Backing up the Brain

Sorry, I’m not sure if this is a factual question or more philosophical.

The question is, if method of backing up your mental state (everything that makes you, you personality, memories etc, a perfect copy of your mind) was produced how would it operate?

I argued with people on this and they couldn’t seem to understand what I meant.

They felt that if you could make such a backup it was basically immortality, create backup then do whatever you want. No matter if you get killed, you have the backup right?

However I said that was incorrect, eg:

A snapshot of your mind is taken, this is the pattern, the pattern is saved in an inactive state. It can no longer change or vary. This is Pattern A.

You however move on and continue living, Pattern B is your current mindstate. A few days later you walk into the path of a stray nuke and are vapourised instantly. Pattern B is now gone, it no longer exists.

They take Pattern A, put it into a new body and restart it.

Are you suggesting that Pattern A is the same person that was killed? Pattern B?

Basically I said the you that is you in that scenario is killed, they suggest that just like going to sleep your simply recreated from the backup?!?

Who’s correct?


It seems as if this is a question for science fiction, not science. Try Justlin Lieber’s Beyond Rejection for one viewpoint on brain-taping. The brain-tape-backup-implanted-into-a-new-body thing where the original host was killed is the core of that story.

Philosophically speaking, you’re talking about a matter-transporter question as well; if you are destroyed and re-created elsewhere by machine, do you simply die and a clone takes over?



As Fish said, the science isn’t yet detailed enough to know for sure the true answer. But so far a few things are reasonably certain …

A mind is NOT simply software running on fixed hardware, where you can take a copy of the software and capture 100% of the dynamics for potential later reload into any other standardized human brain.

Your brain and mine are wired very differently. They grew inside different heads, exposed to different environments, both sensory and internal bichemical, and they derive from different genetic programs. They’re grossly similar, but vastly different in detail.

So your “tape” won’t play on my “player” and vice versa.

It’d be sorta like trying to take a block-by-block copy of a drive through New York City and replaying the turns & distances back on a car in LA. Pretty soon you’d drive through a building and the program would crash. You’d definitely not end up at the same desitination even if you perfectly duplicated the turns & straightaways.

So that pretty well kills the idea that person A’s backup tape could be inserted into Person B’s body, thereby effectively reincarnating A’s personality and making personality B disappear.

But it’s worse. Your own brain changes continuously. Yes, it’s pretty slow once you’re an adult, but it does change. So we might be able to make a backup tape of you on Monday and reinstall that tape into your brain on Friday. You’ll lose the interveneing week, but otherwise it’d work pretty good.

That might be useful if something really awful happend that week that you’d rather not have experienced. (witnessed ghastly crime, etc.)

But if we tried to install the same tape in you 6 months later it might not install real well. Your brain will have changed enough that the tape no longer runs right. You might have major memory loss, or personality problems or, well, who knows.

It’d be the human version of Windows “DLL hell”, where installing different programs overwrites chunks of Windows’ code with varying and incompatible versions of the same code files.

To accurately capture a backup, you’d literally need a star-trek transporter gizmo that captured the complete arrangement of the hardware & software: the cells and their connections and internal chemical states as well as the current pattern of electrical stimulation.

That’s a tall order.

[I’m not a brain researcher, but that’s an area I’ve followed as an interested layman since college, lo those many years ago.]

Sounds more philosophical to me. My book suggestion - Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon.

Imagine that for whatever perverse reason, Pattern A is inserted into a new body while you, and Pattern B, are still alive. Will Pattern A be the same person as Pattern B? Not in any way I can conceive… So why would it be otherwise if you, and Pattern B were dead?

There’s always the “interface” problem…namely, the human brain’s lack of one.

It’d be like trying to copy a videotape by peeking through the clear plastic on the top of the cassette.

We explored “brain cloning” in one of my favourite threads in GD, here.

The conclusion was that you are your memory. Every night I die, and every morning a clone takes over my brain based on the memories held in yesterday’s brain.

