This is your brain. This is your brain in a vat.
The room was dark. All of the machines and computers were shut down for the night, but the smell of harsh chemicals remained overwhelming. Slivers of light reflected off the cold hard metal, mingling with the shadows. Nothing was moving, though the constant sound of liquid dripping through the pipes created the false sensation of human activity.
In the corner of the room was the large clear container where the monstrous thing sat. It had been sitting in there for a long time—perhaps months, perhaps years. The glass of the container magnified the spongy, bloody, fleshy thing, making it look enormous. No one ever spoke to the thing; no one ever touched it.
The experiment had gone irreversibly and irreparably wrong.
* * * * *
Henry Vatich lay in bed. It was morning, but he had not opened his eyes yet. He simply lay there, trying to adjust his mind to the horrible thought of moving his limbs, getting out of bed, and facing his day.
The bed was warm, and the sheets—wrapped cocoon-style around his body—made him feel safe. He had the vague sense that he was waking up from a nightmare, but he couldn’t be sure. Vatich wanted to stay in bed for the rest of the day.
But he had no choice. The alarm began to buzz, just as he was opening his eyes. This meant that he now had just enough time to get up, take a shower, brush his teeth, dress himself, grab a cup of coffee and a muffin, and head out the door. Most likely he would be late for work. But Vatich didn’t care.
He had worked for the same people—a health insurance company called The Well Life Group—as an account manager for the past thirty years. Luckily, no one had ever fired him, or even questioned his work ethic, for the entire time that he had been with the company. Unluckily, Vatich hated his job, and he always had. It was boring, menial, and at times even morally questionable, but his salary was good, and it put food on the table.
As a fifty-something divorced man, Vatich had only the basic of needs. Nevertheless, he still had child support payments and mortgage payments to worry about; and those weren’t about to disappear any time soon.
Vatich was a tall, balding man with glasses, a sort of nerd-type who was really too smart to be wasting his life in a nine-to-five office job. Ever since he had been a child, Vatich had always felt a fondness for nature and biology. At one time, he had even fancied himself the amateur scientist.
As a young child, he would dissect frogs that he found in the backyard (much to the chagrin of his parents) and then consult textbooks and encyclopedias in order to identify their organs. Once, Vatich found a bird that his family cat had killed, brought it into the house, and hid it under a sofa cushion.
His parents didn’t realize what he had done, and continued to sit on the sofa for days after the bird had been buried there. But soon it started to stink. The bird’s rotting corpse became putrid and mealy, and his parents began to grow ill with the smell.
One day, his father found it under the cushion. The thing that had once been a bird was, by now, an unrecognizable mound of feathers, bone, and flesh. Upon making this gruesome discovery, his father found little Henry and gave him a swift, hard slap on the behind.
Although Vatich eventually grew out of his fondness for dissecting dead animals, he never did get over his obsession with the concept of death itself. He was the type of person who wanted to live forever, not because he felt that he had much to contribute to mankind, but because he had a horrific fear of death. He simply could not deal with the thought that one day, hopefully decades in the future, he would cease to be in existence. Forever.
Certainly, Vatich realized that his fear was childish and silly, but he was never quite able to get over it. And so, one day, he decided to “plan ahead” for the event. He was, after all, in the life insurance business. Vatich had never told anyone of his “plans” because he was embarrassed by his irrational fears, and he felt that he might appear unnecessarily narcissistic.
So he had quietly made the arrangements, as if nothing had ever happened.
* * * * *
On the drive to work, it started to rain. Hard. It was a thunderstorm.
Vatich swore to himself repeatedly as his windshield became increasingly foggy.
I thought they said it would be nicer today. What a bunch of goddamn morons.
Suddenly the sound of screeching brakes filled his ears. He quickly looked to his right, and saw a red SUV spin out of control and slam into another car. Instead of the large smashing, crunching sound that one might expect that such a violent event would cause, all that Vatich heard was a quick, almost quiet, “pop” sound. The quiet nonchalance of the sound almost made things worse, and Vatich immediately felt sick to his stomach.
It was a grim reminder that real-life accidents are not Hollywood-film worthy events. The people that die in accidents aren’t heroes who go out with a bang; they are average joes who don’t see it coming and go out with a whimper.
The entire chain of events happened so quickly that Vatich had little time to react. One part of him felt as if he should turn around and offer to help, but the other part of him just wanted to put it out of his mind and continue on to work. So he drove on, but couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that someone had been seriously injured back there.
His stomach churned, and he began to feel queasy.
Oh well, I’m sure that the police are on their way. If I don’t help them, someone else will.
Vatich pulled into a space in the parking lot, slowly got out of his car, and vomited all over the hood. Chunks of liquefied muffin slid down the sides and front of his car, marring the wax job he had just paid an arm and a leg for. Unable to even look at the gross display that he had created, Vatich stumbled clumsily away from the car and into his office building.
