Neuroscientists study the possibility of consciousness after death, and I review this research to examine how our awareness might continue.
Consciousness Is Still a Mystery
We know our brain dies upon death, but what happens to our awareness?
- What if our consciousness is not located in the brain?
- Would that mean we continue to have awareness after we die?
- Could we continue to have thoughts, experiences, and feelings?
I review the research being done by neuroscientists to examine these questions.
How Do Psychologists Explain Consciousness?
Significant progress has been made in the field of neuroscience to explain how human thinking leads to the ability to learn new skills, solve problems, and communicate with language. However, psychologists admit that consciousness is still a mystery.
The author of an article in Psychology Today, Paul Thagard Ph.D., says that it’s a “result of interactive processes that bind together perceptions and appraisals.” 1
So what does that mean?
- You are aware, with a keen perception of your surroundings.
- You even are aware of your emotions.
Is that consciousness, or is your brain just connecting all these perceptions? I think that’s what Dr. Thagard was trying to say in his article.
I read a different concept by an author in Scientific American. Here's an excerpt:
I have difficulty accepting that statement. He claims it to be a fact. At least he qualifies his statement by saying, "until proved otherwise."
So let's look into this further and analyze the results of scientific research I've been studying.
Where Does Our Consciousness Originate?
Scientists believe that our consciousness is in our brain, but we don’t know that for sure. Possibly every cell in our body could be a storage unit for our memory—and that memory triggers our consciousness.3
So, where is that happening? Is there some other entity that is responsible for storing the data our mind is aware of that simulates our consciousness? Notice how I refer to it as a simulation. You can’t rule that out. If our entire life is a simulation, there is no way of knowing it.
Just think about how vivid your dreams are. When you dream, you are in a world created in your subconscious where all physical laws apply. You are fully aware of your physical presence. Your dream is a simulation, but while you’re dreaming, it’s just as real.
In the same respect, even though we imagine our physical existence in our dreams, our body is not part of that. We can't really be sure our dreams are made in our mind. Can we extend that idea to consciousness after death?
Can Consciousness Continue After Death?
The phenomenon of near-death experience (NDE) that neuropsychiatrists have been studying, seems to disprove that when the brain dies, the mind and consciousness cease to exist.4
If our consciousness does not require our brain or any part of the body, it could be possible for it to continue after death. To be more precise, our conscious experience continues after we die.
The director of resuscitation research at NYU's Langone Medical Center, Dr. Sam Parnia, said that 40% of patients could describe what was happening while they were clinically dead (Video below). And 2% of those descriptions were positively validated.
Could that be sufficient evidence of consciousness and awareness continuing after death? Researchers continue to investigate this, and that possibility brings us to another question—could there be life after death?
Is There Evidence of Life After Death?
I found possible evidence when I read a book by Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon who was in a deep coma for a week. He described his Near-Death Experience in his book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife5.
During the seven days in a coma, there was no detection of brain activity. He had a bacterial meningitis infection with a rare case of an E. Coli attacking his brain.
The part of the brain that controls thought and emotion had shut down. However, when Dr. Alexander recovered, he had a conscious recollection of everything that took place while he had been in a coma, even of people not in his presence.
I would tend not to believe what Dr. Alexander wrote about, except that he is a well-recognized neurosurgeon.
Two things stood out for me when I read his story:
- Doctors know that the chance of recovery is slim to none when E. Coli attacks the brain.
- I found it interesting that during his coma, he had an out-of-body experience that he was able to prove by describing everything that went on with the people who loved him and who were concerned about his recovery.
One has to wonder about that.
The experiences he remembers having had were related to what he describes as being in heaven. Since I had researched similar cases, I found it interesting that many people who encounter Near-Death Experience describe their memory of it in very similar ways.
For that reason, I don't want to doubt it, even though my scientific understanding contradicts the results. Nevertheless, Dr. Alexander's explanation is clear and precise. He describes in detail every stage of his struggle:
- How he suddenly succumbed to the E. Coli attack and quickly went into a coma;
- How the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong since E. Coli getting into the brain is so rare, and all they knew for sure was that his brain activity had seized;
- How he was fully aware of the stress all his loved ones were going through as they thought he would never recover;
- How his impression of his out-of-body experience tended to display proof of heaven.
His story relates well to my research into figuring out where our consciousness resides and if it can survive our death.
To Conclude, Here's What I Think
The out-of-body experience that people talk about after having had a near death experience is said to result from the soul leaving the body. However, I have a different idea about this that I call "Out-of-Body Memories."
Whenever I remember a past event I had experienced, I realize I see it from a birds-eye-view. That is, I visualize my memories observing from above, looking down, or from another location. Is that how you recall memories?
The point I’m making is that people who claim to have an out-of-body experience might be visualizing it in a way.
