New Scientist reported earlier this week on a surgeon’s claim to have conducted a successful head transplant on a monkey, and that he (the surgeon – not the monkey) has plans to attempt the same on humans towards end of next year. Putting aside the obvious and difficult questions of whether the claims are to be believed, and whether it is ethical to carry out such trials on animals or on humans, let’s look at some interesting questions that follow from the possibility of a successful head transplant in humans; for the day when the feat is achieved does not seem to be very far away.
The first question that comes to my mind is how easy it will be for people to accept a new body. We feel awkward even wearing somebody else’s clothes, so being in somebody else’s body could be a terribly disgusting experience, at least for some. If they figure it out only after the transplant, reverting that change might be too expensive, painful, or even impossible. It could also be the other way, that once people start identifying the new body as their own, they’d feel the same affection and attachment to it as they felt for their original body. For people who cannot continue in their original body, this fresh lease of life will likely offset any aesthetic consideration; and for those who can move out of a body that has only incessant pain to offer, the new body will likely be a welcome change.
If thus be the case, there would be many who are willing to get a better body, but who will want to part with a body that others covet? In Mahabharata, there is the story of King Puru who exchanged his youth for his father Yayati’s premature old age (resulting from a curse). Even if there are such sons willing to give their youthful bodies to their father, no father in his right mind would want to accept it. There is, however, a chance that the rich would seek to buy healthy bodies of the poor who might prefer a few years of prosperity to a long life of poverty.
There could be some rare cases of death by brain damage while the rest of the body is still healthy. Boxers losing their lives to head injuries might make the perfect choice for a body donor (yes, it is actually a body that gets transplanted to a head!) owing to their excellent physical attributes. But I wonder how well the new head will be able to use the reflexes, muscular control and other abilities of the boxer without undergoing some serious training.
Then comes the question of whether it would be ethically okay to use the body of an executed convict for this purpose. Will it lead to an increase in death sentences, influenced by the thought that it would serve the society a greater purpose than incarcerating them for a larger part of their lives at an expense to the public? But how comfortable will people be with the thought that their body has committed some heinous crime before it became theirs? Beyond mental acceptance, there is one other important question that this raises. If a calm, harmless person’s head is attached to the body of a criminal with some hormonal imbalance (say, an excess of adrenaline or testosterone), will that significantly alter the personality of the former? How much of role does a body have in a crime? Is the blame entirely on the head (and the brain within)?
Another relevant question is of identity – of the sense of being oneself. If on moving your head to another body you still feel like yourself, it shows that the part of you which makes you conscious of being you is in your head. To take it to the next level, we can even consider a brain transplant – a procedure which is technically more challenging than a head transplant. In this case, even the face of a person will change (because his brain is now in the skull of another) – and if his previous identity is still intact, it goes a long way in showing that the brain is responsible for our identity. At the next level, it should be possible to exchange parts of the brain between two individuals to further locate the sense of identity in our brain. Of course, it might lead to a state of mixed identity – but that would show that the whole of brain, collectively, gives us the feeling of who we are.
Finally, if a head can work with any other human body, it must mean that they are designed and made to a common specification. Will a human head also be able to work well with the body of an animal from a related species, such as that of a great ape? And if we reverse-engineer that specification, will we be able to make machines according to it, which can be fitted with a head and taken control of? While we may lose the many pleasures of this flesh and bone body, it can offer several “practical” advantages. In oppressive societies, the privileged ones might snatch the able bodies of others and give them a mechanical body in return that will be put to hard work in service of those in power! After all, there is no end to human greed and selfishness.
Well, forget a different species. Even among humans, if the head of a man is given a woman’s body, will the two work together without issues? It would tell us whether there are fundamental differences between how the brains of men and women work, and also give clues to how much of gender identity comes from the brain and how much from the body.
These are some thoughts that I am drawn to but do not yet have a full grasp of. While we wait for time and technological progress to throw more light on these, I look forward to any additional insight that you may be able to offer on this subject or any related question that you have and are willing to share. Feel free to use the comments section – after all, that is what it’s meant for!