Fortunately, no one saw him.
I’ll clean it up later today when I leave work.
He straightened his tie, and attempted to walk casually through the door and into his office without his assistant, Susanne, noticing.
But Susanne was an exceptionally observant person. This was, in part, why she had been hired in the first place.
“What happened to you Henry? You look deathly pale.”
Vatich wanted nothing less than to be forced to recount the unpleasant details of his drive to work and subsequent regurgitation.
“I’m fine, Susanne. Nothing happened. I just don’t particularly like driving in the rain, that’s all.”
Susanne looked unconvinced.
“Are you sure that I can’t get you some water or something? You look like you’re about to faint.”
“No!” said Vatich angrily. Then, quickly realizing that this response was inappropriate: “You don’t have to worry about me, Susanne. I’m just a little bit exhausted from the whole divorce thing, and, you know, not being able to see the kids very often...”
He trailed off.
Looking unconvinced and possibly a bit hurt; Susanne turned back to her computer screen and continued typing without another word.
Vatich retreated into his office.
* * * * *
Five o’clock was slow to come. In fact, every minute of the workday felt excruciatingly long to Vatich. It seemed that whenever he looked up at the clock, only ten minutes had gone by.
He hadn’t been hungry for lunch, so he remained behind his desk that day, buried in large stacks of insurance claims. He occasionally received phone calls from angry customers, complaining about their rate hikes, irritated that their claims had been denied.
Vatich tried to speak in a soft and reassuring tone, but this tactic seemed only to infuriate the customers further. The angry voices on the other end of the phone became a never-ending blur of jabbering nonsense.
At five o’clock sharp, Vatich grabbed his belongings and headed swiftly for the door.
“See you tomorrow, Henry. I hope you feel better...” Her sentence ended with some sort of low, ironic utterance, but Vatich ignored it.
He began to walk quickly, nearly jogging to his car. The vomit on the hood of his car had become crusty now, but Vatich ignored that as well. The only thing that he wanted at the moment was to get home as quickly as possible so that he could call his youngest daughter Sarah, force down a bland microwave dinner, and then relax. He knew that traffic on the 504 would be horrendous, so he avoided the freeway and headed down an alternate, more scenic route.
The traffic on the surface streets wasn’t ideal, but, he figured, at least he didn’t have to deal with the unrelenting gridlock of the freeway.
This is actually a pleasant route, thought Vatich. I should come this way more often.
He started to relax. Eventually, Vatich turned on the radio. His favorite song was playing, “Every Breath You Take” by the Police. It wasn’t raining anymore, and the sun was finally peaking through the trees. He took a deep breath and felt his body relax into the car seat.
The traffic light at the intersection of 3rd and Main was turning red. He came to a full stop. A few seconds passed, and the light turned green. Vatich stepped on the gas, and the car lurched forward.
He saw the white convertible out of the corner of his left eye, but he didn’t have time to react. To Vatich, it was a bright blur, a speeding mass with no meaning, a flash of light before the darkness. He didn’t even have time to gasp.
The convertible impacted the left side of his car with such force that he was left breathless as his body spun through space. His head crashed through the windshield as the airbag deployed only a moment too late. His car spun out of control as his body was flung onto the hood, and both cars came to a squealing halt.
Blood gushed from Vatich’s head; his neck was twisted, his legs broken, one of his fingers hung by a thread. He would have been in a lot of pain, except that he was, gratefully, already dead. Remarkably, the driver of the white convertible left with only scratches. The world was still spinning as he managed to pull away and flee the scene.
When the police arrived, they found Vatich’s body splayed across the front of his car. They searched his body for identification and managed to find a driver’s license and a small yellow card with special instructions written on it. After a thorough investigation of the accident site, Vatich’s lifeless body was placed on a gurney and taken away. One of the cops could have sworn that the dead man’s pale face had been smiling.
* * * * *
A man in a white coat walked into the lab and turned on the fluorescent lights.
Suddenly the room was filled with the sound of human voices. They stood over the large clear container, speaking in low, serious voices. One of them declared the experiment a failure, and the others nodded solemnly in agreement.
“We conclude that the specimen is unable to perceive reality according to any reasonable scientific or empirical definition of the term,” wrote the man in white. “We anticipate removing the brain from life support within the next twenty-four hours.”
Everyone left the room, leaving Henry Vatich alone once again in his cozy bed.
Food for Thought:
No one really knows what happens when you die. And that fear of the unknown drives some of us crazy—to the point where we are paying to freeze our brains in the hopes that some health care system in the future will have the cure for cancer, or for any number of currently incurable maladies.
But what do you believe happens to your mind when your body dies? Can you sustain your consciousness by preserving your brain? What if you could, but your brain malfunctioned such that you had to relive your own death over and over again, ad infinitum? Qualia or no qualia, that’s a terrifying quality of existence.