I was that annoying kid in high school math who would raise his hand with an answer before the teacher had finished asking the question.  My strategy was simple. During the question, if I was comfortable that I knew the answer, the hand would go up. I knew I had a few seconds before I was called on, and the odds of being called on were low — unless no one else raised their hand.  A bit after I felt comfortable that I knew the answer, it would become available for me to open my mouth and say it. I was normally right, and usually would then be asked how I had reached that answer. This was always the hardest part, and I struggled internally to deduce how this could have happened.  Such an explanation was usually right too.

In high school math, I knew something I did not verbalize until writing this piece:  that we can know before we can say, that our reasoning can be at first non-conscious, and then, with effort, be piped up to our feeble consciousness, as if it had taken place there.

We give great credit to our consciousness, very little credit to our brains. It should be the other way around.  As it turns out, our conscious experience is a small, dim fragment of our actual experience.  When a perception finally reaches our consciousness, it has been washed clean of noise, twisted according to our expectations and prejudices, and packaged into something more familiar. Most everything that happens in that brain never reaches the surface of awareness.

If you think your brain is a second class citizen, and your consciousness is driving things, then read Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, by David Eagleman. Turns out that much of the action is below consciousness. You know this from your reactions to brake in a dangerous situation before you are fully aware of the danger, or to pull your hand from the stove before you become aware of the pain. The decision-making process of the unconscious brain is not always revealed to our consciousness. In one study, men rated some women as more attractive than others from photographs, but couldn’t explain why. Turns out, the pupils of the more attractive women had been artificially  dilated with Photoshop. The unconscious brain knows that dilated pupils are an indicator of sexual arousal.

You must read Eagleman’s book. When you are finished, you will marvel even more at what the hundreds of billions of neurons in  your head can do, understand yourself a bit better, and maybe even understand that your “self” is just a constructed reality.

To think clearly about life, we must sometimes think about death.

I have thought about death for most of my life.  But I’ve never written about it.

I know I will die. I don’t want to die. I suppose those are the two main conclusions after all these years of thinking. But I have had a few other thoughts on the topic, too.

Mind and Soul

Reification is the process in which an abstract idea is treated as if it were a real, concrete, physical entity.  Reification occurs when we call the results of certain brain activity “mind”, and then assume that “mind” has its own existence independent of neural activity.

Is “mind” an entity to be discovered or some idea our brains have created?

A hint that we have reified the idea of mind is provided when we realize that we can’t agree on what the word refers to.  Some psychologists think it should include reason and memory, but exclude emotions such as love, hate, fear and joy.  Others include emotions.  Some philosophers believe that the mind exists independently of the brain (“dualism”), others that all mental phenomena are derived from brain activity (“materialism”).  A few are holding out for the idea that only mental phenomena exist (“idealism”).  After centuries of wrestling with these views, the case is not settled, which further argues for the case that “mind” does not exist as an independent entity. That is, if mind had a real existence, shouldn’t we agree on what it is?

Month after month, more connections are found between brain activity and “mental” activity.  Stimulate the brain here, like this, and you experience some smell, sight, or memory.  Stimulate again, and you experience it again.  Stimulate some other area, and you experience something else.  We cannot be expected to know the neural mechanisms for every perception, plan, recollection, or fantasy.  But those who oppose the idea that all mental phenomena derive from brain activity must tell us just what sorts of mental phenomena do not have their origins in the brain.

“Soul”  is sometimes used as a synonym for “mind”, but usually refers to an immortal mind. As with notions of mind, notions of the soul have varied widely over the past few thousand years.  Some early Greek thinkers hypothesized that the soul gave life to the body, that the soul only became active during sleep, and that the soul retired to Hades when the body died.  Plato believed that the soul was the essence of a person, and controlled our actions. His soul never died: when the body died, the soul was reborn in some other body.

There are many problems with the idea of an immortal soul, regardless of which religious compass is used.

  • If it is a real thing that manages to get into a second real body upon the death of the first body, what value is this to the previous or new owner of the soul?  We can have no knowledge of that future life, or of some past life.  Immortality of my soul does not benefit me.
  • If I have a soul, then unless it was created in me, it must have come from elsewhere.  If they always come from the dead, then because there are more people today than ever, some of us won’t be able to find a soul donor.  And if the world’s population begins to shrink, what will happen to the extras?
  • If my soul was created at my birth, and lives on after my body has died, how does this benefit me?

If the existence of mind is inferred from consciousness, perception, memory, and the like, and is produced by the brain, then it is not immortal in any useful sense.  When the brain stops, perception stops.  Memory stops.  If we could identify what parts of the mind are not triggered by neural activity, then we could claim that those parts can outlive brain death.  But no one has identified such parts.  Mind and soul are inventions.

Animal Consciousness

Consciousness is defined as awareness, the ability to experience or to feel, wakefulness, or having a sense of self.  These various definitions should make us wonder if it exists as some single entity, or rather is one or more derivatives of brain activity. When we are conscious, we can perceive, plan, recollect, or have fantasies.

Consciousness requires that the brain be aroused — either awake or in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep with vivid dreams.

