Life, Death, and Consciousness

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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.

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.

But, let us return to humans. When we die, our body—on a cellular level—dies later, bit by bit. But what then if this is prevented? What if someone drowns in an ice-cold lake and is pulled out, their heart restarted, their lungs restored to function? The cold would have prevented (most) brain damage, and everyone would agree that this person was saved. They are alive! Sure, they died, but only for a moment.

Then we would conclude that death is but the inability to restore function to cells in such a matter that the entire organism they are a part of is restored to, well, function. Life.

But what if in the above example the person did suffer extensive brain damage? And while their body functions—albeit with life support—their brain does not. The person themself won't ever wake up again.

They are gone.


Then we would conclude that for life, there needs to be consciousness. No consciousness, no life.

So, what happens when we lose consciousness?

When it returns, is it the same consciousness? Or does it merely "run" on the brain that provides it with memories, experiences?

A person who suffers from amnesia, are they the same person they were before the memory-loss, or are they a new person? Once the memories return, would they be who they used to be?

And what about people who have multiple personalities?

But, let's not make things too complicated for now.

If our consciousness going away and returning is like a frog's heart freezing to a halt and restarting when thawed, then do we consider ourselves to be dead in between?

Last I checked, researchers still didn't know what triggers the frog's heart to start beating again. I'm unaware if there is anything known about what causes our consciousness to return, for we don't really know yet what consciousness even is, in essence.

So, what happens if we were to fall asleep, lose consciousness, and not have it return by morning? We wouldn't even know, as we're not conscious. If you were to slip into a coma during the night, were taken to a hospital and after months you'd suddenly open your eyes... To you, it would probably still be like you'd gone to sleep and woke up the next morning. Only, much more time would've passed.

Is it still the same consciousness that returned to your brain, your body, after all that time? Or would your brain have needed all that time to start a new consciousness? You'd still have all the same memories—if there was no memory loss, of course. You'd still be you in the eyes of family and friends. But how would you be able to tell you are the same you as before everything went dark?

Would the amount of time being unconscious matter? How long until the stop in the continuous flow of consciousness becomes permanent and a new one needs to be made? A coma? A good night's sleep? A short nap? A moment's blackout because you fainted?

Point is... We don't know.

Can you tell with certainty that when you wake up in the morning, you are still the same consciousness as the one who went to bed?

Can you say with certainty that you are more than the sum of your experiences and memories? That if there were ever to be a way to copy your brain onto a new, blank one, the resulting person who'd gain consciousness with it would be different from you?

What makes you, you?

And how can you tell that your consciousness is, in fact, the same as yesterday's?

Just think back of who you used to be as a kid. Of how your mind worked then. How you viewed the world. That you is certainly not the same as the you you are now. Would you say that that old (or very young) you is the same and that over time you've just grown more experienced and wiser? