Winter Health & Fitness by Tracy Griffen
Notes on Transhumanism
The brain and the body: separate entities or inexorably interwoven?
That is my question to you today.
As a Personal Trainer, my job is to focus on human movement in order for clients to be fit and healthy. In 2019 I got stuck into writing my second book (due out late this year), describing human movement in a wide range of contexts. I have been focussing on what type of movement is best for overall health and wellbeing.
It is interesting that the brain and body are sometimes viewed as separate entities, brain and brawn, heavenwards and earthly, mind and matter. In philosophy this is called dualism – either one or the other.
You don’t need to be a neuroscientist to know that there are both central and peripheral nervous systems in the body. Your central nervous system is your brain and spine, and the peripheral is, as the name suggests, the further away bits – limbs, fingers, toes, nose. Nerves feedback information to the brain and back again, for instance, if you burn your finger in a flame, your brain registers it pretty quickly (handy, that). Scientists have even discovered ‘brain’ cells in your gut.
Whether exercising, moving, or simply ‘being’ in the world, you experience the present through your interaction with your immediate environment. The fact that humans can pick up, hold and shape objects means we probably have a different understanding of the world to animals with no opposable thumbs. If you think about all the sayings we have, “on the one hand, gut instinct, cold feet” you see that our bodies shape our thinking. In addition, certain emotions are associated with body feelings, for instance “butterflies in my tummy” when nervous.
As a break from bodywork, I took a contrasting book to read on holiday: ‘To Be A Machine’ by journalist Mark O’Connell is snappily subtitled ‘Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death’. It blew my mind.
There is a growing population (mainly men, in Silicon Valley) who believe brains can be cryogenically frozen and reanimated using AI (Artificial Intelligence). They go so far as to claim the body is merely a redundant hunk of meat, and that the real value of a human is located in the brain. Transhumanism is a step beyond futurism, where transhumanists believe that the human body can be augmented with technology, to improve and become ‘beyond human’.
This got me thinking, if in the future brains (hopefully in a big glass jar like in sci-fi movies) are wired up to robots, how will we feel things? What would happen to that segment of our brain? Would it die? Become redundant? Would the robot feel on our behalf?
And then (because my mind works in funny ways) I started to wonder if in 2050, a brain in a jar would be able to feel any empathy. For surely to feel empathy, one must be able to imagine the pain another being is in. To imagine that, surely one would have had to felt pain at some point?
And after pondering that for a while, and the idea of a lack of empathy in modern western politics in general, my mind was drawn back to the job at hand (pun intended). The body. In the future, does it mean it won’t matter what shape your body is in, as it will soon become redundant, to be replaced by a robot controlled by your brain in a jar?
No! This cannot be so. We are a product of an ‘extended mind’, in that we perceive the world through how we interact with it: sensation through finger touch, taste, smell, changing temperature on the body, so many ways of the body interacting with the world.
Until we have the technology to mothball our bodies and upload our neural matter to a computer, we need to take good care of our brain container/soul homes. To exercise the body outdoors, for instance a bracing walk on Portobello beach, you will have a more sensory enriched experience than chilling on the sofa with Netflix. You brain perceives the world through your bodily actions... and inactions.
When you start thinking about all the ways your own body interacts with your environment, the more you realise your body is your brain. It explains why many cases of depression can be helped with simple movement of the body (exercise). Of course, convincing the brain to move a sluggish body can be half of the battle. It’s mind over matter, as they say.
Pondering this makes for interesting after-dinner conversation that can veer in any direction. Or even better, when walking up a hill, put your thoughts on a postcard.