Brain in a bottle

Posted on October 8, 2011


I recently had the huge pleasure of watching Hilary Mantel talk about her life as part of a documentary that I happened to catch on the tellie.  She read from her historical fiction novel about the french revolution, A Place of Greater Safety.  The piece she chose to read was about Marie Antoinette’s final moments before meeting Madame La Guillotine.  Mantel has managed to turn these last few seconds into something which is at once horrifying, poignant, tragic, gruesome and prurient.  Apart from being enthralled by Mantel herself, and by her writing, it drew me into thinking about those unmentionable rolling heads.  Those body parts which immediately and unmistakably identify us.  The head, known to have kept on speaking after it has been detached from its body – an object of horror and fascination, and of fun for the revolting Parisians.

Strangely, it was only the next week when a talking head in a box turned up on an episode of Doctor Who.  A man who knew he only survived as a head and who insisted that his head box be kept open so at least he could see out.  It is an age-old question, and certainly one that has perennially appeared in science-fiction writing: can a head survive in a bottle?

If a head were given an artificial blood supply and was carefully plumbed into a lymphatic system what would be to stop it from surviving?  Would a person survive if all that was left was a head?  Jeannette Winterson wrote in her novel The Stone Gods of an android who, while slowly dying, survives in head form only for some hours in the arms of the one she loves.

The days of robotic limbs controlled through mind impulses are now upon us. The mind tells the limb to act and, amazingly, it does!  So, in theory, an entire body could be operated robotically, driven through the impulses of the brain – an organic brain.

So, if a person were to somehow survive within a head and without a body, would they be driven completely mad without a body, or would their consciousness not allow them to appreciate that they were without the rest of the body?  Or, would they experience a full, phantom body? I suspect that this is one of those questions which is going to appear unbearably mawkish and even quaint in half a century or so, when science will have answered these and other questions which now seem firmly in the realm of fiction.  Yet, I suspect that we have part of the answer already.

We only need to look at how we are bifurcating ourselves into virtual and tactile reality in so many areas to know that our brains seem perfectly capable of enjoying the suspension of disbelief as it allows itself to indulge in a fantasy of reality.  Three dimensional cinema, virtual reality headsets, wii, even television, radio and literature draw us in and allow us to experience something that is not physically present for us.  The blurring of reality and fantasy is something which we enjoy, it seems.  Nowhere can this be seen more starkly than in the new breed of shopping centres sweeping the world’s great metropolises.  Ugly grey and black boxes from the outside, inside they are designed to lose the shopper in an experience of light, sound, texture and time that feels tardis-like.  Enter at own risk should be emblazoned across all doors.  Not because people spend money there – for of course they do – but because of this extraordinary bifurcating of reality that ensues.  Outside, it is cold, grey, blustery, and wet.  Inside, come to palm tree paradise on the third floor, or perhaps the wild, wild west.  You’ll find it next to Mexicana!  Shops and restaurants have become so themed their interiors are replicas distant environments: barns, old ships, old English pubs.

There have been plenty of films and books which have wonderfully and richly created dual realities in which the characters leave their own lives to enter virtual worlds, or like The Matrix, where the protagonist leaves the virtual world to rejoin his physical body.  The Truman Show put our love of the ersatz onto a whole new level, making plain to ourselves our fascination with the toy-town-ness of it all.  What I find interesting is the creeping suggestion that we would prefer to join these alternative realities and have these become our reality rather than remain rooted in our own everyday existence.  The alladin’s cave for adults holds a host of treasures which you will feel liberated to enjoy only if you believe you are on an exciting journey that takes you outside of yourself.

Yet, the journey is not really one of discovery because it is one which we ultimately believe we control.  Unlike in The Truman Show, we like to think we are in the production box for our make-believe experience, and not the tragic figure who works out that their life has been a complete manipulation.  The fun of entering a giant shopping centre is no longer in the plush couches or the highly polished marble walls, and tinny elevator music, it is in embracing a journey that will allow us to knowingly lose ourselves in an amusement park of shopping experience. A contradiction that seems to sit happily within our minds.  Or, in keeping with the science fiction theme, it is a rent in the space-time continuum.  As my partner said aptly today, after we had gone to the new Westfield to buy a pair of pants: Thanks Mr Lowy!  That’s five hours of my life I’m not getting back!

Here’s to keeping our heads on our shoulders!