‘Self/Less’ Interview: Professor Charles Higgins on the Nature of Consciousness

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Earlier this year, Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie explored the idea of consciousness: what it means to be alive, and whether or not consciousness could be manufactured and transferred from body to body. This week, similar themes will be explored in Self/Less, which follows a terminally ill real estate mogul (Ben Kingsley) who undergoes a radical new procedure to implant his consciousness into the body of a much younger man (Ryan Reynolds). 

The idea isn’t exactly a new one – back in 2003 we saw Lindsay Lohan trade bodies with Jamie Lee Curtis in Freaky Friday, which was a remake of a film from the 1970s – but it seems to be something that gets explored with more and more frequency. So we decided to reach out to Dr. Charles M. Higgins, a Professor of Neuroscience and Electrical Engineering at the University of Arizona, to get his opinion on the film and its subject matter.

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The thought of transferring consciousness from one body to another is an idea that seems to captivate people, and we’ve seen this explored in films, television shows and books. Last year, the film Transcendence even explored the idea of transferring consciousness into a computer. Why do you this this is something that we’re fixated on?

Well, this film is sort of the ultimate fantasy: having your consciousness transferred into the body of Ryan Reynolds. Even at my age, I would love to be reborn as a 28-year-old hunk. Who wouldn’t, right? Having your consciousness read into a computer is better than just dying, and it may be better for people who know you, because at least they would still have access to you. But your internal sense of self – if you still had one – probably wouldn’t be the same.

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We don’t really know exactly what that means. We know we have an internal sense that we are conscious, and we think that computers don’t have that. My iPhone probably doesn’t have that – although I can’t prove it – and I can’t actually prove that I do. But transferring into a new body would potentially lead to immortality – and immortality in a real sense, not in the sense that Albert Einstein’s work is immortal, even though his body is dead. This is real immortality.

Do you remember what Steve Job looked like when he was younger and working at Apple? He had kind of chubby cheeks, he had more weight on him. But when he finally came back to Apple, he was gaunt. He was already sick, and he knew it. And I have to wonder how much of what he did in his last years was driven by the fact that he knew he was about to die. He didn’t have another 20 years, and he knew it – he got terminal diagnoses several times and he had lived on past those, but he wasn’t going to live forever.

So what if you could go on living forever? If Steve Jobs had known that he could just transfer into a new body, would he still have created the iPod, the iPad, the iPhone? Or was that driven by “I’ve only got a few years left to live, and I’ve gotta make Apple great before I die?” I believe that a lot of people who have achieved great things, did so because of their mortality.

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And that raises an interesting question, because this film is about a dying man who transfers his consciousness into a much younger body. Would having an old man’s consciousness in a younger man’s body create some kind of conflict? Are we conscious of the fact that we’re old, or do we merely feel old because of the physical strain on the body?

Well, until we have a better understanding of what the mind is and how it works, it would be difficult to answer that question. But there’s a distinction that psychologists make between the kind of intelligence that young people have, and the kind of intelligence that older people have. Older people have what they call “crystallized” intelligence, which basically means I have a lot of stored knowledge, I’m familiar with a lot of situations. So whenever I’m presented with something new, I can quickly match it to something I’ve seen before and come up with an answer.

When I was 20, I could be presented with a situation for the first time, and I could rapidly solve it, even though it may not have been familiar. That’s what they call “fluid” intelligence, and younger people tend to have that, while older people have crystallized intelligence. I can’t really learn new things anymore, but I’ve already seen just about every scenario that I’m likely to be faced with, so I know how to deal with it and it gives the impression that I’m very smart.

But when you transfer the mind of an older person who has come to rely on crystallized intelligence into the body of a younger person who still has the capabilities for more fluid intelligence, you might actually find another massive leap forward in learning. The brain does age, and the brain’s ability to form new memories gets worse as you get older. But if you put an older person’s mind with all that knowledge into a body with a brain that’s capable of rapid learning, my bet is that you would see another huge burst of learning, and after a few years it wouldn’t be the same person anymore.

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Those are interesting ramifications to consider. If every transfer of consciousness led to an increase in learning, it would seem that after a few generations we would be left with a race of super geniuses.

Well, I would like to think that. But there’s another possibility: if you knew that you could replace your body at any time, would you be motivated to improve yourself? Would you bother getting educated? Would you even bother exercising or keeping fit if you could just throw away the body? It might end up that people would become worse: useless to society, useless to themselves. I would rather think that they would become better, but I don’t know which would be the case.

Do you think that the ability to transfer consciousness is something that we’ll ever accomplish?

Absolutely, yes. As long as mankind has been around, we’ve been dreaming of immortality. It’s the goal of neuroscientists to understand how the brain works, and from the other side, psychologists are studying the mind, and we have our artificial intelligence researches trying to create an artificial version – sometimes using knowledge of the brain and mind, and sometimes not. We have neurosurgeons actively working on human brains, doing surgeries and implanting devices, and we’re learning tons from that. Do you think we’re going to stop until we understand it in detail? We’re not.

But it’s going to take a long time. Understanding the brain and the mind is the most complex thing that humans have ever tried to do. We can’t even really tell you exactly what the brain does yet – if you ask a hundred different neuroscientists, they’ll each give you a different list. Everybody will agree that it keeps the body alive, but intelligence, knowledge, creativity, your emotional state, your ability to think – how is all that brought together? We’re not going to stop until we understand it.

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Self/Less opens in theaters everywhere on July 10.

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