Brain in a Jar: On Maintaining Physical/Mental Health

Once, in a high-school science class, I watched a documentary about NASA/JPL scientists—think first class period after lunch, TV/VCR cart wheeled in from the AV room. Timing suggests the film was probably about people working on the Mars Rover missions in the early/mid 2000s, but I’m not sure. What I do remember is one engineer who talked in his interview about dealing with the stress of preparing for a mission through exercise. There was B-roll footage of him on a treadmill—and using other gym equipment that I might recognize now but didn’t then, so in my memory it’s just a series of complicated blurs. “I’m in the best shape of my life,” he laughed—an emotionally neutral euphemism for the panic he was facing approaching his launch.

At the time, this blew my mind. I was not an active kid. I thought of myself, though not in this exact term, as a brain in a jar—a smart kid, a kid who read books—and didn’t see the point of exercise that wasn’t mandatory. (I also had garden-variety but chronic teenage body image issues; chicken and egg.) I’d been tacitly thinking of NASA scientists as, you know, nerds. We shared a side, in the great body v. brain conflict. Surely an astronomical engineer was the ultimate brain in a jar. What did that guy get out of running on a treadmill that he couldn’t get out of work—or, if it was relaxation he needed, television or a book? That interview segment—probably less than two minutes—has stuck with me for over a decade now, just because it made so little sense at the time. Less sense than the idea of sending a rover to Mars.

A few years later, I was active for a while—even athletic. But I joined track and cross country for social reasons, not physical—my friends were all on the team, and in order to come to practice and hang out with them, I had to join. (The way I made decisions as a teenager in general is borderline hysterical to me now. That was a commitment to six days of practice a week for years, and got me from total zero to ten-mile races. I made it with a shrug, and let it go just as quickly at the end of senior year.) I liked being on the team—I liked the cult of belonging. I worked hard; I’d feel tired and proud after a meet or a hard practice. But I didn’t feel like I was getting anything special out of the running itself. I was young and healthy and disciplined enough that I could get through the exercise required to be on the team—I was still a brain in a jar; I’d just figured out a way to use my body as a more effective tool.

Of course that’s nonsense. Too late to make a long story short, but I made it alarmingly far into my life before actually realizing that your physical state really does—get this—affect your mental state. And that it’s a hackable system! It’s really only in the last few years that I’ve discovered the actual phenomenon that poor anxious space engineer was working through in that documentary. Life is not Futurama—though to be fair, I’m sure the folks at NASA are among the closest to it. Nobody is a brain in a jar.

It still doesn’t come naturally to me to admit that physical health and mental health affect one another. It rings in my ears like pseudo-science, something adjacent to astrology. If a problem isn’t physical, how can the solution be? If I’m stressed or anxious, my first several impulses to “fix” the problem always boil down to sitting on the couch and thinking about something besides what it feels like to be me. But I’m starting—just starting!—to learn not to trust those impulses. Living in New York made an active person of me again—and once again accidentally, just because it’s hard to be here and not walk several miles a day. I’m running again—not very far or fast, but I always leave the gym feeling like a superhero, ready to write or work or even just feel peaceful for an evening.

I suppose this is mostly just advice for anyone working with the same set of factory presets I came with—a reminder that we all live in our bodies, not jars, and though that’s twice as much self to take care of it’s also twice as many ways to combat both the anxiety over things you can’t control and the bad habits you can. The last few months (at the least) have been tough on all of us, and that’s just day-to-day being in the world, background radiation—not even taking into account personal issues with work, relationships, family—or, say, novel drafts to finish and then revise.

I’ve been thinking of that NASA engineer a lot lately, on the treadmill and off. It took 10+ years for his advice to make any sense to me, but I’m glad my brain held on to it for all that time. I’ll probably never need to work through any astrophysics-related stress, but turns out it all kinda responds the same way.