayworth would perform uploading destructively: his original brain is destroyed in the process of copying it. Sort of a cut-and-paste procedure instead of copy-and-paste.

In fact, the method which I plan to pursue is not to upload myself, but rather enhance my neurons, keeping the same pattern and therefore mind, but on a different substrate. So, instead of preserving and then scanning my brain, I would replace each neuron artificially and gradually, so that I never lose consciousness through the procedure. This is one method Singaporistu might be talking about. I would keep a record, or a backup, however.

Regis Patuto, You would have your senses. They would be virtual of course. We already have cameras and microphones, etc... If your mind is within a computer, then seeing is as simple as connecting a camera.

As to those who believe consciousness transcends the brain and matter, it's pretty simple. Without your eyes, you are not aware of light. Without your ears, you are not aware of sound. If a patient has certain parts of her brain removed, she loses memories and abilities corresponding to those sections of the brain.

Since we've already shown that the nervous system can be stimulated artificially, the logical extension is that we can, in fact, replicate the brain's systems artificially, and thus preserve our consciousness beyond our biological lifespans.

Of course, we cannot prove that there is no consciousness after death. But we don't have to leave our immortality up to fate or faith any longer. It's in our hands now.

@Bob Greenwade & TugFooo,

"the electrons are essentially immortal"

essentially? and because an item is "essentially immortal" it will thus remain the same forever?

define "essentially immortal"

big words an argument doesn't make.

I believe the four dimensional material world in which we live is only one possible manifestation of a many dimensional entity which we can only perceive of as a spiritual universe. Without some material manifestations to keep it busy, a spiritual universe, however powerful, might starve of boredom.

Our experience of consciousness is intimately linked to our material bodies, which include our brains, within which our minds reside. As we evolve from babies to old age, every year of our lives we are slightly different persons with slightly different personalities.

The consciousness and intelligence which we experience in this life is mainly dependent on a highly complex constant dynamic interaction between the neuronal structure which resembles an electronic circuit (and which in the brain slowly changes as old cells die and replaced by new ones) and a highly complex set of chemical neurotransmitters which are continually recycled.

If take an alcoholic and a heroin junkie who have been on a binge and put them in a cell without medical treatment you might kill them both because their brain chemicals first have to restabilize without the drugs.

From this we see that the brain is not directly comparable to electronic circuits. And then there is the interaction between the RNA and DNA within the neurons themselves, which is really the way memory is stored, so the junkie can become his old self again after rehab.

Some neurologists think that the workings within a neuron can be compared to that of a personal computer. Maybe on a quantum level one can get complex enough to simulate what the brain does. But how will you really feel and use your body without a body?

I think we will be able to build artificial intelligence machines capable of being a threat to us long before we will be able to simulate the workings of the brain completely. Even the brain of a cat is currently the most flexible and complex form of mind we know compared to the small size it is packed into.

I think Dr Hayworth’s quest is very enterprising, but seems like a guy jumping off a cliff with ostrich wings tied to his arms.

In the final analysis I agree with many of the comments posted which essentially says if there is a way of uploading us (not just our minds) in such a way that we can keep on experiencing life forever, then nature is already doing it. And keeping on living forever should be a dynamic process of constant spiritual evolution.

If somebody can explain to us how it is possible that the universe can exist, then they should also be able to explain to us how this process works.


First of all, J, I was replying to Bob Greenwade & TugFooo's discussion regarding the transcendence of consciousness over space and time, and how it might be preserved. Your response was clearly not addressed to them, so I will step up, as it was my post you were referring to and which you quoted.

The concept of any sub-atomic particle being immutable except by very large external forces (particle accelerator, etc) is a well know concept. As I stated in the next paragraph, "The stored consciousness could remain coherent, or certainly lend credence to a kind of "Collective Consciousness", and remain so providing the spin-state doesn't become modified."

So, yes, the information can be destroyed by altering the spin-state of the electron by strong magnetic fields, and yes, the electron itself could be reduced to some sort of "muon soup". Or, alternately, it could meet up with an anti-electron and become completely converted to energy.

At the point that we consider ALL possible interactions of matter and forces that could be exerted upon them, it calls to question why anything exists at all.

I'm curious that you chose to attack the messenger here with " the use of big words does not an argument make", perhaps I should use smaller words?

I gave you references for my point of perspective, so as to not be purely conjecture. The concepts proffered were not mine alone, and that said, you are certainly free to doubt the veracity of the post. But if you wish to attempt invalidate the poster by attacking the vocabulary is really not in the spirit of the discussions here.

Since this topic bores me and this is post #25

BAM! case closed!

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