Brain Replacement Surgery — a short story

Posted on 2017 September 24


"brain replacement surgery" Brain-Computer.png

I would be glad to know . . . whether, when my brain has lost its original structure, and when some hundred years after the same materials are fabricated so curiously as to become an intelligent being, whether I say that being will be me . . . — Thomas Reid

Since you asked, the real reason why I finally went in and had my frontal lobes replaced was because people were laughing at me. My sales division did multi-level marketing and I was having trouble keeping track of my customers. The third time I screwed up and got chewed out in a meeting, I slunk back to my desk, only to hear someone behind me sneer, “Can’t remember his own downline!” I whirled, but everyone was looking intently at their work. Still, I could hear sniggering.

The reason you asked is because I’ve finally turned two hundred years old, and lately it’s become a tradition for bicentenarians to set down their life experiences. It’s as if you expect us to die soon! I mean, the actuarial tables (and I know something about them — I was in insurance decades ago) show that the average life expectancy should now be about three hundred. We’ve conquered aging and disease, and the only thing that can keep us from living forever is our cussed propensity to shoot each other (or ourselves), or fall down flights of stairs, or get drunk and launch the air car into a cliff instead of into the sky. Stuff like that. But I’m pretty careful, so don’t dig me a grave just yet.

I was already in my sixties when I received my first anti-aging drugs. It took me a good twenty years to return, physiologically, to age thirty. Of course, back then the science wasn’t that good, so it makes sense it took so long. But I got there, and I’ve been a nice, comfy, ancient person in a thirty-year-old’s body ever since.

The next big advance was telomere enhancement, which was drug-based, too. But it involved stem-cell and radiation treatments. You had to undergo these or you could lose all that carefully cultivated youthfulness. You see, the telomeres — those little molecular caps that act like shoelace tips and keep the DNA from unraveling — would grow shorter with every cell division, right on schedule, while the youth drugs masked other aging effects. Things would seem fine, then one organ system after another would fail almost overnight. Young-looking folks you used to play tennis with suddenly couldn’t even get around with walkers. I knew of people whose real age caught up with them in as little as two years. But they solved that problem just in time for me, and here I am.

Well, that’s not the only reason I’m still here. Live long enough and you’ll slice off a finger or a foot, or someone will shoot you through the pancreas. (She was aiming for my heart; I got lucky.) So sometimes you simply gotta replace things. Often they’d insert a mechanical organ until they’d grown enough tissue from samples given by the patient to create a new one. My first replacement pancreas worked that way. But these medical folks are awfully bright, and they’ve invented some marvelous prostheses that work as well or better than the original equipment. My foot, for instance: it’s this one here, the left one, and it’s great! I’ve kicked things with it that would have broken toes. Amazing stuff they made it out of. All the nerves are connected up so I can still feel things, but, like I said, it’s really hard to whack something hard enough with it to cause the pain receptors to fire.

I liked the results so much that, when I accidentally snipped off a finger during a gardening accident, I had them replace the entire hand! It works great, and by pressing the thumb and fingers together in a particular sequence I can increase their sensitivity. Why, I can tell you the year a coin was minted just by feel. (Remember coins?) Better still, if I drop something into a pot of boiling water, I can reach right in and pull it out. Just feels warm. A dog once bit me on my new hand and held on for dear life, tugging and worrying it. I could feel distinct pressures from each of his teeth, but no pain. I actually reached down and petted him until he cooled off and let go.

They never could get my liver working properly after all the years I’d misused it, drinking in bars on the road, taking stimulants I shouldn’t have. I got over that phase, but the damage was done. So they cloned some good cells from the cirrhotic old thing and grew me a replacement. It’s been working fine ever since. I don’t drink or smoke, so who knows? It might outlast my fake hand.

One of the odd things about staying young, decade after decade, is that your hair goes completely white anyway. I got tired of tinting my locks and signed up for an experimental treatment that managed to bring back my original hair color. Later, as the techniques advanced, I took a regimen that changed the color permanently to red. (I’d always wanted to be an Irishman.) But one year, working for a company based on the Moon, I bucked for a transfer to a lucrative new sales region on Mars, and another rep — who’d left his hair gray — pulled rank on me in a sales conference. He argued, “Sir, he’s only a hundred and forty, and I’m twenty years older. I’ve got much more experience.” He got the posting. I had them reset my hair to gray again.

