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If Consciousness Is Not in the Brain, Will It Survive Our Death?

Updated on October 23, 2017
Glenn Stok profile image

Glenn Stok likes to study and analyze curious aspects of life through theoretical and critical philosophy, and with a unique perspective.

Do we know for sure that our consciousness is in our brain? If not, is it possible that it will continue after our death?

I can't give you a definite answer to these questions. However, I will discuss these issues that scientists have been studying for years.

  1. I’ll start with a brief explanation of what causes consciousness, based on how psychologists explain it.
  2. Then I’ll discuss a philosophical idea of mine, that consciousness does not require the body.
  3. I’ll conclude this article with a review of a book I read by a renowned brain surgeon who was brain dead for an extended period and lived to write about it–claiming proof of consciousness after death.

Source

How Do Psychologists Explain Consciousness?

I read the following excerpt in an article in Scientific American1:

"Because we know for a fact that measurable consciousness dies when the brain dies, until proved otherwise, the default hypothesis must be that brains cause consciousness."

— Michael Shermer, Scientific American

I have trouble accepting that statement. The author claims it to be a fact. At least he qualifies his statement by adding "until proved otherwise."

Major 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.” 2

So what does that mean? I’m sure you are aware that you have a keen perception of your environment. You even are aware that you sense your emotion about things you experience as you reflect upon them. Is that consciousness, or is your brain just binding all these perceptions and appraisals? I think that’s what Dr. Thagard was trying to say in his article.

I’m a computer programmer/analyst, and my background causes me to visualize all brain functions as simple calculations. Computers could do all that! Artificial Intelligence is a fast-moving field today that is coming close to doing just about anything humans do–maybe even better.

However, is that consciousness? I think not, but that’s just my opinion.

Does Consciousness Continue After Death?

Our consciousness is what some people might consider our soul. If that’s so, then it may be possible that our consciousness remains after death. Our physical bodies are of no use and of no need.

Scientists believe that our consciousness is in our brain, but we really don’t know that for sure. It’s possible that every cell in our body is a storage unit for our memory, and that memory triggers our consciousness.

Who’s to say that when the cells of our body die, along with the entire body, our consciousness and memory upload to another storage medium? This may not be so far-fetched. Did you ever have the experience of sensing that a friend or family member was in trouble, only later to discover they really were? I’ve had that experience, and some friends told me similar stories.

So where is that happening? Is there some other entity that is responsible for storing the data 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 in space. Your dream is a simulation, but while you’re dreaming, it’s just as real.

Your dreams are made up in your mind. Your body is no part of that, even though you imagine your physical existence in your dreams.

I propose the idea that the same may be true after death. Whatever consciousness is, if it's something that does not require the body then it's possible that it can continue after death. That is to say, our conscious experience continues after we die. One might think of this as heaven.

If all that is true, then whatever happens in heaven is actually a dream. This dream can entertain us with all the blessings and good fortunes we deserve or desire.

Is There Evidence or Proof of Life After Death?

I discovered a book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife3, by Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon who was in a deep coma for a week. He had a bacterial meningitis infection with a rare case of an E. Coli attacking his brain.

During those seven days in a coma, there was no detection of brain activity. The part of the brain that controls thought and emotion had shut down. However, when he 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 in his book, except for the fact that he is a well-recognized neurosurgeon. Two things really stood out for me when I read his story:

  1. It is known that the chance of recovery is slim to none when E. Coli attacks the brain.
  2. 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, despite the fact that my scientific understanding contradicts the results. Nevertheless, Dr. Alexander's explanation is very clear and precise. He describes in detail every stage of his struggle:

  1. How he suddenly succumbed to the E. Coli attack and quickly went into a coma;
  2. 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;
  3. How he was fully aware of the stress all his loved ones were going through as they thought he would never recover;
  4. 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.

Let There Be Light

A movie entitled “Let There Be Light” with a release date in November 2017 is about a similar situation where a world-renowned atheist, played by Kevin Sorbo, has an experience that challenges his beliefs.

I look forward to seeing that movie since this is such an interesting hypothesis.

My Hypothetical Observation of Life After Death

It’s hard to dismiss what Dr. Alexander claims about his time in the afterlife, due to his clarity and accuracy of his experiences that were confirmed by his friends and family.

References

1. What Happens to Consciousness When We Die | Scientific American, July 1, 2012

2. What Is Consciousness? by Paul Thagard Ph.D. | Psychology Today, April 2011

3. Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife | Dr. Eben Alexander | Simon & Schuster

© 2017 Glenn Stok

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    • jeffzod profile image

      Jeff Zod 2 months ago from Nairobi

      Our consciousness survives after death. It does not exist in our physical brains.

    • AMFredenburg profile image

      Aldene Fredenburg 2 months ago from Southwestern New Hampshire

      Interesting article!

    • Glenn Stok profile image
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      Glenn Stok 2 months ago from Long Island, NY

      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.

    • eugbug profile image

      Eugene Brennan 2 months ago from Ireland

      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.

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 2 months ago from Brazil

      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.

      Fascinating topic.

    • jo miller profile image

      Jo Miller 2 months ago from Tennessee

      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.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 2 months ago from Chicago Area

      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!