Sunday, March 13, 2011

§ - Brain in Vat

[Note, I'm putting the "§" symbol in the title of any post that is one of my synchronicity (§) stories, so they can be located easier in the archive.]

This is the first § I recall having, where I knew it to be a "meaningful coincidence," numinous feeling and all. It happened in 1990 at the first college I went to, St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland (not a Catholic school, just in St. Mary's County).

It was in the beginning of my first semester, freshman year, and involved my Introduction to Psychology class. The night before one of the classes, I was supposed to be reading a chapter from the textbook, but I was distracted by a book I'd purchased at the campus bookstore, Labyrinths of Reason: Paradox, Puzzles, and the Frailty of Knowledge, a fantastic introduction to philosophy (especially paradox and other logic-twisting topics that make you wonder how we think we know anything). The chapter in the psychology book was one of the first few (maybe even chapter one), and I decided I could afford to skip it, as I had taken a psychology course in my senior year of high school [a minor § about that, the woman teaching that class had had a brother who not only was diagnosed with the same extremely rare form of cancer I had, a Ewings Sarcoma, he also likewise survived the then considered terminal disease, and likewise had to have his leg amputated years later - unlike me, unfortunately, he died from a recurrence shortly after that].

I hadn't even checked to see what the topic of the chapter was for the psychology class the next day, I just assumed I had enough background to be able to keep up without doing the reading (I'd read it eventually, of course). Besides, the Poundstone book was mesmerizing, and I could not put it down. That became especially true when I read about a philosophical conundrum that I had never heard of before, the "Brain In a Vat" theory.

The "Brain In Vat" theory basically is a hypothetical situation in which a mad scientist has somehow removed your brain, placed it in a jar or vat or something, keeping it alive, and attached electrodes all over it. Using his super science computer, the mad scientist can send impulses through the electrodes to your brain, making you (or your brain - is there a difference?) think you perceive whatever he wants you to (this is the basic idea behind The Matrix movie). The problem is, you would have no way (presumably) to know that this was happening, that you were experiencing merely a virtual reality, that everything you know and perceive is fake.

This was just the heady sort of mind bending stuff I love, so when I finished reading this section (well, I think I probably read more of the Poundstone book, but I kept coming back to this theory), my mind kept contemplating the "Brain In Vat" concept. Was my brain floating in a jar in the laboratory of some mad scientist? It would explain a lot, I thought as I fell asleep.

The next day in psychology class, the topic of the day's lesson happened to be the brain (the structure, features and areas of the brain and what they do), which is what the chapter we were supposed to have read was about. I did not think this even as much of a coincidence, let alone a §, as the brain is something one studies in Intro. to Psych. class. As the professor lectured, I dutifully took notes, though as usual I also doodled in the margins from time to time. It wasn't that I was bored (the professor was quite good), it is just a habit . I was still thinking about what I'd read the previous night, and of course due to the subject (gray) matter we were discussing, towards the end of class I began drawing a human brain floating in a glass jar. As I finished the crude drawing, honestly wondering about the possibility that my brain was in a vat somewhere being fed this illusory world in which I was a college student in a psychology class, the professor finished up his lecture and said something like, "Okay now, you all might be interested to see this..."

Literally right as I put the last stroke on my little brain floating in a jar, the teacher leans down, reaches underneath his desk, and brings up (I swear) a real, honest-to-goodness human brain floating in a glass jar, exactly like the one I'd drawn. He placed it on his desk as this strange feeling crept over me. I'd heard of the concept of § by this point, and here was my first real encounter with it. I felt like I was witnessing some sort of sacred ceremony, I got goosebumps all over, my mind was devoid of words, I was simply in Awe. It was both funny and frightening at the same time, and I had this distinct feeling that some sort of intelligence was behind it somehow, that it was too perfectly orchestrated to be just a coincidence. This is the "numinous" feeling that real § seems to be accompanied by.

The story the professor then gave about the brain in the jar made the entire thing seem even more implausible. He actually found it when he moved to St. Mary's to teach, in a closet in the house he bought! Now, how many people own human brains in jars in the first place, and then how many of them would be so careless as to leave them behind in a move? At least it was clearly a lab specimen, not the work of some psycho. But wouldn't they have tried to find the missing brain, maybe called the new owner of the house or something? Also, what are the odds that the new owner of the house with human brain in jar included would be a psychology professor, who could actually make use of said brain in vat?

I wondered for a few moments, sitting there dumbfounded in my desk, if the mad scientist was perhaps sending me a message - or just plain messing with me - giving me a clue that, indeed, my brain is in a vat and the mad scientist is pulling the strings. That seems a more likely explanation than happenstance, to me anyway. I do know, at least, that I will never forget that day, or the feelings that were associated with it. This § seemed to open the floodgates to future §s, and that feeling of the numinous would become quite familiar over time.

1 comment:

Holly said...

To the best of my knowledge, the only known case of someone vacating a house and leaving behind these sorts of things was Edward Gorey, but he didn't live in southern MD.