“People like you and I, though mortal of course like everyone else, do not grow old no matter how long we live…[We] never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.”
One sign of the lack of faith in the future progress of technology and the poor acceptance of the neurological basis for mind is the way in which our society treats the “post-mortem” human brain.
In some cases, the brains of those whom modern medicine cannot help are removed after cardiopulmonary arrest and donated (by the permission of the patient or the family) for research. In such cases, the brains are preserved so they can be studied over a long period of time. They are also sectioned and prepared in other ways for examination. Such donated brains have helped scientists learn about the human brain, with an eye to improving methods for treating conditions such as Alzheimer’s or mental illness. However, other brains have been preserved mainly because they belonged to famous people.
One of the more famous cases is the brain of Albert Einstein, removed in 1955 and preserved apparently without his or his family’s permission, and then made available for study. According to an NPR report, Einstein’s brain was fixed, sectioned into over 200 blocks, embedded in celloidin, and then stored in formalin.
Since that time, Einstein’s brain has been further sectioned and divided among researchers. A 1985 study by Diamond et al. reported that the Einstein brain sections’ neurons were still observable, and the study’s authors even assumed the number of neurons preserved in Einstein’s brain would be the same as those in recent preserved brains.
Presumably, people have wanted to study the brains of famous people in order to learn something about what made those people special. Turning a person into a mere object of study is a questionable notion, though, and the idea that the study could yield any information about the person’s mind underscores how it is widely accepted by scientists that the brain instantiates the mind, and thus the person.
Neuroscience is still too much in its infancy to make much sense of the evidence of the brain, as the scientific reception to the Diamond study showed. We do not yet know how to “read” the brain for the specific memories and personality traits and other phenomena of mind stored in it. However, because we do know enough now to know that the mind arises from the brain, we must realize that to preserve the brain is to preserve the potential of mind, and to preserve the potential of mind is to preserve the possibility of life for the person whose brain it was.
The neural basis of personhood sits ill with older notions such as immaterial souls or spirits. The neural basis of personhood also fits poorly with existing medical and public policies such as commonly accepted definitions of death and laws related to end of life. If death is understood as irreversible damage to certain identity-critical areas of the brain, the irreversibility of such damage is put into question by every advance in the treatment of injury and disease of the brain, as well as by the brain’s mysterious ability to recover from conditions such as minimally conscious state after many years. The cardiopulmonary-arrest definition of death does not involve the condition of the brain, and the usual definitions of brain-death do not distinguish between identity-critical areas or aspects of the brain and other areas or aspects of the brain. A more rigorous definition of personal death has been developed by Ralph Merkle, who states:
“A person is dead according to the information-theoretic criterion if their memories, personality, hopes, dreams, etc. have been destroyed in the information-theoretic sense. That is, if the structures in the brain that encode memory and personality have been so disrupted that it is no longer possible in principle to restore them to an appropriate functional state then the person is dead. If the structures that encode memory and personality are sufficiently intact that inference of the memory and personality are feasible in principle, and therefore restoration to an appropriate functional state is likewise feasible in principle, then the person is not dead.”
Although there is still some lack of clarity about the “etc.” and “appropriate functional state”, this definition of death at least is founded on the neural basis of personhood. Those who believe in the future progress of technology and accept the neural basis of personhood are led inevitably to understand that preserving the brain is preserving the person, potentially for later resuscitation.
It is not impossible to imagine that, in a more advanced future time, the formalin-fixed, celloidin-embedded brain sections could be reassambled, and if the synaptic circuitry of the neurons were well preserved, any significant damage could be repaired. The brain might be able to be returned to a viable state by reversal of the fixation and removal of the celloidin embedding. Resuscitation of an isolated brain would be unacceptable, but eventually it might be possible to restore the rest of the body around the brain by cloning or regeneration of the cells or some other prosthetic embodiment.
As amazing as it may seem, a patient reduced to a preserved brain, whose mind would be in a stopped state, might be able to be healed, that is, totally restored to a healthy body and a mind which could resume the life it left off, with all the memories and personality intact.
The case of Albert Einstein’s brain is unfortunate. All the impudent cutting, handing around, and tampering with Einstein’s brains sections, and the crude preservation method, may have irreversibly damaged the neural basis of his personhood. Yet we do not know enough today about the brain to know how much of it needs to be preserved, and in what state, to be able to revive a person with future technology. The preservation of the brain, though, would provide a theoretical possibility of future resuscitation. It may not be possible to someday restore Albert Einstein from the remains of his brain, but if it were possible, those in possession of the brain sections would first have to be willing to consider whether their “specimens” might be the restorable fragments of a still potentially living person who deserves to live more than to be studied.