Dreams and depictions of immortality can be found throughout human history. From Judeo-Christian ideas of Heaven and Hell to Hindu concepts of reincarnation, almost all religions and cultures have some iteration of eternal life found within their beliefs, folklore, or art. Let’s face it: who among us hasn’t at least once entertained the notion of living forever? While it could be claimed that our mortality is what makes our lives precious and all that other feel-good nonsense, who really wants to die?
Not me. Luckily, some recent out-there scientific advancements are bringing the dream of immortality closer to becoming a reality. Earlier this year, a group of scientists claimed to have successfully reversed the cellular aging of a human guinea pig by twenty years. If their research is confirmed as fact, then noted transhumanist Ray Kurzweil’s claims of soon being able to extend the human lifespan indefinitely might not be as far-fetched as they first sound. If these claims already make you uncomfortable, then by all means, click the “back” button on your browser, because this next one’s a real doozy.
Neuroscientists at Canada’s Laurentian University recently published a paper in PLOS One claiming to have brought dead human brains back to “life.” In a manner of speaking, that is. According to their quite technical article, researchers were able to electrically stimulate certain sections of dead brains back to a lifelike state:
Patterns similar to the living condition were elicited by chemical and electrical probes within coronal and sagittal sections of human temporal lobe structures that had been maintained in ethanol-formalin-acetic acid. […] These results suggest that portions of the post-mortem human brain may retain latent capacities to respond with potential life-like and virtual properties.
The authors also noted that injecting the brains with ketamine and nicotine likewise restored similar levels of lifelike cognitive activity. Yeah, that’s pretty weird. But it gets weirder – much weirder. The researchers found that with the addition of glutamate, one of the twenty amino acids that make up human proteins, brains preserved in the common biological preservative ethanol-formalin-acetic acid (EFA) began emitting photons:
By simply applying glutamate at concentrations typically encountered within living brain tissue, photons were emitted from human tissue that had been fixed in EFA for decades. […] This flux density is the same order of magnitude that was measured from the right hemispheres (at the level of the temporal lobe) when people sitting in very dark rooms engaged in vivid imagination about white light.
In other words, researchers found that just by giving the dead brains an amino acid that living brains receive, those “dead” brains emitted the same amount of photons – light – as would the brains of living people sitting in a dark room imagining a white light.
In their discussion, the authors present some really out-there theories about the nature of consciousness, reality, and the universe:
The physical bases to “consciousness” and cognition with the implication of a more ubiquitous property that may occur throughout the universe would be consistent with the philosophy […] that the behaviour of any part of the universe (“cosmos”) is determined by all of its parts.
Whew. I’m gonna need a nap after this one. While it’s still impossible to determine just what level of consciousness could be restored in these dead brains, the researchers definitively state that the dead brains “express some capacity for cognitive activation.” The potential implications and applications of this research boggle the mind.
This study could finally lend credence to the dreams of a techno-afterlife presaged by transhumanists, or even confirm some longer-held theories of the spirit passed down by the world’s religions. The implications of this research – that photons might hold the key to consciousness and our connection with the universe – go far beyond neuroscience and unite many metaphysical, spiritual, and quantum theories. It’s a great time to be alive – or immortal – even if you are just a brain in a jar.