Immortality May Be in Reach, but You'll Have to Leave Your Body Behind

Mind mapping cropped for tease only.
Brain depicted as a digital image
We may be nearing the point where the human brain's wiring — its very consciousness — can be digitally mapped. Lightspring/Shutterstock

What price, immortality?

How about your body — and maybe your soul as well?

That’s the idea behind a startup company's latest foray. If you don’t mind leaving your physical bits at the door, Nectome promises to preserve your mind forevermore.

Where exactly your brain will spend eternity is a little murky — especially since we still haven’t figured out how to upload the human mind to the cloud. According to the MIT Technology Review, the company is developing a process that embalms the brain on a level so microscopically accurate that even its wiring — the neural connections within the brain, or connectome — is perfectly intact.

But to do that, the brain, which doesn’t survive the process, is turned into a kind of glass.

In that instant, thoughts and memories and whatever you’re excited about having for dinner tonight is wrapped up in a bundle. Expiration date: forever.

The assumption is that somewhere on the way to forever, humans will eventually figure out how to upload consciousness to the cloud. And when that happens, all these marinated minds could technically live on indefinitely — assuming those minds want to share their accumulated wisdom with the rest of humanity and don't mind living on a server in Silicon Valley in the meantime.

Sharing knowledge, sharing wisdom

Statue of Hamlet holding skull
Imagine all the lessons we could learn by keeping our ancestors around on a thumb drive. David Hughes/Shutterstock

"Right now, when a generation of people die, we lose all their collective wisdom," Nectome co-founder Robert McIntyre told BBC News.

"You can transmit knowledge to the next generation, but it’s harder to transmit wisdom, which is learned. Your children have to learn from the same mistakes."

The company certainly has the scientific pedigree to get some attention. Its founders are MIT grads specializing in artificial intelligence.

"Imagine a world where you can successfully map and pinpoint a specific memory within your brain," the company claims on its website. "Today’s leading neuroscience research suggests that it is possible by preserving your connectome."

Funding is also pouring in, with backing from tech investment groups like Y Combinator, as well as a $960,000 federal grant from the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.

Of course, immortality sells, but not everyone is buying. The announcement that Nectome is accepting brains — at $10,000 a pop — has drawn social media scoffing and serious skepticism from the scientific community.

"Burdening future generations with our brain banks is just comically arrogant. Aren’t we leaving them with enough problems?" McGill University neuroscientist Michael Hendricks told TechCrunch. "I hope future people are appalled that in the 21st century, the richest and most comfortable people in history spent their money and resources trying to live forever on the backs of their descendants. I mean, it’s a joke, right? They are cartoon bad guys."

Life after you disconnect your mind

Drawing of brain being plugged in
Although we still haven't figured out how to upload our brains to the internet, scientists say we're close to being able to freeze it. Alan Sheldon/Shutterstock

Ethics and social implications aside, one might also wonder what kind of forever a marinated mind can expect.

After all, we’re pretty attached to our bodies — especially the way we can use them to taste and smell and touch the real world. That’s why it’s hard to imagine anyone running to the nearest brain freeze-dry clinic in the prime of their physical and mental life.

More likely, we’ll keep patching up those bones and tucking in that sagging flesh until the last possible minute. By then, the brain will be a very old brain indeed— and those may not be the kind of brains we want slogging into infinity.

No matter how you feel about Western religious depictions of the afterlife — which is really the ultimate cloud storage — they got at least one thing right.

It should be a new and interesting experience.

Think floating on clouds of gilded gold. Or, at the very worst, burning in a lake of fire. Interesting, right?

Freezing your brain and uploading it to a digital server sounds a lot like purgatory — a place neither here nor there. Do you really want to spend eternity playing Hearts online or checking out the sales on Amazon or spamming your still-breathing relatives with invitations to play Candy Crush?

And who’s to say, even a century from now, scientists will have figured out how to stave off the ultimate virtual reaper: The Blue Screen of Death.

Blue screen of death
One way or another, death comes for us all. Wikipedia