Immortality and the Mind

As human beings the one thing that is universal among all of us is that we will eventually die. Try as we might, you can’t avoid it. Modern medicine, technology, and society have allowed us to extend our lifetimes to twice as long as our ancestors, sometimes even longer, but we still have to face that one outcome in the hopefully distant future. Not that the fact we all owe a death doesn’t stop people from trying to get out of it. Hell, in ways we’ve built entire cultures around the desire to find a loophole.

When you really think about it, religions are based on this idea that we can somehow be eternal. Sure, there may be explanations for the world that create mythologies with a pantheon of gods or a single almighty deity, but the actual crux of a religion is that there is some part of us that is eternal and everlasting. If you do the right thing in the right religion you’ll go on as an eternal soul, or be reincarnated into a new life, or break free of the bounds of human mortality. It’s undeniable that we’ve gone a long way to follow stories of immortality – even inventing gunpowder.

So it should be no surprise to anyone that speculative fiction is full of possible ways out of it. Immortal beings have been a staple of fantasy for as long as “fantasy” has even existed. Methods of achieving a higher state of existence have been fairly common in fantasy and sci-fi for almost as long. And with modern medicine slowly creeping its way to resolving the biological aspect of aging, sci-fi still has new avenues to explore on the subject. Aliens, demons, gods and other entities walk through these stories timeless and unaging, a pinnacle of the dream that so many of us have and presenting to some a hope that maybe we could do the same someday – possibly before it’s our turn.

But then the question becomes: would we want it if we had it?

The Price Of Eternity

Biological immortality is possible, it already exists in nature, and we’re still searching for ways to apply it to humanity. The process is still a long way from being completed but research has presented some promising results. With continued efforts they may one day be able to crack that process, allowing us to beat aging and, ostensibly, our own mortality. But within the realm of speculative fiction it’s existed for a very long time, and that meant I had a reason to look deeper into the matter some time ago.

Having a series of novels that takes fantasy tropes and applies them to a sci-fi setting meant that certain tropes required a little more scrutiny for me. Certain things like burning in sunlight and reacting to metals seemed to have easy solutions. But when coming to the idea of immortality I realized there were a lot of facets worth looking into that most people simply overlooked. I recalled hearing once about the difficulties that immortality would present to people even if you went beyond the emotional baggage of everyone around you dying. Ostensibly, in some versions of the immortality trope, that shouldn’t be a problem.

But it turned out that there were a lot of reasons why people in general would have difficulty coping with immortality beyond having to deal with the mortality of others. Though we often don’t realize it, given the impressive power of our brains, there are certain quirks in how our minds work that, while generally only inconvenient in the short term, would become almost impossible to ignore on the incredibly long term. Even within the century humans may live if we’re lucky, the effects of these can become noticeable. And the first, one that’s caused a great deal of debate over the years, is our…

Perception of Time

On the small scale, our perception of time is based in our brain’s chemistry, our engagement with the moment, and the natural rhythms of our body. We keep track of seconds as a natural aspect of how our brains work and we keep track of days by the cycles of our circadian rhythms and the movement of the sun. But between those two measurements a lot depends our levels of engagement determining just how fast or slow things really seem to be going. The old adages about watched pots never boiling and time flying by when you’re having fun reflect an observable fact that our perception of time is subjective. Though time itself doesn’t change any, our experience of it does because of how we’ve dedicated our mental resources. And, on the short term, that isn’t a big problem – it’s only a problem when we hit long term.

On the long term, how we measure time is based a lot in differentials. Momentous events become something that our brain can latch onto while the mundane tends to get swept away as forgettable. Over time these mundane events kind of add up as you find that one day isn’t much different from the next and that makes them feel less important. We start to experience these mundane moments as fractions of our life. When you’re young, one day is a much greater percentage of the time you’ve been alive than when you’re older, and thus it feels like a much longer period of time to you. You can observe this in your normal life when you realize that some events from a while back feel like they happened yesterday while the time in between just happens to breeze by. Look around the internet and you’ll find countless memes of “90 kids” going, “I just realized it hasn’t been the 90s for 17 years, it felt like a couple years ago”.

And, because of this, the issue at hand is that this phenomenon never really seems to stop. The older you get, the more inconsequential days become and the more your perception of time on the long term becomes skewed. The current debates within the community aren’t even about whether this phenomenon is genuine but instead about whether or not it would ever level off. In the opinion of some, it would of course level off eventually as the brain starts to adapt to its status quo, eventually bringing the effect under control. Others believe there’s no reason for it to stop and that time would eventually lose all meaning as each day became less significant as you approached becoming the first true “millennial”.

