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Last Updated: Monday, 27 October 2003, 13:22 GMT
The man who sold his brain
By Maggie Shiels

An artist has put his brain up for sale. But this is more than a mere stunt - investors could see a big payout. He just has to die first.

Art and commerce have always been regarded as an unholy alliance, but conceptual artist Jonathon Keats has brought the two together in the most intriguing union ever by offering futures contracts on his brain. Up for sale are six billion neurons.

His aim is immortality.

The idea is that Keats, 32, sells the rights to his brain, and with it his original thoughts, for perpetuity.

This relies on new technology - not yet invented - which will keep his brain alive and functioning, even after he has died.

Unfortunately, copyright laws have watered down his plan for eternal life. Copyright in the US lasts for the life of its creator, plus 70 years.

I'm doing this for the sake of immortality simply because it seemed like it was more interesting than dying
Jonathon Keats
But, in theory, that still means Keats' mind could be generating revenue for three score years and 10 after his death.

"I would prefer to have utter and complete immortality in perpetuity, but that's not an option, so I figured I would go with what I could get," he says.

Because he is breaking new ground, Keats had to figure out how to mould his plan to fit the conventional rules of the financial markets.

He came up with a novel approach. Keats has registered his brain as a sculpture which he created thought by thought.

Earlier this month, would-be investors were given the chance to inspect it first-hand at a gallery in San Francisco, California, where Keats set up shop.

Thoughts on death

He had issued a prospectus beforehand and, to show due diligence, had a series of MRI brain scans showing clear areas of neural activity when he thought about such things as art, beauty, love and death.

Jonathon's brain is amazing and it's a brain that will keep going and going
Bruce Miller, neurology professor, University of California
"The one that had the most activity of all was death," he reveals. "I don't know if it was primed by this project or whether death seems an interesting phenomenon.

"Probably the later because while I was there for my birth, I wasn't aware that it was an interesting thing. I only have my death as one of these terminal points I can explore."

To a steady flow of possible shareholders, Keats the artist became Keats the businessman as he explained the terms of the contracts he was selling.

A minimum investment of $10 will buy one million neurons.

But buyer beware on two counts:

  • Keats has suspended the transfer of copyright until he dies, and,
  • investors can only buy an "option" - the big money comes when he does die.

At that point all six billion neurons in the brain will transfer to the Jonathon Keats Holding Company. Anyone with an option will have the chance to buy their million neurons for $10,000.

After-life possibilities

In theory, that could net $60m, some of which would be used to cover the cost of keeping his brain functioning, while the holding company would strike deals to licence out the brain.

Mri scan
Busy, busy: An MRI scan of Keats' brain thinking about death
The licensing possibilities are endless, says neurologist Robert Burton, citing a recent experiment by scientists in North Carolina who built a brain implant that lets monkeys control a robotic arm with their thoughts.

"The future is already here so who knows what Jonathon's neurons will be able to do in years to come," says Mr Burton.

Hopefully, for Keats at least, that day is some way off.

Investor interest has been moderate. Seventy-one contracts were sold on the first day of his offering (only 5,929 left, then). Among the first buyers was writer Paulina Borsook.

"I think this is a brilliant idea," she says, "partly because the intellectual property wars are destroying all culture because everyone wants to own everything that ever existed. I think this is a wonderful kind of culture hack on that idea."

Buyer Ken Goldberg paid up only after getting guarantees from Jonathon that he could "check in on his brain periodically now I have a real interest".

Always on his mind: An investor in Jonathon Keats' brain
Optimistically perhaps, Keats took that as a periodic lunch invitation - something warmly welcomed by a struggling artist such as himself.

Yet the sell-off is more than just a stunt, says Keats. "It brings up an interesting question as to why my neurons should be worth more than anybody else's and it's a question you ask when you see a Catholic reliquary. Why is this finger worth more than any other?

"Why is this scrawl on paper made by Albert Einstein or Frank Sinatra worth more? So ultimately it comes down to what is the value of a person."

Alive or dead of course.

Some of your comments so far:

What happens if he gets his head run over by a bus will everyone get their money back
Cholmondley-Warner, UK

On a chemical level, the conditions for brilliant thinking may not be recreated outside his body. But also like any tool, surely its power is drawn as much from how it is used (the skill of the operator, if you will) as its potential?
David Wright, UK

Surely if the brain has all higher functions in place, could anyone claim their `property' or would the artist have achieved his sought after immortality?
Graeme Nott, United Kingdom

If his brain will still be alive and functioning, in what sense will he be "dead"? I'm confused!
Luke, UK

I just want to invest in the part of his brain that came up with the idea to sell options of itself, it might come in handy when I need a good stock tip?
Chris, Australia

What would happen if the technology came along that could make his brain fully functional again complete with speech and movement Would this mean he comes back from the dead and thus will have to give all the money back to the people who invested assuming they are still alive
Colin Gray, UK

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