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Self/less and transplanting (ID)entities

by Karen Rommelfanger

I recently sat on a panel discussion for an early screening of the movie Self/less. I’m quoted (mostly correctly) with my name (mostly) spelled correctly here.

In Self/less, an aging business tycoon with a terminal illess (played by Ben Kingsley) pays to “shed” his skin for a new, younger, fitter body (played by Ryan Reynolds). See trailer above.

The film, despite the futuristic theme, revisits mundane themes of the Faustian tradeoff or a deal with a devil, ultimately conveying the message that the costs, even for the rich, are too high when trying to cheat death. The title of the movie implies that for the greater good the selfless thing to do is to just die as nature intended.

While the film would surely be categorized as science fiction, there are entrepreneurs quite dedicated to making such a possibility a reality.

For example, the 2045 Initiative promises, for the starting price tag of $3 million, that your brain can be downloaded and that downloaded information can be used to animate or be “transplanted into” a personalized avatar or robotic copy of a human body remotely controlled by a brain computer interface or, if you fancy, a hologram (just press the immortality button on their site). Among its supporters, the website claims, is the Dalai Lama.


And, for the first time in human history, the neuroengineer Miguel Nicolelis recently connected two brains, rat brains, with one brain able to transfer electrical activity to another to facilitate learning a task. In this experiment, one rat learned through trial and error to press the correct lever for a reward. Electrical activity from one rat brain was sent to another through a wireless connection, allowing the other, untrained rat to choose the correct reward delivering lever without any training. This was followed up by studies connecting a human to a rat brain and then two human brains. Most recently, this month, Nicolelis connected more than two brains, either 3-4 rat brains or 3 monkey brains. In these experiments the animals were able to synchronize their brain activity to complete tasks. In the case of the monkeys, they operated an avatar.

Head transplants are also being touted as a near reality. While not as fancy as downloading electrical activity to an avatar or robot, such a transplant might allow an intact head to receive a new body. In this case one might ask who is receiving the transplant. Is the head receiving a body transplant or is the body receiving a head transplant?

All of these experiments and even the movie Self/less interrogate the question, where does the self originate and exist? And can we have a meaningful existence in any way that might be unfamiliar to ourselves? Is living forever a human right as some transhumanist groups might say? Or are we somehow designed by biology or some greater creator to have our bodies and maybe our minds along with or inside those bodies expire?

What we never learn in Self/less, perhaps because it would be too complex to address, is what *exactly* is transferred from Ben Kingsley to Ryan Reynolds’s body? It seems they simply transferred or transplanted an essence and the essence of Ryan Reynolds was held back through suppressive drugs designed by the entrepreneur-inventor Albright. Self/less leaves the viewers to their own devices to grapple with these issues.

Want to cite this post?

Rommelfanger, K. (2015). Self/less and transplanting (ID)entities. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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