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The Science of Self/Less

Focus Features
Focus Features

When business tycoon Damien Hale (played by Ben Kingsley) faces death from cancer in Self/Less, in theaters today, he doesn’t go gently into that good night. Instead, he undergoes a radical underground medical procedure called “shedding” that allows him to transfer his mind into another, younger, healthier, lab-grown body (Ryan Reynolds’s body, to be exact) and start a whole new life with a new identity.

For now, this is science fiction—but, says Charles Higgins, a neuroscientist at the University of Arizona, it could one day happen. “We cannot yet conceive of a machine that could scan the brain to the extent required to do what is in the movie,” he tells mental_floss. “But 100 years ago we could not conceive that in our pockets we would carry what are, essentially, supercomputers and communicators that we can talk to anyone on the planet with.”

Studying the brain is Higgins's business. “I’m interested in the interface between the mind and the brain and quantifying things that are normally unquantifiable, like depression, mood, consciousness, and self,” he says. Among the things he and his team are working on in his lab: grabbing electrical signals from insect brains to build high-tech robots with excellent vision; figuring out how cognition works by creating a simulated, computerized rat that wanders around a digital maze; and gathering data on human sleep with a device he built. So though he didn’t consult on Self/Less during production—the studio brought him on afterward—he’s an excellent source to talk to about the film’s science.

According to Higgins, there are huge hurdles to jump before we transfer consciousness from one body to another. For one, there’s a lot we don’t understand about how the brain—and consciousness in particular—work. “If you ask 100 different experts to list what the brain does, you’ll get 100 different answers,” Higgins says. “The brain definitely regulates your life support. Sometimes we use the word cognition—is that what the brain does? It’s a memory system as well. You could go on and on.”

Once we understand the brain in the same way we understand the heart or a computer, Higgins says, “we’ll be able to see how brains are related and understand what the important details we need to get out of the brain are.”

Another challenge: Computers have software, but the brain isn’t quite so simple. “The software and the hardware are all [together],” Higgins says. “So what details of the brain structure do I need to read out?”

Some people, he says, think we need to go down to a quantum level. Others think it might be unnecessary to go subatomic to scan consciousness: “You could go just to the level of of neurons and other connections,” Higgins says. “But we don’t really know.”

Even if we did know where consciousness was found, we don’t have the technology to transfer it. In Self/Less, the company Phoenix Biogenic uses what looks like a souped-up fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to access and transfer consciousness from one body to another. Higgins says this is “the right idea, although at this point fMRI technology does not allow us to get down to sub-neuron resolution.”

And then there are the thorny ethical issues. When Hale discovers that he hasn’t been given a lab-grown body after all, but the body of a man who once had a life of his own, he’s disgusted and outraged and not entirely sure what to do.

“Scanning somebody’s brain and putting it into another body—you have to wonder, did you destroy someone’s self to do that?” Higgins says. “Let’s say you cloned me and grew me until I was 20 years of age, and then you transferred [my consciousness] into my new, younger body. Was the 20-year-old clone a person of its own? Did it have a self, a soul, an inherent value of its own? Did I kill someone?”

Uploading a consciousness to a computer will likely come first, “because the ethical issues are almost nonexistent,” he continues. “Scanning something into a computer isn’t going to hurt anybody.”

Of course, whether you’re talking about computerized consciousness or body hopping, it’s all hypothetical for the moment. But if and when we do get there, there’s more could do more than merely swap older bodies for younger models. Higgins foresees a future where we can talk to computer copies of the greatest scientists who ever lived, or instantly upload to our brains an education that would otherwise take 10 years to complete.

“If you could actually do this, what impact would it have on society?” he asks. “What if everybody understood world history? Could American citizens be better informed—make better decisions, work together, support our congress and our president rather than having a bunch of different uninformed opinions? What if everyone was an expert engineer and knew how to work their newfangled TV sets? Life would be different. Would it be more pleasant? Maybe you’d spend less time being frustrated by politics and electronics and anything else you’d want to learn about. Or maybe it would create an even worse have and have not situation. It’s a very difficult thing to say.”

We may be very, very far from the future as imagined by Self/Less, but that doesn’t mean we’ll stop looking for it. Humans have been searching for immortality for as long as we’ve been around. “We’ve all felt that when somebody died that something was lost, either just to us or to the world,” Higgins says. “That’s been around as long as humankind, and I don’t see that going away. That will drive technological development for however long it takes until this is possible.”

