“Let me die, let me die…” a desperate female voice pleads to the audience just before the opening credits role in this campy classic. Immediately we are asking ourselves “What in world could be bothering this young woman?” The answer is simple: her head (and brain), detached from her body after a horrible car accident, are kept alive in a tray with the tools of science! In The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (Carlton & Landberg, 1962) we watch as Dr. Bill Cortner passionately attempts to transplant human heads onto new bodies. As the confident doctor searches the city for a live (and, of course, supple) body to steal as a replacement, the young woman quickly becomes agitated by her new bodiless status, furious at the selfish doctor for reducing her experience to life in a tray. Her anger compels her to seek revenge for this great injustice, and she enlists the help of the forsaken creature locked in the laboratory closet, a half-human monstrosity from one of Dr. Cortner’s previous transplant failures.
The notion of a ‘brain in a vat’ often dominates philosophical debates about the nature of the self and the role of the brain in generating our emotions and feelings. Most psychological research focuses entirely on ‘mental processes’ and has largely ignored the role that the body plays in the way we think and act. However, Antonio Damasio and colleagues have argued that the body generates critical signals that shape emotional decisions (see Damasio, 1996). For example, damage to the ventro-medial prefrontal cortex (parts of the brain behind the forehead) causes otherwise normal people to develop profound impairments in social decision making and reasoning, and an inability to plan adequately for future social encounters. Though these patients retain their intelligence, their poor ability to reason in social situations devastates their personal lives. Damasio (1996) suggests that this brain region helps people 'link' the facts of a social situation (e.g. this is Tom, the person that told me to make all of those bad bets) with the emotional experiences associated with that situation (e.g. losing all that money made me feel bad), resulting in an inability to make a socially appropriate decision the next time that situation arises (e.g. “I don't think I will bet that way again, Tom”). Importantly, according to Damasio’s explanation, emotional experiences depend critically on our ability to experience bodily sensations -- Tom may have caused you to lose money, but a feeling of ‘badness’ is attributed to the loss only after your bodily experiences of changes in heart rate, feeling weak/nauseous, red in the face and so on have occurred. We may be quite unaware that these ‘linkages’ are occurring in any given situation. By linking these bodily outcomes with facts about the event itself, the brain (unconsciously) informs future social decisions based on past experiences. Without this ability, the quality of our decisions reduces dramatically.
So what would the quality of life be for a brain in a vat? Though the philosophical implications of such a question are perplexing, the empirical study of decision making after brain damage makes one thing clear: the emotions produced by the 'guts' are a necessary component of the way we think and make adaptive decisions. This relationship is unwittingly reflected in The Brain that Wouldn't Die (Carlton & Landberg, 1962), as we are surprised by the young woman's anger, her decisions to talk to (literal) monsters, and her pleas for her own demise.
Carlton, R., & Landberg, M. (Producers), Green, J. (Director). (1962). The Brain that Wouldn't Die [Motion picture]. United States: American International Pictures.
Damasio, AR. (1996). The somatic marker hypothesis and the possible functions of the prefrontal cortex. Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, 351, 1346.