As an aside, I don’t believe the stored brain state could ever be retrieved by a third party, since it has effectively been “encrypted”. Think: could you work out which computer game was being played just by looking at the activity in the microchip? Only the holder of the “private key” (ie the information which each dendrite/neuronal connection represents) can release the information. To the third party, all we have is some offal. One might as well look for the memories stored in a pile of snowflakes.

Thanks for the help everyone. Just going to read the link now.

BTW I came to that conclusion by myself (the dying every night part) a couple of years ago, everyone looked at me as if I was insane when I explained my reasoning :smiley:

The context of the question was that we were indeed discussing a series of science fiction novels (The Culture by Iain Banks) and in that society general technology is so advanced that backups work and noone considers it unusual.

Everyone who was discussing the novels was saying how great it would be that you couldn’t be killed because you have the backups and I was the only one to disagree…

Iain M. Banks fan checking in also, Midwinter. And something as fantastically advanced as a Mind might also have the processing power to “unravel” the encrypted piece of meat before it.

Midwinter, as Fish said, this is a ‘using a teleporter’ question as well. in short, if your hypothetical is true, many people will overcome whatever reservations they have and make sure they have a ‘savegame’ everyday so they can go right ahead and do what they really want to do.

A very clever man named Kosko has written about this. He calls it Heaven in a Chip. The idea is our brain is backed up onto a chip which now has extra channels of communications to other chips.

Frankly, I think it’s nuts. Neurons are long, skinny things all wrapped around each other. Vewy very difficult.

But this is precisely what I was arguing against. The “savegame” isn’t you its a version of you yes, but the person who got themselves killed because they were holding onto a F1 car while skateboarding ( :smiley: ) is not any better off because they now have an identical twin with their memories from a few days ago running around.

They are still dead, their conciousness doesn’t leap to the other person, its gone.

In my opinion such backups would provide a false sense of assurance at best.

BTW SentientMeat, nice nick, good to see another Culture Vulture :smiley: (name for Banks fans from another site)

I haven’t bothered reading the other thread, but in my meager ponderings my thoughts have also played with the idea that when your mind enters unconsciousness, you are essentially dying. Only to be ‘reborn’ every awakening as a clone of your former self, but ultimately unaware that you are a copy to the nth degree.

After I thought about this further, I decided this was BS. What could it be about unconsciousness that would give it that kind of arbitrary power? I realize that when you enter sleep, it is essentially the feeling of nothingness. But this similarity of non-existence, doesn’t necessarily mean your memories are erased (assuming that the sum of your memories = you). And even if it did, why would the complete restoration of your memories mean you are a different person? There is no way to know what exactly is going on there. I believe such an idea is more a manifestation of a primal fear of death, more than an accurate model of your ‘person’, ‘being’, or state of consciousness/self-awareness.

On that note, I also believe that the matter-teleporter (ala The Fly) would essentially kill you, and recreate a clone on the other side, who is as far as they are concerned… the same person, and none-the-wiser.

Just because “your” conscious mind goes to sleep each night does not mean that “you” go to sleep each night. Your non-conscious mind continues to operate so you never actually “die” in order to be “reborn”.

It’s more like closing Internet Explorer while leaving Windows running. With a freaky interactive real-time screensaver.

What if one toyed with the idea of someone being clinically dead, but being revived?

I would think even if your brain state could be perfectly saved, the requirement for that implanted brain state to be ‘you’ is continuity of experience, i.e. no breaks.

The thing is, if we ‘die’ every night and are reborn when we wake, there is no way to know. Likewise, if I were killed today and my clone was regenerated and nano-bots rebuilt my brain exactly the way it was and then ‘woke’ me up, it would feel exactly the same as if I had simply lost my memory of the upcoming day.

This is why I don’t worry about dying. As far as I’m concerned, I’m immortal, because I can’t perceive any state other than being alive. The universe was around for billions of years without my having perceived any passage of time, and thus it will be after I’m gone. What happens when I’m dead is completely irrelevant to me.

But man, I’d sure like one of those brain transplanting gizmos.