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Steve Martin
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images

Is there anything Steve Martin can't do? In addition to being one of the world's most beloved comedians and actors, he's also a writer, a musician, a magician, and an art enthusiast. And he's about to put a number of these talents on display with Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life, a new comedy special that just arrived on Netflix. To commemorate the occasion, here are 10 things you might not have known about Steve Martin.

1. HE WAS A CHEERLEADER.

As a yellleader (as he refers to it in a yearbook signature) at his high school in Garden Grove, California, Martin tried to make up his own cheers, but “Die, you gravy-sucking pigs,” he later told Newsweek, did not go over so well.

2. HIS FIRST JOB WAS AT DISNEYLAND.

Martin’s first-ever job was at Disneyland, which was located just two miles away from his house. He started out selling guidebooks, keeping $.02 for every book he sold. He graduated to the Magic Shop on Main Street, where he got his first taste of the gags that would later make his career. He also learned the rope tricks you see in ¡Three Amigos! from a rope wrangler over in Frontierland.

3. HE OWES HIS WRITING JOB WITH THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS TO AN EX-GIRLFRIEND.

Thanks to a girlfriend who got a job dancing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Martin landed a gig writing for the show. He had absolutely no experience as a writer at the time. He shared an office with Bob Einstein—better known to some as Super Dave Osborne or Marty Funkhauser—and won an Emmy for writing in 1969.

4. HE WAS A CONTESTANT ON THE DATING GAME.

While he was writing for the Smothers Brothers, but before he was famous in his own right, Martin was on an episode of The Dating Game. (Spoiler alert: He wins. But did you have any doubt?)

5. MANY PEOPLE THOUGHT HE WAS A SERIES REGULAR ON SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Martin hosted and did guest spots on Saturday Night Live so often in the 1970s and '80s that many people thought he was a series regular. He wasn't. 

6. HIS FATHER WROTE A REVIEW OF HIS FIRST SNL APPEARANCE.

After his first appearance on SNL, Martin’s father, the president of the Newport Beach Association of Realtors, wrote a review of his son’s performance in the company newsletter. “His performance did nothing to further his career,” the elder Martin wrote. He also once told a newspaper, “I think Saturday Night Live is the most horrible thing on television.”

7. HE POPULARIZED THE AIR QUOTE.

If you find yourself making air quotes with your fingers more than you’d really like, you have Martin to thank. He popularized the gesture during his guest spots on SNL and stand-up performances.

8. HE QUIT STAND-UP COMEDY IN THE EARLY 1980S.

Martin gave up stand-up comedy in 1981. “I still had a few obligations left but I knew that I could not continue,” he told NPR in 2009. “But I guess I could have continued if I had nothing to go to, but I did have something to go to, which was movies. And you know, the act had become so known that in order to go back, I would have had to create an entirely new show, and I wasn't up to it, especially when the opportunity for movies and writing movies came around.”

9. HE'S A MAJOR ART COLLECTOR.

As an avid art collector, Martin owns works by Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, and Edward Hopper. He sold a Hopper for $26.9 million in 2006. Unfortunately, being rich and famous doesn’t mean Martin is immune to scams: In 2004, he spent about $850,000 on a piece believed to be by German-Dutch modernist painter Heinrich Campendonk. When Martin tried to sell the piece, “Landschaft mit Pferden” (or "Landscape With Horses") 15 months later, he was informed that it was a forgery. Though the painting still sold, it was at a huge loss.

10. HE'S AN ACCOMPLISHED BLUEGRASS PERFORMER.

Many people already know this, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that he’s an extremely accomplished bluegrass performer. With the help of high school friend John McEuen, who later became a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Martin taught himself to play the banjo when he was 17. He's been picking away ever since. If you see him on stage these days, he’s likely strumming a banjo with his band, the Steep Canyon Rangers. As seen above, they make delightful videos.

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Star Wars Premiered 41 Years Ago … and the Reviews Weren’t Always Kind
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

A long time ago (41 years, to be exact) in a galaxy just like this one, George Lucas was about to make cinematic history—whether he knew it or not. On May 25, 1977, moviegoers got their first glimpse of Star Wars, Lucas’s long-simmering space opera that would help define the concept of the Hollywood “blockbuster.” While we're still talking about the film today, and its many sequels and spinoffs (hello, Solo), not every film critic would have guessed just how ingrained into the pop culture fabric Star Wars would become. While it charmed plenty of critics, some of the movie’s original reviews were less than glowing. Here are a few of our favorites (the good, the bad, and the Wookiee):

"Star Wars is a fairy tale, a fantasy, a legend, finding its roots in some of our most popular fictions. The golden robot, lion-faced space pilot, and insecure little computer on wheels must have been suggested by the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. The journey from one end of the galaxy to another is out of countless thousands of space operas. The hardware is from Flash Gordon out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the chivalry is from Robin Hood, the heroes are from Westerns and the villains are a cross between Nazis and sorcerers. Star Wars taps the pulp fantasies buried in our memories, and because it's done so brilliantly, it reactivates old thrills, fears, and exhilarations we thought we'd abandoned when we read our last copy of Amazing Stories."

