Death and Consciousness: Dying all the time

Toward a Science of Consciousness, Tucson, 21-26 April 2014


Here I sit, looking through my window at a menacing grey sky above wintry trees. I seem to exist; to be aware; to be a conscious perceiver having a stream of experiences. It’s easy to jump from the immediacy of this experience to the conclusion that this ‘me’ is the same one who drove home earlier today, sat down at my desk and will soon get up to make a cup of tea. I suggest the first part may be true but the second is not. That is, something corresponds to this sense of self here now, such as a model of self constructed by an active brain, but this is ephemeral. This is just one in a series of short-lived selves perpetually being born and dying again. Selves are constructed as needed, for example when planning actions or worrying about the past, but they do not last.

Our thoughts and actions soon move on and any particular self fizzles out. Then a new situation arises that requires a self and so one arises. This new self is, to be sure, somewhat similar to the previous one because it was constructed by a brain that has only slightly changed in the interim. Nevertheless it is not the same self. The previous self has died. Life is a series of such births and deaths. Yet for most people the illusion of continuity persists, giving rise to the fear of death. For those who are mindful the same self may carry on for minutes or hours without disappearing, but disappear it will in time, even if only when sleep takes over. But those who see through the illusion get used to the sensation of appearing out of nowhere and then dying again. For them the death of the physical body is just more of the same and not to be feared. What happens in near-death experiences? I have interviewed many people who have come close to death. Some had classic NDEs; many did not. But there is no doubt that NDEs tend to unfold from the tunnel and light, through an out-of-body experience, and on (less often) to other worlds, the decision to return and a personal transformation including loss of the fear of death. Religious believers interpret all this as the soul’s journey towards life after death. Yet the science of NDEs shows that the tunnel and light depend on disinhibition in visual cortex, the emotions on endorphins, the life review on activity in temporal lobe, and the OBE on breakdown of the body image at the temporo-parietal junction. In the most profound NDEs the sense of a separate and persisting self breaks down, as it does in many mystical experiences of oneness, and the person returns to ordinary life in the full knowledge that they never were a persisting entity and so physical death is nothing to fear. Being born and dying again is just how it is and always was.