William Kent

This is just a sketch of a story idea. I can't really write fiction.

Brain research, the final frontier. Nothing left outside but more of the same. But inside there are whole new mysteries - whole new universes of space and time and fantasy and boundlessness bound inside one skull. A plunge into the eye of the vortex, the bootstrap paradox: can the brain understand itself? Can a brain understand what a brain is doing when it thinks it understands itself?

Escher's picture of the hand holding the pencil which is drawing the picture of the hand. The sentence which says this is a sentence. The book which describes itself precisely, including the fact that it contains a description of itself, and a statement about the fact that it described itself....

Later. Get out of that trap. He had something else to pin down first. He was intent on unraveling that mystical boundary which takes the physical messages traveling into the brain and transforms them into concepts, the stuff of which thinking is made.

All the processes, all the conceptual and perceptual pathways he could trace, kept leading back to one dark and impenetrable region. Why this focus? Why this violation of the basic distributed, fail-safe engineering that built the rest of the brain? Everything else the brain did was done in several places, in several ways. They backed each other up, and double-checked each other. When one failed, or got damaged, others could take over.

The more he probed, the deeper the mysteries. Frustration. Anger. Errors started creeping in, compounding frustration and anger. Suddenly he couldn't really link up the incoming perceptual paths with the outgoing conceptual paths. The more he probed, the more it seemed they were sliding past each other, close enough to create the illusion of cause and effect - but not really making any contact at all. No matter how he tried, he couldn't connect what the brain saw and heard with what the brain thought.

A nagging, sick joke kept recurring, wouldn't go away. That sophomoric philosophy: "How do I know you aren't just a figment of my imagination, along with the rest of the universe?" A haunting thought, cropping up again and again, invading his dreams, until... on, no! It was no joke. It was the goddamned truth.

He fought this cosmic joke furiously, but no matter how he searched for a connection, it just became more obvious there wasn't any. That black hole in the brain didn't transform perception into conception - it invented conception. Everything we think we think is hallucinated in that black hole. The clincher was the path of perception itself - he suddenly discovered the wrong end of that path looping back into the black hole. The hole was busy generating the illusion of perception, the dream that we are seeing and hearing things.

Oh my god. The universe really is a figment of my imagination.

And one more shock. None of this was happening! He wasn't doing this research at all! There was only this place inside his brain generating the hallucination of doing the research.

And generating the hallucination that there existed such a thing as a brain.

Postscript. In 1998, I came across the following in chapter 5 of Fritjof Capra's The Web of Life:

"The second conclusion Maturana drew from the circular closure of the nervous system amounted to a radically new understanding of cognition. He postulated that the nervous system is not only self-organizing but also continually self-referring, so that perception cannot be viewed as the representation of an external reality but must be understood as the continual creation of new relationships within the neural network: 'The activities of nerve cells do not reflect an environment independent of the living organism and hence do not allow for the construction of an absolutely existing external world.' "