Context: see my Neural Tribe Doctrine post for a discussion of a new human narrative about who we are and who we are not.
NT (Neural Tribe) perspective is this: we are neural colonies – i.e. stand-alone organizations of neurons; we are not the bodies we inhabit; this flesh-and-bone bio-body you live in is a home-on-legs of sorts.
“Whole brain preparation” technique is a great example of our neural sovereignty. Scientists have been able to “isolate” animal brains and keep them alive outside of their host bodies – not for long, but (cruel as it is) “whole-brain preparation” procedure is a proof of principle that a neural organization that we call “brain” is itself a stand-alone living entity as long as it is supplied with its metabolic requirements.
Rodolfo Llinas, a NYU neuroscientist, for example developed a protocol in the 1980s that allowed him to keep a mammalian brain (say, from a guinea pig) in a glass tank (outside the body of its origin!) while “feeding” it with injections of sugar, oxygen and electrolytes. This procedure allowed researchers to study a stand-alone disembodied brain while it is alive with all of its neural circuitry intact.
Take a moment to imagine this: you – a neural colony – disembodied and alive… Can we even fathom the informational state of such a neural colony? Is it processing any stimuli? Probably – if it is being poked with electrodes and injected with drugs (as has been done with such isolated neural colonies). Is it conscious, is it aware? Yes, no… who knows?!
Ethics aside (ethics get brushed aside in the interest of progress so much, don’t they?!), the point of profound interest here is this: we – the neural colonies (aka “brains” and nervous systems) – can exist outside our flesh-and-bone bio-habitats. Not for long. And not without metabolic assistance (which is normal – any life-form is dependent on its environment). But – ! – we can. While the quantity of this existence can be eventually technologically prolonged, I am sure, the quality of this kind of disembodied existence is unimaginable.
When I say “unimaginable” I don’t mean to say horrendous – we don’t really know that. The neurophenomenology of this is unexplored (unless we look at sensory deprivation studies as a kind of template for understanding what we’d feel like in a jar). We can only speculate about what a disembodied mind feels like. One possibility is that once a neural colony is cut off from sensory input it might find itself in a state of pure (informationally-sterile) awareness akin to Tibetan-style enlightenment (while the metabolic supplies last).
Once again, there is no telling… unless we can also one day learn to connect a stand-alone neural colony to another one that still has anatomical access to its speech apparatus (see my musings on this topic in Brain-to-Brain Interface).
But the real highlight here is, of course, that a “brain” (a neural colony) can exist outside a body. If a neural colony can, so can a stand-alone neuron. And this proves the key tenet of the NT perspective: we are not the bodies we are in.
Ref: Pop Sci Sept 2012 “How Long Can a Brain Live in a Dish?”
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Last reviewed: 13 Nov 2012