Brain-in-a-jar images of the future are usually presented as dystopian. But for many years, I found the brain-in-a-jar lifestyle nothing short of enviable: what could be better than eternal life, or even just regular old life, than dispensing with the annoyances of living in a body and just being a talking brain in a jar. As far as I was concerned, “me” was everything from the neck up; everything from the neck down was like a really elaborate tripod for holding up my head.
As I got older, I became…well, if not wiser, then less egregiously stupid. I started to think of my below-the-neck self as more than an opposable thumb and some naughty bits. Getting pregnant, and giving up all the stuff that makes life worth living — you know, booze, sugar, white flour, caffeine and anything combustible — led to the disappointing revelation that when you eat well and exercise and get enough sleep and don’t put crap into your body, your body actually feels way way way better. And (most shocking to me) your mind works totally differently, too.
The most notable change was the “Why the hell did you just say that?!!!?” voice. That voice has been around since as long as I can remember, and became such a regular visitor that I basically just thought of it as kind of a third hemisphere of my brain. Love didn’t make it go away. Therapy didn’t make it go away. Even self-editing (i.e., trying to say fewer regrettable things) didn’t make it go away.
Which is why I was absolutely blown away when, five days in to my first, pre-pregnancy, no wheat/dairy/sugar cleanse, I realized that the WTHDYJST voice had completely disappeared. It turned out that the voice wasn’t asking “Why the hell did you just say that?” It was asking, “Why the hell did you just eat that?”
Once I discovered that the most annoying visitor to above-the-neck me was actually an unwanted party crasher from the below-the-neck tripod, I had to rethink the Maginot line I’d drawn between my self, and the body that I happened to walk around in. That was eight years ago, and over time, it’s become instinctive to respond to any vague sense of ennui or malaise by asking what I’ve eaten (or not eaten) rather than getting into a mental tailspin or trying to fix a non-existent problem.
And yet for all that I’ve come to think of my body as perhaps vaguely part of myself, after all, the brain-in-a-jar scenario feels more real than ever. After all, here I sit at 10:38 p.m., writing a freaking blog post even though Little Peanut woke me up at 5:30 this morning. I can tell you that tomorrow, the number one factor in my subjective experience will be the sense of continued exhaustion that I could forestall right now if I would simply go to bed. But my brain — you know, “me” — chooses to ignore the tripod yet again so that I can get a little more jar time with my good friend, the Internets.
Even for a born-again mind/body believer like me, the Internet is a daily exercise in putting our brains back in the jar. It’s hard to retain a sense of your whole self when so much of your experience, attention and interaction go into the keyboard and screen. Alexandra Samuel may now be a whole person; @awsamuel is still, for all you know, a brain in a jar.