06 October 2010 - by ~ 3 Comments

Brain in a Jar

In philosophy there is an old thought experiment that goes something like this: how do you know that anything is real? Let’s say that you were actually a brain kept alive in a large glass jar, a vat of chemicals, wired up with electrodes and fed nutrients intravenously. If the computer was powerful enough, it could stimulate all of your senses, simulating sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. It could even replicate proprioception, the awareness you have of your “body” and its positioning in three-dimensional space. After all, reality is basically a conclusion based on the culmination of our senses. And our senses are a product of electrical stimulation that has been interpreted by the brain. If you can “hack” that system, insert alternative stimuli, the brain would be fooled and never know the difference. Of course, all of this presupposes that the computer is powerful enough to create a credible virtual world.

As a result of this thought experiment, some conclude that we simply cannot trust our senses. That all belief systems are ultimately futile, or at least equally likely and relative.

I would argue that this really demonstrates very little, other than the fact that our identity is largely a product of that tangled ball of gray inside our heads. It is that delightfully complex biological circuitry which is ultimately responsible for consciousness, sentience, and what is commonly referred to as personality. The human body is a container which provides shelter and protection, a method of conveyance which allows us (the “us” inside our heads) to move from point A to B.

As a disabled person, almost completely immobile from the neck down, I often feel like little more than a brain inside an inert vessel. It might as well be a glass jar, for all the good it does me. My respiratory muscles are too weak to allow me to breathe on my own 24/7 without a break. I am unable to cough and clear air passages when I’m congested from a cold or other illness. In a way, then, my body really is as fragile and/or vulnerable as a glass jar. That may sound harsh, or a little depressing, but I don’t mean it that way at all. I came to terms with the limitations of the body I ended up with a long time ago. Human beings learn to adapt, we cope with a situation as it presents itself and move on, we produce tools and technology which allow us to overcome the difficulties which present themselves. I am no different in this regard. Being fortunate enough to be born during a time when we have computers and the Internet, there are many tools at my disposal. Through them, my reach can extend far beyond my physical limitations.

Modern medicine and technology allow me to fortify the fragile material of the jar that I was given. Noninvasive ventilation allows me to breathe freely and without fatigue. The cough assist machine clears my airways and keeps me from succumbing to congestion. I have a motorized wheelchair with adaptive controls that need little more than a few ounces of force to allow me to control my speed and direction. The van purchased by my wife and I is modified with a ramp and cut out seating to allow room for the wheelchair. The Internet allows me to communicate with people from all over the world, through the written word and by voice over Internet protocol, via e-mail and programs such as Skype.

I am more than this disabled body. I am a mind capable of reaching beyond the confines of its container.

  • Very well put. That is a very good analogy. This “Rise of the Machines” era for DMD is opening up possibilities that just were not available for us in not so distance past. People like us are are now given the ability to be a contributing members of society. We can pursue careers, marriage and even the possibility of having out own children. So, it is up to us to get the word out.

  • Jonathan Hinek

    Cool. Glad you guys liked it.

  • Jonathan Hinek

    Sure, I’d be interested.