Your mother had about 400,000 follicles, or potential eggs, that yielded about 480 eggs in her lifetime. Your father produced more than 500 billion sperm cells in his life. One egg out of that 480 hooked up with one sperm cell out of those hundreds of billions, and before too long you woke up and became aware of yourself and the world around you. That is darn amazing.
If you have a sibling, you could wonder why your consciousness didn’t awake inside your sibling, or some other sibling’s consciousness wake up inside your body leaving you out of the picture. After all, it is one of your mother’s eggs and one of your father’s sperm. Why, out of the billions of living humans and the trillions of all humans that ever lived, didn’t your consciousness appear in some other being, in some other place and time? After all, your mother’s eggs and your father’s sperm are the genetic constructs of their mother and father, and so on into the past. How is it that you are you?
Was your consciousness, you, in the egg or the sperm? If you are a construct of the two, what would have resulted with that egg but a different sperm cell? Would a part of you still exist, like a half-experienced alter-life, residual memories, or could you be you only because of the combination of that specific egg and that specific sperm? Moreover, if it were that specific egg and sperm, it had to happen only at that specific moment in time, no other copulation would have resulted in you.
Beyond that, the physical person that you are today is not the physical being that you were just ten years ago. Cells replicate, and then die. Every single part of you will have been replaced, cell by cell, ten years from now. Not even your brain, the part of you that we tend to think contains consciousness, will be the same brain ten years hence. Every single cell in it, every single synapse, will have been replaced. Memories are a training and retraining process, older cells and synapses teaching newer ones. The interesting feeling of nostalgia may be an artifact of an entirely new group of synapses following an old map they never actually experienced.
So what makes you be you? If you are a futurist or trans-humanist, you may look forward to a day when the human brain can be downloaded into a hardware device, making your consciousness effectively permanent. But there is a problem. Is your consciousness in your brain? Most of us would say it is. Many researchers might say something like, ‘partly.’ Researchers are learning that our entire body may give rise to our consciousness.
We have known for some time that our gut, our throat, stomach, intestines and colon, contain nerves called the ‘enteric nervous system.’ The system sends, receives, and records experiences, and responds to emotions. The nerves in the enteric nervous system are bathed by the same neurotransmitters found in the brain.
Your stomach can affect your brain, and your brain can upset your stomach. The nerves in the enteric nervous system are now thought of as an individual network, containing neurons and neurotransmitters like those in the brain, creating a complex circuitry that can act on its own, learn, and remember. The terms “gut instinct” and “gut feeling” have more real meaning then they once did. And considering that the colon is involved, ‘smart ass’ might not be all that bad a thing.
This gut brain is believed to play a major role in happiness and sadness. It is currently believed that some gastrointestinal disorders come from problems with the gut brain. Whole new fields of medicine are evolving. Neurogastroenterology, a new field of medicine partly founded by Dr. Michael Gershon, looks at problems with the enteric nervous system to understand certain illnesses. Food companies are looking at the gut brain to find ‘the bliss point’ to keep you addicted to their brand. The gut brain contains more neurons than the spinal cord. It uses transmitters like serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, and others common to the brain itself.
So where is your consciousness? Is it in your brain and its memories, or your gut brain and its memories, or are you a construct of the two? If you could download your memories, or digitize every subatomic particle of you, would that actually transport your consciousness? Moreover, how could we know?
Imagine a super, supercomputer, capable of doing more calculations that the human brain and enteric nervous system combined. Or imagine the good old transporter of “Star Trek.” Imagine a program that allowed for every memory and synapse connection in both the brain and gut brain to be replicated right down to the subatomic positions – ideally a perfect replica of you, perhaps even made out of your own mass. If I looked that replicate in the eye and asked, ‘Are you in there,’ it would have to answer ‘yes.’ It’s own consciousness would exist. It would remember being you. But there would be no way to prove that it was indeed the same consciousness that was you before the transfer.
Consciousness may be the last answered question. I wonder if we will ever be able to determine what makes you, you.