Brains in Vats

Today I was in my communication’s class and I was reminded of the “brain in a vat” theory commonly used in philosophy and science fiction. (You know, neo is a body in a vat… but only because bodies are more fun to set free.) At the beginning of the class our professor apologized for not returning any of our emails over the holiday and informed us that it was due to his father’s death. We were shocked and expressed our condolences and he moved on with the lecture. It was a little unsettling how normal his lecture was. He had the same level of energy and passion for the topic. I would have never guessed that his weekend was filled with such a sorrowful event. Oddly enough though, I only had trouble focusing for a few minutes, and before I realized what was happening I was drawn into the normal awkward teasing out of ideas that is our class.

An hour and fifteen minutes later we took our break. I was sipping tea with some of the other girls there on exchange and they inquired about my boyfriend. I informed them that no, my boyfriend does not live in Turkey with me, but my fiancee does. They were very happy for me and a discussion about marriage and our plans for our wedding followed. But after a few questions the rest of the class filtered in and we picked up our intellectual pursuits exactly where we had left them.

At that moment I felt stripped of my identity. It was an odd sensation as I had never really valued or even thought about my personal identity in class before. I have always taken for granted that class is a place where we leave behind our personal lives and speak in theory. I never thought of people coming to class as full-fledged individuals with all sorts of experiences and priorities that have nothing to do with our lecture. In a lecture there is that annoying girl who always brings up the same topic that doesn’t actually have anything to do with what we are talking about, and the cute boy who actually did the reading and voices his opinion that echoes yours just before you raise your hand, and the girl who seems to know everything and the guy who doesn’t pay any attention and you kinda wonder what is in his notebook, and whether the girl next to him is actually taking notes on her laptop or checking her email. They are not complete people. They are momentary actions. They are glimpses at habits. They are most of all a vessel for thought that sometimes bears their duty easily and sometimes struggles.

It is like instead of being a single brain in a vat, all alone in nothing, we are a group of brains that were shoved into a jar and get shaken up for an hour or so. This realization caused two longings in me. First of all I longed to know my class more. I wanted to go out and have beers with them and ask them about their boyfriends and girlfriends and extracurricular activities. Secondly, I wanted to go back in time and enroll in a university that uses a small cohort system for their undergraduates because there is something altogether enticing about actually knowing the background and inspiration that gives birth to the processes that you get to hear only the results of in a lecture.

Oh well, there is no going back. But there is always now, and sometimes tomorrow.  

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