Who am I?

A few years ago, I read a book called Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan.  It is a science fiction book about a guy who is, in essence, a bad ass.  The book is quite violent, but has a very interesting concept.

The main idea in the book is that people have created a way to store memories on something like a USB stick that is surgically inserted into your brainstem.  So, from the time you are a baby until you die, your essence gets saved onto this stick.

Interestingly, you don’t really have access to these memories.  For example, you can’t simply recall a given date and time and re-watch things.  It is like it stores your essence, but not hard memories, or something like that.

What is the point, then? Well, you backup your memories, and download them to other bodies.  This allows two interesting things to occur: (1) immortality, since you can just get a new body every 20 years or so; and (2) travel to other solar systems at the speed of light (assuming that humans are already in that other system and have infrastructure in place to insert your memories into another body).

I am sure you all see some moral dilemmas here – namely the one where you have to have a bunch of spare bodies laying around for people to purchase and take over.  Let’s just say the word clone, and sweep half of the moral consequences aside for a bit (although this issue is probably an interesting one to go into also). The other way of getting bodies was much worse: people could rent their bodies out to other people.  If you were short on cash, you could basically pull your stick out of your body, and let someone else put their stick in. This allows the other person to take over your body for some amount of time for some reason.  Now that, my friends, is a minefield of moral dilemma.  Let’s set that aside, though.

When the main character was put into a new body, he took on some extremely mild characteristics of the person’s body that he was “inhabiting”.  One example was that the person was a smoker.  So, the main character kept wanting to smoke.  But, that was really the only characteristic that the guy took on.

This got me thinking about what it is that makes us who we are.  Are we simply the memories we have?  Or the neural connections in our brains?  If you were to take all of my neural connections and map them onto someone else’s brain, would that be me?

I don’t think so. Humans are 100-200 pound sacks of chemicals. Our moods are strongly controlled by things other than our brain.  Many of the issues that people have to deal with are related to chemistry, and are “cured” by chemistry.  There are a ton of movies about people who stop taking their medication because they don’t feel like themselves. Our chemistry is part of who we are.

I think that most of the time, when we think of hormones and other chemicals in our body (ok, water is a chemical, but let’s consider chemicals that are a bit more complex), we think bad things.  We think that our chemistry is off because our bodies are not behaving in the way that we would like.  For example, kids having too much energy, not being able to sleep at night, depression, and aggressiveness. These are all things that are at least partially caused by body chemistry.

With new drugs, we have the ability to at least partially control some of our body chemistry, while our ability to control our brain function is pretty crude (think electroshock and physically cutting our brains).  It seems like this allows us to think of people as a combination of two separate entities: their brain and their chemistry, where one is their real self (brain) and the other is like an added on feature that can distort who they are (chemistry).   Really, these two sides of ourselves are strongly linked.  Without the right chemical balance, we feel off.

One of the problems (benefits?) is that our chemistry changes. When we work out, we release chemicals into our body which make us feel euphoria.  Same as when we eat chocolate or something that we love.  These little changes in chemistry happen all of the time, and alter who we are constantly.  Additionally, we have longer term trends in body chemistry.  These can change our behavior over periods of days, weeks or years.  Everyone has cycles and long-term trends in their body chemistry.  For example, men tend to have less and less testosterone as they grow older.  This changes how we react to situations, including aggressiveness desire.  That really changes a person’s personality!

The question then, is who is the real person?  Is it the person who is euphoric or the person who is depressed?  The real answer is probably that we are a combination of hundreds of different personalities, each of which is in control of us at different points of the day/week/month/year/lifetime.  Some of those people we don’t like very much, and would like to change (through chemical alteration?) and some of those we like very much would like to have be in control more.  And sometimes, we have no real choice who is going to show up.

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About aaronridley

Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Climate and Space Science and Engineering.
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