Rebecca Coulson is a freelance writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
Decapitation isn’t the best topic these days. Arguing about it with friends in St James’s Park, I’m surprised that Bernard Hogan-Howe’s grey-clad action men didn’t smash towards us in a speedboat through the swans. We were discussing what Dr Sergio Canavero wants to do to Valery Spiridonov: he’s planning to chop off his head with a specially-made knife… But it’s ok! Because he’ll cool the head, drain it of blood, flush it with saline, and then glue it to the newly-headless body of a priorly-consenting brain-dead man.
News of this plot – the first human head* transplant – has been trickling through since Canavero initially announced his intentions in 2013. His dream, explained in over 100 academic publications, stems, apparently, from a lonely-boyhood love of Marvel comics. Last week, his heady volunteer, Spiridonov, held a press conference announcing that detailed plans of the procedure would be revealed in September.
Here’s a recap. The wheelchair-bound Russian, Spiridonov, suffers from terminal disease, Werdnig-Hoffman. A computer scientist, he also used the press conference – in which he confirmed his desire to undergo the surgery – to promote ‘Clever Chair’, something he calls the ‘first-ever autopilot wheelchair system’. His Italian neuroscientist doctor, Canavero, has been working alongside Chinese colleagues, developing techniques to enable HEAVEN (or ‘head anastomosis venture’), the most significant of which is Gemini (which he proposes would allow Spiridonov’s spinal cord to be fused to that in the donor’s body). Canavero contends that the 36-hour operation – which will need an 150-strong team, including virtual reality technicians, and cost around £15 million – has a 90 per cent chance of success, with Spiridonov likely to walk within six months.
His breakthrough, Canavero claims, will come on the back of gradual advance. In the 1970s, one monkey’s head was sewn on to another’s body, albeit without spinal fusion (Canavero explains this nicely: ‘Dr White hewed [my italics] to the view that a severed spinal cord could not be reconnected, thus leaving the animal paralyzed.’). The monkey couldn’t even breathe unassisted, but survived a week. Recently, more complex experiments have been carried out on mice.
Canavero has a TED talk, yet cynicism about him abounds – ‘It’s 100 years off!’, ‘He’s demented!’, and, ‘This is a hoax based on a movie!’ are not uncommon. He concluded a recent paper with the passive-aggressive acknowledgement: “The author wishes to thank the thousands of scientists and patients from around the world who benefited him with their encouragement and suggestions.”
If the operation’s constituent parts were possible, it would be a leap to combine them. Would Spiridonov’s brain withstand cooling? Can Canavero truly connect spinal cords? Might the donor body reject Spiridonov’s head? Would he outlive the subsequent month-long coma into which he’d be induced, for recovery’s sake? Questions persist, without beginning to consider ethicists’ complaints, or the cost-benefit analysis that might prioritise stem-cell research — the untapped potential of which makes even Canavero deem his project a second-rate resort in the face of the ’failure of medicine’.
It was the word ‘Brownson’, however, that jumped into my head on reading about all this, which in turn made me think of my dad. It was one of those times when, selfishly, the thing I missed was answers. And maybe an opportunity to amuse his interest. He’d have been intrigued by lots that’s happened in the few years since he died. But this story would’ve fit the overlap between his liking for science fiction (of the sort that appeals to people who are seriously mad about science) and his professional expertise in the philosophy of mind.
That brings us to Brownson – a character in a famous thought experiment devised by philosopher Sydney Shoemaker. Shoemaker describes two men who have had temporary brain extractions to treat tumours. Mistakenly, their brains are returned to the wrong bodies. One of the men (Brown’s body with Robinson’s brain) dies; the other – dubbed ‘Brownson’ – survives. Questions ensue, starting with: is Brownson the same person as Brown, or Robinson?
And now Canavero wants to enact this! Sure, it’d be Spiridonov’s head, not just his brain, that’d be given a new body – but it’s Shoemaker’s thought experiment in action, no? So, let’s ask the Brownson question. Ok. But, doesn’t it seem – basically – silly to think that Spiridonov wouldn’t still be himself, simply because he had a different body? The newly created head-body chimera could hardly ‘be’ the resurrected donor, could it? Or another person all together? Sorted.
Or is it? Brownson resides in an area my dad worked on so hard – the mind-body problem. This is a classic philosophical quandary asking: Am I identical with my body? Is my mind the same as part of it, say, my brain? Do any of those things constitute my self? If my mind isn’t my brain, what is it? If it’s non-physical, how does it interact with the parts of me and the world that are physical? Could I exist without my body, or parts of it? What makes my body mine? How can I know? Could I have different bodies during my life, if, say, my cells regenerated, I had endless transplants, or sufficient of me was put into another body?
My brain’s hurting thinking about all this… On limited reflection, however, Canavero’s success – were it likely – wouldn’t have given Dad new answers. Not least because the point about some of these questions is that, if you’re arguing that there is something aside from the physical, it seems lacking to assume you could find answers about it in the way you can about physical things. That said, regarding Spiridonov – if he were to have the operation and survive – I’m convinced Dad would have thought that he would have remained the same person. In Why my body is not me, he writes:
‘Very plausibly, for instance, a great many of my thoughts could exist even if all that were left of my animal body, following some horrible accident, were my head, kept alive by a life-support machine. A living human head, whether or not attached to a life-support machine – and, indeed, whether or not attached to the rest of an entire human animal – cannot by any reasonable standard be said to be an entire human animal.’
He then argues that while he doesn’t think, therefore, that the self is identical with, or reducible to the body, the brain, or any part or system within it, selves do most likely depend on embodiment for existence. So – although the body doesn’t equate to the self, and the brain doesn’t equate to the mind – the head (or at least the brain in it) seems essential to one’s continued existence. Sure, I’m assuming the dead body-donor has no more claims on the resultant head-body than a machine. But this might, nevertheless – in the midst of all the other questions – offer some small comfort to Spiridonov. I hope.
*Yes, we should probably call it a ‘body transplant’, but it seems that term’s already been appropriated for attempts to rehouse the brain alone.