As you know, it’s now possible to scan a brain and completely describe its architecture molecule by molecule. With that information, the techies can run computer simulations that mimic a person’s thought processes. Now, that’s scary enough: government agents can, in theory, sneak up behind you, scan your brain, and use the information they glean to indict you for any crimes your memory engrams reveal. For some reason, it’s never been fully tested in the courts, but I hear cops sometimes threaten to scan suspects if they don’t roll over on their buddies.

Still, this technology is also a boon: they can manufacture, say, replacement occipital lobes, run electric currents through them that simulate your own visual memory patterns, yank out the old lobes, and replace ‘em with the shiny new ones. A friend had that done: freak tumors damaged most of her visual centers, blinding her. When the replacement tissue was in — nerves hooked back up using micro-probe surgical bots — she could suddenly see again in blazing color! She told me, though, that everything looked a little off at first. At her next appointment they used a remote-programming device to reset her visual system. She’d say, “Make the red a little darker… darker… that’s perfect! Now, the blue has too much green,” and so on. She wanted all the colors turned up really high (she’s like that), and tried for it, but the doctor could tell she was guiding the procedure way out of bounds, so he nixed it. After all, if she somehow got blinded by all the colors while in traffic and had an accident, the hospital could get sued.

One of the reasons I’m so good at math is because I had a small logic chip implanted several years ago. It’s really ingenious and connects right into the area in my brain where I used to do arithmetic (badly, mind you). I can’t feel any difference, except that when I want to multiply, oh, 3,758,491.61 times some nice rate, like 9.25 percent for one year, the answer just comes to me like an inspiration: 4,106,152.08. (I’m rounding down, of course.)

But these developments are chicken feed compared to the real possibilities, now that humans can replace their entire brains. The old one is scanned, new tissue is grown in the lab and doped with your memory engrams, then they knock you out, yank the used gray matter and suture in the new. When you wake up, you have all the same memories stashed in a fresh, new bundle of nerves. But is it really you?

So people came to blows over the right to do the new brain surgeries. Think about it: the ethical and religious issues were as thorny as they get. People wake up with new brains and think they’re the same individuals. But maybe the doctors, in effect, simply killed them and replaced them with brand-new people who have identical memories! They’re imposters! Or are they?

I mean, where in the body does someone’s identity reside? Where, for that matter, is the seat of the soul? A lot of folks believe the soul — if there is such a thing — is sort of a cloud that floats, fog-like, within the head, or maybe the heart. If the brain gets replaced, does the soul follow it off to death or does it hitchhike a ride in the new one?

Let’s review recent history, for those of you under thirty-five. Religious armies took to arms to stop all neural-replacement procedures, while the seculars defended the right to replace at least parts of the brain. These battles were fought in the streets (imagine doctors and clerics with guns), but the courts had the final say. After troops surrounded and safeguarded the few research hospitals that hadn’t already been blown up, the International Assembly drew up compromise legislation, which the World Secretary signed. It forbid any operation that removed more than one-fourth the total mass of a given brain during any one procedure.

And it went further. Frontal-lobe jobs were restricted to one side at a time, since total replacement of the major thought centers came uncomfortably close to extracting what most of us think is the source of a person’s individuality.

National courts quickly ruled in favor of the new laws, and appeals were expedited to The Hague, which also gave the go-ahead. The new rules seemed to mollify the religious conservatives, who were worried we were tinkering with the human soul in ways best left to God.

Anyway, a couple years back, I had my frontal lobes replaced, one at a time. The idea was that my “self” transcends one lobe and would survive the operation intact. They performed the procedures six months apart, largely to see that everything was jelling properly, and partly to put a good distance between the procedures while they made sure I wasn’t suffering from some kind of split personality.

I feel the same as before, except now I can remember stuff that used to drop out — much to my chagrin — especially at work. Also I can think through problems much faster. In all, it’s a big improvement!

So here I am, finally two hundred years old, expecting to go another hundred or more. (God willing and the creek don’t rise!) I look good — at least, my girlfriend says so — I feel great, my mind works better than ever, I just got a promotion, and life couldn’t be rosier. I highly recommend age 200 to everyone.

Sometimes late at night, though, I’m awakened by the eerie thought that I’m not two centuries old at all, but merely two years old. Can I ever be sure the docs didn’t kill off the old me during those brain-repair procedures? I can remember all the way back to childhood, but is it my youth? Are these memories borrowed from somebody else, someone whose essence once lived in those old frontal lobes that got severed from their brain and incinerated two years back? The thought gives me a queasy feeling and a moment of vertigo.

Then I think, “Nah!” and roll over and go back to sleep.