You don’t have a brain; you are a brain

Not long ago I had one of those nights where I couldn’t sleep because my mind was racing.  The next morning my wife, in solidarity and empathy, sent me this comic:

Brain Wont SleepIf you think about it, the idea of a man having a conversation with his brain is not only comical, but also intriguing in a way that a man having a conversation with his bladder is not.  After all, I have no trouble imagining talking to my bladder; the only difficulty would be getting my bladder to answer me.  But how can a person have a conversation with his brain? After all, it is the brain that allows us to have the conversation in the first place.  And what’s with the pronoun? “His” brain? Who is the “his”, exactly?

Think of it this way.  When I say, “This is my brain,” I am implying a duality, a distinction between myself (the “my” in the sentence) and the brain in my skull.  With every other type of possession this makes sense, even with regards to other parts of the body (my left foot, my big toe, my heart, my lungs, etc.).  But with the brain it doesn’t really make any sense to talk about “my brain”.  The brain isn’t something that I have.  The brain is the “I” itself.  I HAVE a heart, I HAVE a liver, a HAVE kidneys.  But I don’t HAVE a brain.  I AM a brain.  In theory, you could replace any part of my body at all with prosthetics.  Put in a bionic heart, replace my skeleton with ultra-strong metal, give me new eyes, the works.  It would still be me, just with an enhanced body (this is the entire conceit that drives cyberpunk science-fiction).

But there is one organ in my body that cannot be replaced: my brain.  Take out my brain and you take ME out with it.  I am a brain.

Brain transplant

Consider a simple thought experiment.  Imagine that scientists perfect the technology of a brain transplant.  It now becomes possible to take a brain from one body and place it in another one.  For our purposes we’ll use two hypothetical brothers, Jim and Duggan.  Duggan volunteers to swap brains with Jim, and Jim readily agrees.  So Jim’s brain and Duggan’s brains are exchanged in a gruelling 30-hour medical procedure.  In the end? Jim wakes up–in Duggan’s body.  And Duggan wakes up–in Jim’s body.  In the words of the philosopher Daniel Dennett, “A brain transplant is the only organ donation in which it would be better to be the donor than the recipient.”

As neuroscience continues to investigate the mystery of consciousness and the strange way that the brain creates the illusion of an independent self (the “my” in the phrase “my brain”) we are more and more finding ourselves in the area described by Bertrand Russell as “the strangeness and wonder lying just below the surface even in the commonest things of daily life.”

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