Consciousness also requires two functioning parts of the vertebrate brain: the cerebral cortex and the reticular activating system (RAS) within the brainstem. When either of these areas is damaged, we drop into a coma, in which a person: cannot be awakened; fails to respond normally to painful stimuli, light, or sound; lacks a normal sleep-wake cycle; and, does not initiate voluntary actions.1 When consciousness exists, it is a result of brain activity.  All vertebrates have these two critical components in their brains, and it should be assumed that all vertebrates experience consciousness.

It is reasonable to wonder if we can control our brains, or if our brains control our consciousness.  I think it is the latter.  In high school math, I often had the correct answer to some problem immediately, but would have to struggle when asked “how did you figure that?”.  Such figuring happened just fine on its own, but it was a labor to retap the brain’s logic, and translate it to language.  If consciousness is derived from brain activity, we could still have “free will”, but would have to accept that the brain makes all decisions non-consciously, then sometimes throws up some tidbits to our consciousness.

Brain activity stops at death, and since it is the origin of vertebrate consciousness, such consciousness must also end at death. Consciousness isn’t limited to humans, but it is limited to living, functioning vertebrate brains.


When people are awakened from REM sleep, they often report experiencing vivid, complex dreams.  Our dogs seem to dream, with legs twitching or thrashing, and sounds coming forth. Other animals experience REM sleep, and so presumably also experience vivid, complex dreams.  If REM sleep is any indication, dreaming is widespread in birds and mammals.2.  Insect eyes don’t move, but their antennae certainly do, and queen fire ants have RAM (rapid antennal movement) sleep, in which their antennae quiver as if they were dreaming.3  Honeybees also have bursts of antennal movement when sleeping.4  Animals having REM or RAM sleep likely also have “consciousness”.

Researchers who have trained rats to run a maze can match the brain patterns of the maze running with brain patterns that occur when the rat is sleeping.  By using one tone to indicate that the rat should turn left, and a different tone to guide a right turn, the researchers taught two different mazes, and measured two different brain patterns.  In sleeping rats, sounding the tone to turn in one direction produced the brain pattern to turn in that direction.  In short, they manipulated the brain (via the tone) to have a dream.5

So for the skeptics: a perception can trigger a particular dream in a sleeping brain.  Any awareness of that dream must occur as it is occurring, or after it has occurred, and attempt to interpret it.  And this allows for all sorts of filtering and layers of interpretation.

What is death like?

Because death is, by definition, irreversible, we don’t have any reports from the dead.  But since conscious experience requires a functioning brain, we can assume that death is at least like a very deep sleep. Without a functioning neural system, death must be entirely without sensation — no pain, no pleasure, no sight, no sound.  I would love to think that life quietly goes on, somehow, and that I could at least reflect on days gone by.  But when my reflection apparatus has ceased functioning, this isn’t likely. No, death cannot be like heaven, purgatory, or hell.  Such destinations could only exist if we could continue to experience, which requires that we not be dead.  Notions of an afterlife have their following among the wishful thinkers of this world, but it is death that is after life, not life.

What’s wrong with death?

Much of what disturbs me about my own death is the notion that my wonderful self, so wise, so loved, so clever, comes to an end.  I am a prince among men, and to end this delusion is to burst my biggest bubble.  But, in fact, I won’t be disturbed by my death after it happens (see previous paragraph).  And if I could wash away some of my self-glorification, I would be able to see that my death matters no more to the world than any roadkill.  This planet did nicely before I was born, and will surely get along without me soon.


If in death we feel no pain, no pleasure, then suicide seems like a good option for anyone who is in terrible pain from an irreversible condition.  Death is sometimes a very practical means of pain avoidance.  While we disapprove of suicides, it is usually because we were ignorant of the data involved:  how great was their physical or emotional pain to them?  how preferable did death seem?  We are never in a position to know these facts, but always seem to be able to put ourselves in a position to pass judgment.  I don’t think such judgment is my business, or that of anyone else.


We give ribbons and medals to those who are injured or die in battle or while trying to protect others.  We presume that such awards recognize courage, and somehow compensate for loss.  But courage is a slippery slope of judgment.  Someone who knowingly puts themselves in harm’s way is more courageous than someone who stumbles into harm. Someone who acts wisely while they are acting selflessly is more to be commended than someone who dies out of good intention but bad judgment.  And someone who loves life and yet chooses to lose it for another is surely working with a different decision-making process than someone who is being swallowed by the mud of bad marriage, bad health, or bad job.  Sorting all of this out requires more knowledge of the person and situation than we ever have.  So we hand out ribbons, and call them all heroes.  But they are not all equal.


Show 5 footnotes

  1. Anon. “Coma”. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coma
  2. John Cline. Do Cats Dream of Catching Mice? Psychology Today, April 5, 2010. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sleepless-in-america/201004/do-cats-dream-catching-mice
  3. Deby L. Cassill, Skye Brown, Devon Swick and George Yanev ‘Polyphasic Wake/Sleep Episodes in the Fire Ant, Solenopsis Invicta’. Journal of Insect Behaviour, July 2009.
  4. Map of Life – “Sleep in animals” http://mapoflife.org/topics/topic_149_Sleep-in-animals/ February 18, 2013
  5. Daniel Bendor & Matthew A Wilson. “Biasing the content of hippocampal replay during sleep”. Nature Neuroscience 15, 1439–1444 (2012) doi:10.1038/nn.3203 Received 23 April 2012 Accepted 06 August 2012 Published online 02 September 2012 http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v15/n10/full/nn.3203.html