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Sunday, July 3, 2011
Brain / Mind ... Spirituality ...

During a “daisan” talk with my sensei (Zen teacher) recently, we delved into the ever-popular subject of death. We had started the discussion with a koan about change, (Zuigan’s “Everlasting Principle”) and then got around to fear and the anxiety caused by change. But ultimately, all the roads of change and fear lead to death. I don’t think that we resolved anything – Zen inherently resolves nothing – but at least we were both being honest.

What do we humans fear so much about death? Well, for me, it’s the idea of no more consciousness. No more experiences. No more knowing myself and the world around me. During our little discussion, I told the sensei that I realize that during any night of normal sleep, we lose all of our consciousness for a period. No dreams, no sensations, no nothing. It’s about the same as being under anesthesia. So what is so terrible about that? Nothing – no fear, no anxiety, no suffering – no hell. That moment of “black sleep” seems very natural (when you’re conscious, anyway). It isn’t a great tragedy. So why should a permanent state like that be seen as such a great tragedy?

And yet, consciousness itself seems so different from the doings of the objective world, something entirely special, “sui generis”, something that represents a gift from “somewhere else”. And that is where I ground whatever hope I would have for an after-life; the notion that consciousness is more than an emergent effect from certain highly concentrated and integrated data situations that occur in self-sustaining creatures having great capacities for environmental information input and analysis. The consciousness that we taste in our lives is, under this view, an off-shoot from a greater tree of meta-consciousness. And somehow the events of our own lives and our own local consciousness somehow accumulate in that meta-conscious realm, and will continue dynamically even after the earthly basis for consciousness as we know it goes the way of all earthly things. That would be my hope.

But my thoughts about the “dead mind” of the night, and the occasional experience of general anesthesia, give me doubt about this theory / hope (wishful thinking, for sure). The stream of our conscious lives sometimes stops; the physical factors that support it end, temporarily anyway. And during this time, most of us (including myself) don’t claim to experience any sort of “higher consciousness” mediated beyond the boundaries of our known physical universe. During the night, or during a medical operation, we just disappear. (Yes, I know that some people do hear and remember things from their operations; but many do not). If there is some sort of trans-universal physicality that would mediate a “meta consciousness” where life after death would occur, where arguably the experiences of our lives are already stored and building up, why don’t we remember experiencing it when we come back from our blackouts?

The only out I could see from this dead-end to the hope for an after-life would be if somehow, the body’s processes that restore our conscious awareness after a nightly black-out or an operation somehow prevent the “next realm” from breaking into our minds and neurons. And by the same coin, something about the process of dying tears down that separation, such that our consciousness does transition over to that other realm, like the fire from one candle lighting another just as the last trace of wax on the first candle melts away.

At the moment, I have no good conjectures or theories whatsoever on why a dying body would remove an informational wall that a living body maintains against this “ultimate realm”. But from a wild-ass guess perspective, might it have something to do with some sort of quantum-like weirdness involving super-positioned information states regarding this “life information”? I.e., could the integrated information of consciousness influence two places at once through wave coherence, as a quantum particle can; but only “de-cohere” and become manifest in one of these places? Would that allow the alternate state (“in heaven” or whatever) to manifest once the informational interference on this earthly end stops? Sigh, who knows . . .

The only clue that we might have in this regard is something that I have assiduously avoided all my life; the topic of “near death experiences”. If there was something tenable about NDE’s, if consciousness did continue when the thalamus-cortical loops could not sustain consciousness during a situation where a failure cascade in the system of the body (the “near death”) would normally cause a permanent cessation of conscious informational looping, then maybe there is some hope that when the body dies, there is an “other side” to see you on. But I don’t want to invest all of my faith in an afterlife in NDE’s. They might be totally debunked at some point. A lot of scientists have a lot of reasonable-sounding explanations for the many reported NDE’s.

And yet . . . for what it’s worth, the Wikipedia entry on NDE’s doesn’t appear to totally rule out the idea that consciousness transcends known physical brain processes. I was rather surprised at the amount of attention and resources going into this topic. I guess that I’m not the only one feeling like my hope for an eternal tomorrow ride on whether there’s more to the NDE thing than delusions explainable from unusual (but not impossible) states of physical brain activity during physical trauma, or just people making things up to gain attention. A lot of scientists seem to believe the whole thing is hogwash, or explainable by known neurophysical processes. But nonetheless, there is an International Association for Near-death Studies and a Journal of Near Death Studies. Where there is a “journal”, there is usually an open question involved.

