The science non-fiction of a bodiless brain

Yesterday’s NeuWrite Halloween-inspired post really resonated with me. There’s not much that terrifies a scientist more than the notion of a brain in a vat – that a brain, taken out of its bodily and worldly contexts, might still be able to create meaning. Emily writes that “unless simulated by a perfect storm of spontaneous neural activity, the experience of laughing at a good joke, warming by a fire, or the taste of a gourmet meal, would be impossible.” I’d like to extend her position even a little more, arguing that even with a “perfect storm of spontaneous neural activity,” I cannot experience a fire’s warmth without a) a fire, and b) my body.

NeuWrite San Diego

Brain in jarThe brain. Nestled cozily inside its skull and properly integrated with its body’s peripheral nervous and circulatory systems, the organ is revered as a sacred abode for our thoughts, emotions, and identity. But extracted from this natural habitat, its slimy cortex and gyrating gyri can make one squeamish. Don’t worry, we neuroscientists aren’t offended. It’s understandable that the brain would be more unnerving than say, a lung, given its elevated status above other internal organs. Its integrity determines your position across the boundary of existence and non-existence, you and no-you (I’ll spare you that DrEADful four letter word). Without your brain, “you” are no longer. But what is a brain without the body? Could it maintain the basic biological functions necessary for life, sustain consciousness or give rise to a veritable human existence? Could it distinguish between the reality of its isolated existence and a world engendered…

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