Even in leveling off, the effects would be profound on the individual. You would be somewhat detached from the events of the modern day as everything seems to happen so much faster and you find yourself having a hard time keeping up without a great deal of effort. Maybe you adapt, adjust, and learn new things as you go so you can continue to function within society. But none of that would change the fact that events from a century ago could feel like yesterday while events from last week didn’t really much register at all. How would you cope with that? No one knows, but no one thinks it would be pretty, and some believe that it would start to cause you to rely heavily on another quirk of the human mind…

Subjective Memory

Regardless of how you feel about your personal memory, another thing that we have to accept is that our memories aren’t actually as clear as we believe. In fact, the act of trying to remember something has been shown to actually change the memory itself, altering them under the influence of other aspects of the brain such as your emotions, your current context, and what condition you were in both when you created the memory and when you try to remember it. These effects build up over time as you try to remember it repeatedly, resulting in memories that have been dramatically altered. Even within a human lifetime, this may result in completely changed memories, perhaps even outright fabrications.

And the thing is, the longer you live and the more removed you are from your memories, the less context you have as other memories fade away. After a century, you may only remember a particularly ugly dispute with someone and little else about them, and that dispute can be so wildly different from what actually happened that it completely colors your opinions. Considering how much our memories determine who we are as people, being driven by fabricated memories of events that either never happened or happened in a completely different way would gradually change you as a person. Depending on how lucky a person is, these changes may be positive or negative, but they would present changes none-the-less. And the longer you live the more of these memories may become fabricated or altered. After a thousand years it would be impossible to know just how much of your personal history is true anymore.

There are solutions to this particular problem if you’re comfortable with cybernetics. A person could upload all of their memories to a super computer and be “immortal” on the hard drive. They could also get a memory backup implant of some sort installed into their brain to constantly make corrections. The storage needs for both of these would grow over time as you lived longer and continued to create new memories requiring backup. But then the questions would become whether you can trust those backups haven’t been tampered with. Worse, one would have to ask if the copy on the computer is really “you” or not.

But let’s say you can back up your memories, prevent the severe personality drift at play and avoid gas-lighting yourself down dark roads, there’s still the matter of…

Irreversible Brain Damage

Despite the fact our perception of what equates “brain damage” makes us think it’s rare, we actually experience minor versions of it constantly. Every bump to the head, hard jostle, or chemical you take in can cause a little damage. In small doses this doesn’t hurt you too much, just passing without notice as you recover entirely. But in large doses (and repetitions over time) it can contribute to problems later in life. In some noteworthy cases these damages can be so extreme that “later in life” is “approaching 40” like for athletes or people in dangerous occupations. For the rest of us, it can take until we’re elderly before it starts to really show it’s collective toll.  In most cases these sorts of repeated traumas can cause loss of motor function, loss of memory, or personality shifts.

And the thing is, because the brain doesn’t recover in the same way the rest of our body can, these changes can be permanent. There are people looking into whether lost functions can be restored through the likes of stem-cell therapy, so it’s possible to make the brain functional again, but to restore it back to what it was before is unlikely. The way our minds function – our personalities, our memories, and the way we think – is determined by the chemistry and structure that it has right now. Repairing the brain, while theoretically possible, would never be able to restore it back to the way it originally was. After millennia, who you are wouldn’t necessarily be who you were in more ways than one. We could theoretically make someone a functional person, but that person wouldn’t necessarily even remember being or even feel like you anymore – not because they lived a dangerous life but because they simply lived at all and had done so for longer than some civilizations have survived.

How you wish to think about this or write about it is entirely up to you, but the fact remains that immortality wouldn’t be a clean process. In my own stories, where the oldest members of the cast have powerful healing abilities, these effects are still present. I chose to have the time perception level out, but they still sometimes have trouble letting go of their pasts. They aren’t always able to be attached to the moment, some living in nostalgia, others floating above it all. Some of them don’t remember just why certain conflicts started, others can do nothing but remember that. And some who were once friends have long ago twisted into being enemies because the ravages of time have dramatically changed who they were. Though no one lingers on the topic in these stories, I always keep it in mind, because for as much as we would want to live forever…

Some of the things we do when we’re “young” ensure that many of us would only be shells of our former selves.

(I write novels, several characters are biologically immortal, they all deal with it in another fashion. You can also find me on twitter, where I first realized I should write about this.)