Identity, Body-to-Head Transplants, and the Mind-Body Connection
by Mia Loucks
Update April 10, 2019: Since this article was posted, the man set to undergo the first body-to-head transplant backed out of the procedure after finding love and becoming a dad. Read the full article here.
The idea of transplanting a body to a head was for long regarded as the stuff of fiction, folly, or at very most, forays into scientific possibility. Italian neurosurgeon Dr Sergio Canavero is planning to perform the first body-to-head transplant on a human patient later this year in China. The emerging possibility of performing a human body-to-head transplant raises many philosophical concerns regarding a person’s identity. How is a person receiving a body-to-head transplant to be regarded by society? And who exactly is the “person” receiving the transplant? The person whose head receives a new body? If this were the case, as many might presume, are we not implying that the body plays some lesser role in establishing our identity, sense of self, and shaping who we are?
In their essay, “Head Transplants, Personal Identity, and Neuroethics” , Drs. Assya Pascalev, Mario Pascalev, working with senior author Dr James Giordano assert that opinions on the matter can be traced to two differing perspectives: animalism vs. proponents of psychological continuity. For animalists, long-term survival is dependent on an individual’s body rather than his or her emotional life. Thus, identity is intact as long as the body is. In contrast, psychological continuity theorists argue that a person’s thoughts, experiences, memories, and ideas ultimately comprise their identity.
For the Pascalevs' and Giordano, both animalists and psychological continuity theorists fail to acknowledge the role that embodiment plays in the formation of one’s identity . When we consider the role of embodiment, it becomes evident that both mental events and the body in which these are experienced constitute an individual’s identity. An alteration of the body will alter at least some aspect of the mind, thereby making both body and mind different as a consequence, and in this way altering the elemental components of the person.
The integrative functions of the brain can be seen as sustaining the mind/body unity proposed in certain monistic philosophies of mind, and many Eastern medical practices. Yuasa Yasuo’s book, “The Body: Towards an Eastern Mind-Body Theory,” presents the mind-body synthesis theory adopted by these traditions. According to Yasuo, many Japanese, Indian, and Chinese traditions propose that while perhaps separated conceptually, the mind and the body are ontologically indistinct . What’s more, the attainment of mind-body unity is viewed as a great achievement for these traditions. It is no surprise, then, that many of these traditions adopt physical practices that link mental focus, breath, and movement (meditation, Thai Chi, Chi Gong, yoga). Once the body is quiet, the mind becomes quiet, and vice versa.
Head Transplant: A True Store-- A short film
"The Brain That Wouldn't Die" (1962)
"Genetics Lab" Saturday Night Live
"If the mind and the body operate symbiotically, attainment of wellness must begin with the consistent nourishment of both one’s physical and emotional state."
From this perspective, the separation of a head from a body would entail not necessarily a breaking of two parts, but rather a breaking of a single, whole entity. As the Pascalevs' and Giordano similarly propose, the resulting individual would thus be an entirely new system with an entirely new identity.
The implications of this analysis are many. In addition to the insight they provide with regard to body-to-head transplants and identity, the points these authors raise are also important to practices of individual health, personal transformation, and wellness. If the mind and the body operate symbiotically, attainment of wellness must entail nourishment of one’s physical and emotional state. In order to heal one’s mind, one must heal the body. In order to heal the body, one must heal the mind.
About the author...
Mia Loucks is a first year student and research fellow for the Bioethics department at LMU. She is interested in Bioethics topics related to alternative medicine and comparative theology. Upon completing her Masters, she hopes to pursue doctoral studies in South Asian religious traditions and philosophy.
From this article:
Preview YUASA Yasuo's "The Body: Toward an Eastern Mind-Body Theory" here.
Read Dr. Roberto Dell'Oro's related paper "Embodiment as Saturated Phenomenon" here.
Read Paul Root Wolpe's article "A Human Head Transplant Would be Reckless and Ghastly. It's Time to Talk About It" on Vox here.