A Head of His Time, with Sergio Canavero

Only a few years ago, the media had been abuzz with stories relating to the visceral aspirations of Italian neurosurgeon, Sergio Canavero. 

His controversial ambition captivated interests across a broad spectrum of disciplines, from science and philosophy to ethics and morality: to be the first surgeon to perform a successful head transplantation.

And his first prospective volunteer — Russian computer scientist Valery Spiridonov, who suffers from Werdnig-Hoffmann disease (a fatal genetic muscle-wasting disease)—had later backed out of the anticipated procedure, generating more headlines and controversy around Sergio and his ultimate goal. 

As the embers cooled down with respect to this particular story, and to what many consider to be an ethnically dubious first for the medical world, Sergio continued his work with fellow doctor Xiaoping Ren, who focuses primarily upon spinal-cord injury.

The pair have struck various milestones as they had to not only navigate the murky waters of bioethics but also work towards attempting a number of unprecedented medical procedures. Most recently, in 2019, they reported having had successfully reconnected damaged portions of spinal cords belonging to dogs and monkeys, effectively treating what would have previously been deemed an irreversible spinal cord injury. 

Canavero and Ren have been perceived differently from polar ends of the scale — some tout them as renegade surgeons on the frontier of what could be the most monumental milestone in medical history whilst others consider Canavero no more than a mad scientist, partnered with an equally mad sidekick performing ethically unsound operations and experiments. 

In the meantime, opinion will remain divided as it always has been, and Canavero will have to apparently work his way towards earning a consensus of approval amongst the global medical community — something many throughout history have had to do. 

Interestingly, it’s more than just his reputation on the line, as a successful completion of his goal would not only change the medical world forever, but offer him the potential for what he considers to be the best opportunity that humans currently have for immortality. 

Below is a brief Q&A I had with Professor Canavero.

Q: My first question relates to your prior book “Immortal II’ — in which you assert that the scientific revolution has stripped a lot of meaning from our existence and that it has undermined the notion that consciousness is immortal. I’d like to get your opinion on how your work as a functional surgeon has validated this assertion and how it has demonstrated the idea that consciousness is not localized in the physical structures of the brain.

A: IMMORTAL actually contains what, to me, are proof enough that consciousness is not generated by the brain. Of course the strongest indication comes from the chasm between what we interpret as excitable brain matter (neurons/glia) and our varied conscious experiences. And here my time as functional neurosurgeon (i.e. electrically stimulating the living brain) figures prominently in my quest. 

In particular I specialized in direct cortical stimulation. And when you elicit states of activation, you wonder how the heck is it possible that that smooth, rosy tissue can drive conscious states. However if you look at it as filtering consciousness and shaping it (personality, identity), then everything gets easier to follow. 

If consciousness — the Big C —  is the ultimate reality, and what we call matter a mere “condensation” or “clump” of Big C, then what I call the “homogeneity principle” (matter is a permutation of C) irons out all the wrinkles in our understanding the nature of “reality”. 

In the notes to IMMORTAL I, I mention Tegmark’s proposal to consider C another state of matter. I would go further.

The head and brain transplant initiative are of course part and parcel of my efforts toward demonstrating my points.

Q: What do you see as the next generation of your research?

A: My quest toward physical immortality exploits head and brain transplants on cloned bodies (as I described in my recent books: The Technology of Head Transplantation and The Technology of Brain Transplantation) but the one that is literally soaking up my time right now is the EBR protocol - [Extreme Brain Reanimation] - the possibility to literally “resurrect” a “dead” brain for several hours after death raises the possibility to probe the after-death in unimaginable ways. 

Plus helping many along the way.

Q: What bothers you most, on an existential or philosophical level, about the criticism you face?

A: Human mental laziness, narrowness of mind, and above all fear of the unknown. As a Yoga meditator myself, exploring new corners of our self can be frightening, yet rewarding and empowering. 

Many are scared by what I call the Pascal’s Curse (after my favorite philosopher Blaise Pascal) — the boredom that forever life comes attached to. Can a mind survive centuries of mostly ordinary experiences without somehow willing itself into dying, simply to escape the prospect of boredom? Pascal calls a king the luckiest man on earth because people around him bend over backwards trying to entertain him so that he can spend his life boredom-free. 

As a very advanced meditator, I can tell you that stilling the mind to explore new realms is extremely hard if you have not devoted time and effort to it. Under all other circumstances, mental clutter is proof of the need of the mind to escape the inherent stillness of NOT being engaged somehow with the world.

Q: The surgery that you’re on the cusp of achieving will serve to answer many integral questions that we’ve been asking for centuries — questions regarding mental continuity, memory storage, identity and the roots of consciousness. What is the one question you’re most interested in answering / what is the one question you’re most nervous to find an answer for?

Head transplants are feasible now but unfortunately I am not presently at liberty to go into further details. however I can tell you that in the end it works just like a face transplant psychology-wise. 

As I wrote in The Technology of Head Transplantation, though, not everyone would survive the impact of the new body, just like not everyone is ready for a new organ. I will add that receiving a new body DOES CHANGE your CURRENT identity. That’s because you go back doing stuff you did in your youth, the brain is rejuvenated, but in a sense it is more like déjà vu: and it can be elating. 

Anyway, your self endures. If you don’t mind my saying, it shares some similitudes with the effects of an LSD trip. Are you still yourself after the mind expansion effects of LSD, psilocybin or mescaline? Yes, but you see reality differently, your mood is boosted, and so on.

Ultimately, it occurred to me that Sergio’s interests aren’t unlike the many professors, researchers, doctors, futurists, or academics that I’ve interviewed — it’s simply an ambition to get more out of this seemingly fleeting existence, however possible, whether it’s through virtual reality or the uploading of consciousness; or whether it’s through something as visceral as a head transplant. 

I had one more question that I couldn’t resist asking him; one question that I feel may have ignited his ambition in the first place: is Sergio also anticipating that he, himself, would be able to undergo this procedure when the time presented itself?

Sergio gave one seemingly curt and expected answer: “Yes”.

To stay up to date with Professor Canavero's work, feel free to visit his Facebook page or peruse his research at ResearchGate

Thanks to Joyce McCown for the photo.