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Leaving the Body Behind: A History

Are we finally on the threshold of incorporeality?
April 18, 2015, 9:20pm
​Camille Flammarion engraving depicting the universe. Image: Heikenwaelder Hugo/Jurii

​Over the past week, Motherboard has tackled the question of whether or not the human body is becoming obsolete from a variety of angles, from immortality to killer robots. The very fact that we are able to realistically pose this question is itself a meaningful sign of the times, indicating that we may finally be on the threshold of abandoning the natural human body.

As I wrote earlier this week, the pursuit of a better body has been going on for at least 40,000 years, and has manifested itself in everything from zoomorphic religious sculptures to the incredible capabilities of modern prosthetics.


Still, even this long and storied history pales in comparison to the quest to abandon our meatbag bodies completely. In fact, achieving total incorporeality is arguably the most persistent preoccupation of our species, whether it takes the form of belief in a spirit-based afterlife, an out-of-body experience, or in the brave new world of the 21st century, uploading our brains into a digital format.


It's impossible to pin down exactly where this obsession with immateriality originated or why it is such a powerful cross-cultural force. But speculatively speaking, the smart money is that it has something to do with the epic bummer that is mortality.

Death binds us all—well, except the immortal jellyfish—and no matter how much we accept its inevitability, it remains a thoroughly alien concept. How can a being be a bundle of thoughts, experiences, and personality at one moment, and an insensate corpse at another? It's no wonder that early humans had trouble accepting the finality of death, and found comfort in the idea that immaterial souls or spirits of loved ones somehow lived on.

Indeed, humans aren't even the only species that seem hung up on this basic concept. There's plenty of evidence that Neanderthals conducted funeral rituals for their kin, so perhaps they also believed in an incorporeal afterlife, or a spiritual plane. Given that many other extant animals appear to mourn their dead, this idea may extend even beyond hominid species.


At any rate, the human fixation on ditching the body likely extends at least 300,000 years back, and has manifested itself in all kinds of creative rituals and myths. A cursory glance at comparative mythology provides countless examples of incorporeal planes of existence that house spirits after death.


The ancient Egyptians called it Auru, the ancient Greeks called it the Elysian Fields, the Abrahamic religions call it heaven, and the Norse called it Valhalla, but the basic idea is the same—your physical body may die but a non-physical part of you lives on eternally.

Reincarnation and resurrection are the rare examples of afterlife concepts that emphasize a return to some kind of physical body, but for the most part, humans seem intrinsically attracted to the idea of entirely discarding the material world, post-death.

For millennia, this popular belief has largely been an exercise in wish fulfillment, but it is now beginning to come to fruition in reality. For example, an MIT-based company called is carving out a niche designing digital avatars of real people, for the purpose of interacting with loved ones after a person's death.

To that point, it's already common for gamers to continue playing with the avatars and ghosts of dead loved ones as a way to come to terms with the loss. If the technology of mind-uploading eventually matures, it will provide an even more literal version of this all-consuming quest to create the ethereal afterlife we've promised ourselves. After all, it doesn't get much more incorporeal than existing only as code.


But of course, death doesn't necessarily have to be part of the equation when it comes to bodily transcendence. Many other religious traditions suggest that the body can be temporarily vacated, and then re-inhabited again, all without any premature shuffling of mortal coils.

Perhaps the most compelling of these practices is astral projection—the ability to travel outside the body in a spiritual form, and to recall all the events and experiences of these journeys upon reunion with the material world. It's a sweepingly pancultural idea, and it has acted as a creative way of imaginatively exploring the universe before the advent of rockets and telescopes.


Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, for example, believed that their prophets could travel to the spirit world and back, while the indigenous Wai-wai people of the Amazon posit the existence of "soul flights" that usher shamans to distant celestial bodies. In Japanese legend, having a very strong grudge against a person can result in short bouts of astral projection. These angry apparitions are called Ikiryō, and they are firmly distinguished from the spirits of genuinely dead people, which are called Shiryō.

Several other examples of astral projection exist across regions and cultures, from the Buddhist achievement of nirvana, to the Victorian obsession with mesmerism and seances, to the out-of-body experiences reported by countless people around the world. These mental voyages have been induced by a variety of catalysts like psychotropic drugs, chanting, hypnotism, oxygen deprivation, and near-death experiences, among many other situations.


Once again, it seems as if technology may be closing in on making astral projection an unequivocal part of the transhumanist tool set. The dizzyingly rapid maturation of virtual reality, for example, may lead to a kind of digital version of the astral plane. In addition, the development of increasingly powerful hallucinogens continues to empower the millennia-old tradition of using drugs to achieve feelings of bodily transcendence. They aren't called "trips" for nothing.

These efforts represent the first preliminary attempts to make good on the primordial human dream of leaving our bodies behind. What's more exciting—and more troubling—is considering what kinds of technologies will follow them.

Predictions regarding mind uploading. Image: DOC Tv/YouTube

Will humans really be able to live on as digital entities someday? If so, what will the experience of incorporeality—which has been romanticized for thousands of years—actually be like? Will we be able to temporarily astral project into imaginary virtual worlds, and return to our meatbag bodies afterwards? Will we even want to return?

With all of these compelling questions in mind, it's no wonder that the transhumanist movement is experiencing such a growth spurt. For the first time in human history, the technologies required to achieve genuine immateriality are visible on the distant horizon. If the body is a temple, then it seems the service is drawing to a close, and soon the doors will swing open.

Goodbye, Meatbags is a series on Motherboard about the waning relevance of the human physical form. Follow along here, and listen to our podcast, embedded above, for some behind the scenes snippets from the documentary.