I remember reading an speculative article years ago that went into great detail about these scenarios. The most intriguing one was a hypothetical situation in which your brain is peeled away layer by layer and replaced with hardware that duplicates each layer while you retain consciousness. Eventually, all your original brain matter is gone, and you live in a computer. If you never lost consciousness, the whole “Did I just die and get duplicated?” argument goes away.

But now that you’ve got a computer brain, you can come up with all sorts of interesting thought experiments. Like, what if you go to sleep, and while you are sleeping someone takes a snapshot of your digital brain and '‘wakes’ it up the moment you wake up. Which one is the ‘real’ you? You would both have identical memories.


that’s just it. despite it being so obvious to some how it’s genocide (copies vs originals[sup]1[/sup]), there’ll be an amazing amount of people who will embrace the new technology* and use it anyway, all in the name of convenience.

let’s look at teleporters.* sci-fi, fantasy, and from a poll i did sometime back; like it or not, many people will use teleporters simply because it will save them travelling time. this is despite the fact that the teleporters can be adjusted so that you don’t disassemble at the same time, such that you can watch yourself teleport out from pod B before you are killed/disassembled, which by the way, is arbitrarily enforced by a government keen on keeping populations down (and not to mention, sane). the same applies to your OP, except that it would be much easier to embrace; after all, you’re not required to kill yourself on your way to work.

the same technology* is used in your OP, with the teleporters and even the ‘brain transplant while you’re awake’ examples. maybe i’m too much of a neanderthal to embrace godhood, but when i see a physical copy of me standing right there talking to… me(!), i tend to think of that copy as a … copy; not me.

despite all this, i may have to use a teleporter anyway, because i probably will need to work, and the only viable means of transport to get there in time would be a teleporter. i may resist, but it’s hungry work to resist, and after the first step is taken it doesn’t matter any more.

  • since this is in GQ, it should be noted that this is a hypothetical exercise rooted in fantasy. the one big assumption is that we can make such perfect copies of ourselves.
    [sup]1[/sup] also assuming that perfect copies are still somehow different from the originals.

Here is one story I have written with copy/teleportation as a basis;

the idea is that once a (non-destructive) copy has been taken, the collected info (perhaps 10^14 bits) could be transmitted to nearby star systems and ‘engenerated’ at the destination as many times as required- cheaper than sending a starship.

If a faithful copy is made it doesn’t matter that the encryption of the brain’s operating system and memories cannot be broken.

On the other hand I think this encryption will be eventually broken; there will be vastly over powerful , independently intelligent computers available in a few hundred years time (or so I like to imagine); they will relish such a challenge.

It seems likely that most humans share a roughly similar operating system, the parameters of which can be guessed at by looking at the problems people have with brain damage in certain areas; Stephen Pinker has suggested several shared human behaviours and qualities, which are constant in healthy individuals of all cultures.

This suggests to me that the human mind has a basic underlying similarity, and even if each individual codes jer memories in an idiosyncratic way, this will be the sort of level of encryption we are talking about; it might even be possible in the future to train the human processor to encrypt its memories in a particular way for ease of reproduction.

A problem with that would be that everybody starts to think the same way- a totalitarian heaven…
ach- there are always problems.

Finally, to address the OP;
If you have a snapshot taken, then indulge in some dangerous activity resulting in death; you could be reconstituted from your snapshot, but you would have no memory of the intervening period;
it means you would have less opportunity to learn from your mistakes…
but people might become used to the idea of losing portions of their memory; after all, most people can’t remember what they had for breakfast a year ago, but this doesn’t cause great existential angst.
Perhaps it should.

SF worldbuilding at

And yet, if the recent strides in bio-engineering continues, isn’t it theoretically possible that in the not too distant future, we could take a sample of the brain tissue, then use that to re-create the entire brain, as it was at the moment of death?

Imagine one machine that take a “Brain Backup” and also stores the makeup of the brain itself… you get hit by a truck, they go into the system and push a few buttons…

A few days later, a brain that is identical in every conceivable way to the brain that created the brain tape is pulled from a vat of nutrient fluid and plugged into a new body…