And then there is Dr. Sam Parnia, a former skeptical researcher who now thinks there might be something novel happening at least in some instances (“MIGHT” being the key word here — i.e., worth further investigation). Other NDE researchers point out that many features of these experiences are not influenced by culture or age or religious views; there seem to be some universals involved in the reports given by those who “come back to testify”. Unless NDE’s are entirely programmed in the genes, that would seem unusual from an organ (the brain) where environment and dynamical chaos and path-dependency are so prominent.

But once again — who knows. As the song title by The Atlanta Rhythm Section goes, “I’m Not Gonna Let It Bother Me Tonight”. I hope to drop off into that black region of no consciousness, with no bright lights at the end of a tunnel, no reunions with loved ones, no feelings of boundless love. And if I die before I wake – well, hey, I did the best I could. My sensei could ask for no more.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:36 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, I’m afraid I will have to disagree with you on some of your points here. But first, let me say that any and all of my comments are made with all due respect to you; none of them are meant to be disrespectful to you in any way at all.

    In general I tend to think that you are trying to reduce everything to science when, as far as I’m concerned, this topic is not scientific at all but more mystical or spiritual or at least intangible.

    I am sorry but I really have to disagree with you about the idea that “during any night of normal sleep, we lose all of our consciousness for a period.” It would seem to me that if we did actually do this, we would be brain dead.

    My “evidence” for this comes from some things that actually happened to me before I was put under deep anesthesia for major surgery—and from study of lucid dreaming. So, let me describe/explain:

    Just before the anesthesiologist was ready to “put me out” (what a wrong word “out” is here) for some major surgery, I said to him: “Make sure I *stay out*; I don’t want to wake up in the middle of this whole thing.” He said to me: “Don’t worry; I’ll monitor your brain waves and make sure you stay deep enough under.”

    Now this indicates to me that although I might not have been *aware* of brain activity, it definitely had to be there, as the doctor was monitoring it. Or it seems to me I would have been brain dead if *all* brain activity had ceased.

    Then too, I had another experience after a different seriously major surgery: I had been put in an induced coma to aid in my recovery. (Never did figure out how that induced coma would aid my recovery, but I digress.) During the induced coma, evidently, the doctors did not check brain activity as to how deeply I was “under” (better word?) whatever induces a coma. I knew absolutely *everything* going on; yet was unable to respond bodily—locked in syndrome they call it, I guess. I’m here to tell you: My brain was working some serious overtime during that time when. According to the doctors, when I complained vociferously afterward, I was supposed to be unaware in a coma.

    And, again, I repeat: With all due respect, I also must strongly disagree with you that I might thus have been “delusional”—or is it only NDE’s that are “delusional”? I respectfully tend to think that you are treading in areas you have not experienced here. Just because one’s experience may not “fit” in the “scientific box” you have made for it, does not mean these other types of experience cannot and do not exist.

    So, obviously, the brain continues to function whether or not we are aware of its functioning.

    So, I have a question: If we “disappear” during the night or during surgery, do we “reappear” in when we wake up? This sounds like magic. Respectfully: Something is wrong with that idea, to my way of thinking.

    Rather than delve into more of the specific points I disagree with you about, I’d like to make this observation: I believe that the “problem” here is that you are looking for a *scientific* explanation of something that is intangible/mystical/spiritual—choose the word you like best. I don’t think you are allowing any room for the intangible here. And the intangible can be just as real as the tangible.

    I do notice that you seem to “wish” for some kind of hope that awareness may exist on some level that one cannot experience (or does not usually experience except under extreme circumstances). How about thinking outside the box of science into an intangible box and seeing what might be in there?

    One such “intangible box” I would recommend is the study of lucid dreaming/dreams. That’s a fascinating study that I spent 24 years studying and learned to do (more or less). Right there might be a clue for studying the different kinds of awareness that may exist that ordinarily are incomprehensible to us when we consider only the physical as real.

    And once again, I repeat here: All my comments are meant only with all due respect; I do not mean any of my comments in any disrespectful manner toward you whatsoever. This may be one of those things we have to agree to disagree on. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — July 4, 2011 @ 6:59 pm

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