It remains difficult to dismiss what Dr. Alexander claims about his alleged time in the afterlife, especially with his clarity and accuracy that was confirmed by his friends and family.
If it’s true that one can be conscious of life outside the body while in a coma with no brain function, then it leaves the question of where our consciousness is located unresolved, but seems to indicate that it's not a function of the brain.
- Paul Thagard Ph.D. (April 2011). What Is Consciousness? Psychology Today
- Michael Shermer. (July 1, 2012). What Happens to Consciousness When We Die. Scientific American
- Susan Cosier. (May 1, 2015). Could Memory Traces Exist in Cell Bodies? Scientific American
- Clifford N. Lazarus Ph.D. (Jun 26, 2019). Does Consciousness Exist Outside of the Brain? Psychology Today
- Dr. Eben Alexander M.D. Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife. Simon & Schuster
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Glenn Stok
Kesther on July 27, 2019:
I wish more would just reconsider the mind-is-brain-activity- view for at least a minute, and stop calling those who disagree and those that have spiritual experiences ( I'm one of them ) "arrogant and special snowflakes".
If one person can have spiritual experiences, everyone else can. So that throws "arrogance and special snowflakes" out the window. No one really has the truth either. Not mind-beyond-brain proponents nor materialists.
Keep up the good work.
Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on July 26, 2019:
Kesther - That’s a very good explanation. It goes to show that we always need to consider that something else is going on that causes even educated people, such as Dr. Alexander, to imagine activities outside of their body.
Kesther on July 26, 2019:
I am highly skeptical about Eben Alexander.
What's funny is when some materialist try to explain NDEs away, they say that when different people have the same or very similar NDEs, that's proof that it's all from the nervous system, subconscious, and brain-based, because "they have brains and neurons too".
And when there are different NDEs based on different cultures and religions, that's also proof that it's nothing but brain activity and hallucinations, because people see what they believe or want to believe in. If you believe in a spiritual realm, your biology will create those illusions. Evolutionary mechanisms. It's all about survival and reproduction.
You can't win with hardlined materialists. And of course there's one of their favorite sayings "If you disagree that the mind is brain activity, and you think there's a reality beyond the physical, you're poorly or have a low education, naive/gullible, afraid of death and oblivion, want to believe you're special, and you can't accept the harsh reality that this physical world is the only one you get, like an adult. Too many adults believe in childish fantasies."
Looking beyond materialism has nothing to do with education, or behaving like an adult. Many people who do so are highly or well educated, rational, and mature. Even a few atheists think that materialism is ridiculous.
Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on July 01, 2019:
ason B Truth - I agree with you that editorial on paranormal is of no use in a scientific essay. That's why Nimoy's program was considered Science Fiction.
Jason B Truth from United States of America on July 01, 2019:
There were a lot of shows on television about this topic back when I was a little kid. One show that they have shown reruns of regarding this topic is "In Search Of" hosted by the late Leonard Nimoy. I think that television needs to bring back these kinds of shows and programs, but not in the form of these boring reality shows about the paranormal that are on the SyFy Channel. By the way, you wrote an excellent article.
Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on June 10, 2019:
Harrison Declan - Everything we read needs to be taken with a grain of salt. There will always be people who make up stories, and people who really believe that they experienced something that may only have been a dream. I question everything just as you do. I found Dr. Alexander interesting only because of his professional background. But I still take it with a grain of salt. We will never know for sure until our time comes. I appreciate your comment.
Harrison Declan on June 10, 2019:
For me this has always been an interesting subject and which always leave more questions than answers. Dr. Alexander's story strongly tilts the pendulum in support of life after death considering his pedigree. But if we're to make our conclusions on his narration, do we also make conclusions on narrations of people who have been abducted by aliens, or on people whose NDE is different from Dr. Alexander's? Do animals have consciousness and do they experience NDE and after life? These are questions that will continue to puzzle us until we find fact based explanation of the source of consciousness.
Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on December 14, 2018:
Bryon Ehlmann - Your explanation of natural afterlife sounds insightful and relates to other articles I’ve written on the subject. I think you’ll find them interesting as well. They are listed here: https://www.glennstok.com/list-spiritual-philosoph...
Bryon Ehlmann from Tallahassee, Florida on December 14, 2018:
The natural eternal consciousness (NEC), which for some will be a natural afterlife, provides an affirmative answer to "Does Consciousness Continue after Death?" Both phenomena are logically consistent and supported by psychological principles and human experience, i.e, they are not supernatural. They also explain a linkage that exists between dreams, near-death experiences (NDEs), and death as well as the many bouts of timelessness, like dreamless sleep and passing out, that we experience throughout our lives and into death. Contrary to what most people perceive of when they think of an afterlife, the natural afterlife is not a time perceptive one but a timeless one. Also, it need not be associated with religion.
