, Volume 9, Issue 1, pp 15–22 | Cite as

Head Transplants, Personal Identity and Neuroethics

  • Assya PascalevEmail author
  • Mario Pascalev
  • James Giordano
Original Paper


The possibility of a human head transplant poses unprecedented philosophical and neuroethical questions. Principal among them are the personal identity of the resultant individual, her metaphysical and social status: Who will she be and how should the “new” person be treated - morally, legally and socially - given that she incorporates characteristics of two distinct, previously unrelated individuals, and possess both old and new physical, psychological, and social experiences that would not have been available without the transplant? We contend that this situation challenges linguistic conventions and conceptual binaries (“part-whole”), and calls into question the major philosophical approaches to personal identity: animalism and reductionism. We examine these views critically vis-a-vis head transplantation and conclude that they fail to provide an adequate account of the identity of the resultant individual because both neglect the key role of embodiment for personal identity. We maintain that embodiment is central to personal identity and a radical alteration of the body will also radically alter that person, making her a different person. Consequently, a human head transplant will result in an individual partly continuous with the head/brain (in terms of connected memories and mental events), and partly continuous with the body donor (in terms of the inputs and regulatory patterns afforded by the structure and functions of the nervous system, and the self-image of this new embodiment). We conclude that the resultant person would be different from both the individual whose head was transplanted and the one to whose body the “new” head is attached.


Transplantation Neuroethics Personal identity Neuroscience Philosophy Embodiment Derek Parfit Animalism Reductionism Metaphysics Donor Recipient Self Head transplant Whole body transplant Head-to-body transplant 


  1. 1.
    Thomson Helen. 2015. First human head transplant could happen in two years. New Scientist 225(3010): 10–11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Watt, Alex. 2015. Head transplants: No longer science fiction but a step closer to reality? European Medical Journal. Accessed 12 Dec 2015.
  3. 3.
    Whiteman, Honor. 2015. 30-year-old Russian man volunteers for world's first human head transplant. Medical News Today. Accessed 12 Dec 2015.
  4. 4.
    Canavero Sergio. 2013. HEAVEN: The head anastomosis venture project outline for the first human head transplantation with spinal linkage (GEMINI). Surgical Neurology International 4(1): 335–342.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    White R.J., L.R. Wolin, L.C. Massopust Jr., N. Taslitz, and J. Verdura. 1971. Primate cephalic transplantation: Neurogenic separation, vascular association. Transplant Proceedings (3): 602–604.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    White R.J.. 1999. Head transplants. Scientific American 10: 24–26.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Sergio Canavero, and Vincenzo Bonicalzi. 2011. Central pain syndrome, 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Rasche Dirk, Patricia C. Rinaldi, Ronald F. Young, and Volker M. Tronnier. 2013. Deep brain stimulation for treatment of various chronic pain syndromes. Neurosurgical Focus 21(6): 1–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 9.
    Wurzman Rachel, and James Giordano. 2014. Neuroscience fiction as eidola: On the neuroethical role and responsibilities in representation of neuroscience. American Journal of Bioethics – Neuroscience 5(3): 49.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Lakoff George, and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Lakoff George, and Mark Johnson. 2000. Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to western thought. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Pascalev Assya. 1996. Images of death and dying in the intensive care unit. Journal of Medical Humanities 17(4): 219–236.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 13.
    Steinbok, Bonnie. 2015. How to get a head in life. Accessed 12 Dec 2015.
  14. 14.
    Ho D.Y. 1995. Selfhood and identity in Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism: Contrasts with the west. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 25(2): 115–139.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 15.
    Lind Richard. 2006. The seat of consciousness in ancient literature. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Locke John. 1689 [1975]. An essay concerning human understanding. P. Nidditch. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Shoemaker Sydney. 1970. Persons and their pasts. American Philosophical Quarterly 7: 269–285.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Shoemaker Sydney. 1963. Self-knowledge and self-identity. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Parfit Derek. 1984. Reasons and persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    McMahan Jeff. 2002. The ethics of killing: Problems at the margins of life. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Steinbok Bonnie. 2011. Life Before Birth: The Moral and Legal Status of Embryos and Fetuses, 2nd edn. USA: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 22.
    Oslon Eric. 1997b. The human animal: Personal identity without psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    DeGrazia David. 2005. Human identity and bioethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 24.
    DeGrazia, David. 2011. The definition of death. In The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Fall 2011 edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta. Accessed 12 Dec 2015.
  25. 25.
    Parfit Derek. 2012. We are not human beings. Philosophy 87: 5–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 26.
    Puccetti Roland. 1969. Brain transplantation and personal identity. Analysis 29(3): 65–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 27.
    Steinhart Eric. 2001. Persons versus brains: Biological intelligence in human organisms. Biology and Philosophy 16: 3–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. 28.
    Giordano James. 2014. The human prospect(s) of neuroscience and neurotechnology: Domains of influence and the necessity – and questions – of neuroethics. Human Prospect 4(1): 1–18.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Giordano James. 2015. A preparatory neuroethical approach to assessing developments in neurotechnology. AMA Journal of Ethics 17(1): 56–61.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Lanzilao Elisabetta, John Shook, Roland Benedikter, and James Giordano. 2013. Advancing neuroscience on the 21st century world stage: The need for – and proposed structure of – an internationally relevant neuroethics. Ethics in Biology, Engineering and Medicine: An International Journal 4(3): 211–229.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. 31.
    Shook, John, and James Giordano. 2014. A principled, cosmopolitan neuroethics: Considerations for international relevance. Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine 9 (1).Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    Giordano James, and Roland Benedikter. 2012. An early – and necessary – flight of the owl of Minerva: neuroscience, neurotechnology, human socio-cultural boundaries, and the importance of neuroethics. Journal of Evolution and Technology 22(1): 14–25.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Assya Pascalev
    • 1
    Email author
  • Mario Pascalev
    • 2
  • James Giordano
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyHoward UniversityWashingtonUSA
  2. 2.Bulgarian Center for BioethicsSofiaBulgaria
  3. 3.Pellegrino Center for Clinical BioethicsGeorgetown UniversityWashingtonUSA

Personalised recommendations