Some years ago, researchers reanimated parts of a pig brain. What questions does this still provoke?
A few years ago, a neuroscience team at Yale University performed some groundbreaking studies on pig brains, showing that after the animal is dead, if the brain is cooled immediately, not all the brain cells die. In fact, they are quite resilient and can be resuscitated if they are provided with the right environment—temperature and nutrients.
The researchers constructed an elaborate support system called BrainEx that simulates the conditions that existed in the brain when the pig was alive.
They have also done studies on human brain cells with similar results, but not on a whole human brain. The researchers are not claiming that they could bring an entire brain, pig or human, back into full operation. In fact, there are ethical issues that would prevent them from even trying to do that.
But it certainly raises interesting questions:
What if a human brain from a deceased person could be brought back to life? Would it still contain all of the memories, biases, opinions, and other personality quirks of the human individual it came from? If so, then the entity that religious believers call “soul” must still be there. But wait! When a person dies, the soul goes…er…somewhere…either to Heaven or Hell, or in the case of Catholics, the Purgatory waiting room, where it awaits its final dispensation.
But if the brain is brought back to life, does the soul get a reprieve? Does God snatch it back from Heaven or Hellfire, and re-insert it into the brain?
(And as a sidebar, please see some previous writing here about heaven and hell: “Heaven and Hell as a Hot Mess“, “Analysing the Basis for Heaven and Hell“, “What Is a Soul and What Does It Do?“, or you can grab Jonathan MS Pearce’s new book dealing with these issues, 30 Arguments against the Existence of “God”, Heaven, Hell, Satan, and Divine Design.)
I suspect that religious believers are horrified by this whole issue, and will soon be trying to shut down such studies. They will deplore the impertinence of humans who are threatening to intervene in what is clearly God’s business.
There is a lot more detail in the New York Times article “Scientists Are Giving Dead Brains New Life. What Could Go Wrong?” if you are interested.
A second Nature article follows up and makes some interesting conjectures about the Yale study.
- Could this lead to brain immortality? Probably not, for a number of reasons. Resurrected brain cells are still subject to the aging process. Furthermore, at this stage of the research, it is only possible to keep the cells alive for a brief period.
- Could a brain that is removed from the body regain consciousness? Again, this seems unlikely, but nobody really understands consciousness. It would be disconnected from all of its sensory inputs from the body, so it would be an environment that was totally different from a “normal” state of consciousness.
- Would a brain removed from the body still have human rights? Nobody knows. Medical ethicists are just starting to address such questions.
- How does this affect the possibility of human cryonics? Science fiction has long postulated the idea that when a person dies, the brain could be removed and frozen. At some later time, it could be “revived” and possibly even inserted into a new body, in effect creating immortality. For reasons stated above, this is wild speculation. Damage done to cells when they are frozen makes it highly unlikely, and the brain cells themselves have a finite age. But dreamers will dream…
The original study was done in 2017, and the follow-up article was published two years later. I can’t find any further developments in this research. I think it will be a long time, if ever, before any practical applications will appear. The brain is a massively complex organ and, so far, scientists have only scratched the surface in their studies. Ambrose Bierce understood this more than a hundred years ago in his (in)famous collection of quotes called “The Devil’s Dictionary”:
“MIND, n. A mysterious form of matter secreted by the brain. Its chief activity consists in the endeavour to ascertain its own nature, the futility of the attempt being due to the fact that it has nothing but itself to know itself with.”
In the same way that fertilized eggs frozen in IVF Petrie dishes show that ensoulment is a really problematic idea, so too does the notion of reanimating brains. Whether or not we will ever get to the point of reanimating an entire (human) brain is questionable. But what isn’t up for debate is the nonsensical notion of a soul and how it might interact with the brain while somehow not being emergent from it.
One might think that these ideas were thought up long before we understood biology, physics, and the universe around us.
Bert Bigelow graduated from the University of Michigan College of Engineering, then pursued a career in electronic systems and software design. He has always enjoyed writing, and since retirement, has produced short essays on many subjects. His main interests are in the areas of politics and religion, and the intersection of the two. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.