Life, Death, and Consciousness

217 11 32

Author's note: This is a philosophical, experimental piece, that may cause feelings of existential dread. If you are sensitive to this kind of thing, please carefully reconsider if you want to continue reading. 


Every night, when we fall asleep, we die

Oops! This image does not follow our content guidelines. To continue publishing, please remove it or upload a different image.

Every night, when we fall asleep, we die.

I can fully understand if this confuses you, so please allow me to explain. First, we need to look into what it means to die—and what it means to be alive.

On a purely biological level, to be alive means our body is functioning; our cells are fed and receive enough oxygen. Even then, our brain is the most important part. If the cells of, for example, our heart starve or suffocate—and we're able to receive medical treatment on time—our body as a whole can still survive. The worst-case scenario would be requiring a heart transplant.

Yet on a purely biological level, what does it mean when we're dead? Because the moment someone is deemed dead, the cells in their body are not all dead yet. Otherwise, donating tissue or organs wouldn't be possible. The bacteria in our gut are still happily growing when people around us are grieving. The cells in our skin are still active despite the neurons in our brain having stopped firing. The cells of our internal organs take a moment too before they notice that the blood that brought them oxygen, nutrients, and carried away their waste has stopped flowing.

Death, most would agree, occurs when the brain stops functioning.

But is even that true? If a person were to be beheaded by a guillotine, those brain cells will still have enough oxygen to remain active to register what has happened—were it not that the brain probably shut down from the trauma.

The moment of when we pass into death may be a bit vague and disputable, but let's complicate things even more...

We consider things with cells to be alive. Plants, animals, bacteria, fungi... But a virus is something scientists can still argue about. Cells show activity. They have chemical reactions, turn one thing into another to create nutrients and energy, and they multiply. A virus can only do the latter by invading a cell. Without a host, a virus is nothing but genetic material in a shell. It has no activity.

Yet it infects cells, forces them to make more virus particles, and repeats the cycle. Furthermore, we can destroy a virus and with it, its chances to replicate itself. Does that mean we killed it? For if we killed it, it must have been alive.

But, back to cells... Some can go into a dormant stage and become inactive. Are they dead or alive? If they become active again, we would say they had been alive all along, but what if they don't? Were they dead? In the dormant stage, there is no way of telling what the final outcome will be. Dead or alive? This grey area doesn't even apply to just cells; some animals can do it too.

For example, there are several species of frog who can freeze in winter, have their hearts come to a stop along with their other organs, and then thaw come spring—their heart starting again and bringing back life to the previously "dead" frog.

Midnight Dreams & Nightmares ~ A short story collectionWhere stories live. Discover now