—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Star Wars is not a great movie in that it describes the human condition. It simply is a fun picture that will appeal to those who enjoy Buck Rogers-style adventures. What places it a sizable cut about the routine is its spectacular visual effects, the best since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001Star Wars is a battle between good and evil. The bad guys (led by Peter Cushing and an assistant who looks like a black vinyl-coated frog) control the universe with their dreaded Death Star."

—Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

Star Wars is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes. This is the writer-director George Lucas’s own film, subject to no business interference, yet it’s a film that’s totally uninterested in anything that doesn’t connect with the mass audience. There’s no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the double sunset. It’s enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. An hour into it, children say that they’re ready to see it again; that’s because it’s an assemblage of spare parts—it has no emotional grip. “Star Wars” may be the only movie in which the first time around the surprises are reassuring…. It’s an epic without a dream. But it’s probably the absence of wonder that accounts for the film’s special, huge success. The excitement of those who call it the film of the year goes way past nostalgia to the feeling that now is the time to return to childhood."

—Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

"The only way that Star Wars could have been interesting was through its visual imagination and special effects. Both are unexceptional ... I kept looking for an 'edge,' to peer around the corny, solemn comic-book strophes; he was facing them frontally and full. This picture was made for those (particularly males) who carry a portable shrine within them of their adolescence, a chalice of a Self that was Better Then, before the world's affairs or—in any complex way—sex intruded."

—Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic

“There’s something depressing about seeing all these impressive cinematic gifts and all this extraordinary technological skills lavished on such puerile materials. Perhaps more important is what this seems to accomplish: the canonization of comic book culture which in turn becomes the triumph of the standardized, the simplistic, mass-produced commercial artifacts of our time. It’s the triumph of camp—that sentiment which takes delight in the awful simply because it’s awful. We enjoyed such stuff as children, but one would think there would come a time when we might put away childish things.”

—Joy Gould Boyum, The Wall Street Journal

Star Wars … is the most elaborate, most expensive, most beautiful movie serial ever made. It’s both an apotheosis of Flash Gordon serials and a witty critique that makes associations with a variety of literature that is nothing if not eclectic: Quo Vadis?, Buck Rogers, Ivanhoe, Superman, The Wizard of Oz, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table … The way definitely not to approach Star Wars, though, is to expect a film of cosmic implications or to footnote it with so many references that one anticipates it as if it were a literary duty. It’s fun and funny.”

—Vincent Canby, The New York Times

"Viewed dispassionately—and of course that’s desperately difficult at this point in time—Star Wars is not an improvement on Mr Lucas’ previous work, except in box-office terms. It isn’t the best film of the year, it isn’t the best science fiction ever to be translated to the screen, it isn’t a number of other things either that sweating critics have tried to turn it into when faced with finding some plausible explanation for its huge and slightly sinister success considering a contracting market. But it is, on the other hand, enormous and exhilarating fun for those who are prepared to settle down in their seats and let it all wash over them.”

—Derek Malcolm, The Guardian

“Strip Star Wars of its often striking images and its high-falutin scientific jargon, and you get a story, characters, and dialogue of overwhelming banality, without even a ‘future’ cast to them. Human beings, anthropoids, or robots, you could probably find them all, more or less like that, in downtown Los Angeles today. Certainly the mentality and values of the movie can be duplicated in third-rate non-science fiction of any place or period. O dull new world!”

—John Simon, New York Magazine

"Star Wars is somewhat grounded by a malfunctioning script and hopelessly infantile dialogue, but from a technical standpoint, it is an absolutely breathtaking achievement. The special effects experts who put Lucas' far-out fantasies on film—everything from a gigantic galactic war machine to a stunningly spectacular World War II imitation dogfight—are Oscar-worthy wizards of the first order. And, for his own part, Lucas displays an incredibly fertile imagination—an almost Fellini-like fascination with bizarre creatures.”

—Kathleen Carroll, New York Daily News

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