If you do an internet search on "natural external consciousness" or "natural afterlife," you will find more detail.
Eric Breaux on February 19, 2018:
The best rationale for consciousness not depending on the brain is that if we were entirely physical, every thought and emotion we could have is just a reaction we have no control of. that would include every idea we have from what we observe, so no thought could be trusted because it's just a forced reaction of the brain. You wouldn't have honestly looked at any observable thing and made a rational deduction from evidence, which includes the idea that we are only physical, so materialism is contradictory.
ValKaras on January 29, 2018:
Glenn---Just to add to my comment---it had nothing to do with Lanza's theory, everything was my own speculating, which I did make clear; but, not knowing that you are familiar with "Biocentrism" I suggested that reading.
Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on January 29, 2018:
Vladimir Karas - I’m familiar with Dr. Lanza’s concept of how we see the world, which he coined “Biocentrism”. You didn’t make it clear in your comment, but his theory includes the need to study biology as well as physics to understand the “theory of everything,” as he puts it. I can’t argue with that. Thanks for your comment.
ValKaras on January 29, 2018:
In one of my articles---won't mention its title to avoid much disliked advertising---I compared death to my deep meditations during which I have no sensation of having a body, a name, an everyday self-image.
Furthermore, when I decide a night before to wake up the next morning at a certain time, it regularly happens. Now, who, or what in the sleeping-me "knows" what time it is?
Also, when I am walking in my favorite park-forest, why my eyes always look down just before I would step on a goose's poop or a chewing gum?
Here I am talking about consciousness being independent of body, which often happens to long time meditators who consciously detach from their bodily sensations and mind's monkeying around.
I think that consciousness survives physical death, "simply" because in our essence we are consciousness; and body, with its different and loud band of frequencies interferes with the ones of consciousness---so we identify ourselves with the "loudest" entity in our personal space. (Sorry for the long sentence, lol).
I tend to go introspective during my dreaming, so I am aware that it's a dream---sometimes directing it. I think people are operating from their automatic pilot, not living consciously, so they are scared of that bunch of survival automatisms dying some day. It's for the lack of personal sovereignty that we identify with our collective consciousness, not our own.
And now it's time to say it---sorry for the lengthy comment, LOL.
Great and interesting article, Glenn. You may want to read "Biocentrism", by Dr. Robert Lanza, MD.
Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on December 14, 2017:
Linda, Dr. Alexander is the brain surgeon I was referring to in my comment in your article on S.Pneumoniae. Since he is a professional in the field, his book about his experience is very interesting. It's great that he survived to write about it.
Your article ties in well and helps with the understanding of Streptococcus Pneumoniae.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on December 14, 2017:
This is a very interesting article, Glenn. I've thought about some of the points that you mention. I haven't read Dr. Alexander's book, however. I'm looking forward to doing this. The nature of consciousness is an intriguing topic.
Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on September 02, 2017:
Eugene, You should read Dr. Alexander's book that I listed in the references. You have a very gruesome impression of the afterlife. Dr Alexander still experienced having all his senses while he was brain dead in a coma. He didn't feel deprived, as he explains it in his book. For that matter, he discusses how he had more sensory capabilities during his out-of-body experience.
We are limited in our bodies with only five senses. Finding another "host" is not the solution. You might find my other article about "A Hypothetical Observation of What to Expect in the Afterlife" uplifting with other ideas.
Eugene Brennan from Ireland on September 02, 2017:
My greatest fear is that after death and deprived of it's senses, our consciousness exists in a sensory-deprived void for all eternity (or at least until it finds a 'host'). Not something particularly pleasant to think about. It's something some stroke victims probably experience to a greater lesser degree.
Mary Wickison from USA on September 02, 2017:
A thought provoking article.
Like yourself, I will be watching that movie as it sounds interesting. I think people get hung up on words such as God and heaven and defend their viewpoint accordingly.
I personally think there is another spiritual plane where our consciousness is after death or perhaps it is always there.
I too have experienced similar unexplained coincidences which have made me question the connectivity of various people and a joint consciousness.
Jo Miller from Tennessee on September 01, 2017:
Many years ago my mom became ill with a brain disease, and I thought if I read enough books and talked to enough doctors we could fix her. I began reading a book about the brain and soon discovered that we still know very little about the part of us that we know with--our brains. It was a humbling and life-changing event. I've heard it said that the first step in accepting God is to accept that we are not. Mystery may just be another word for God. After all, God is just a word that we humans made up. To assume that we know more about this mystery of life (until proven otherwise) seems a little arrogant to me.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on September 01, 2017:
A question for the ages! I've seen plausible evidence on all sides of this question. I've yet to make a solid opinion on it, although it would be great if "it survives" is true. Thanks for the additional resources and discussion on this fascinating topic! Have a great Labor Day Weekend!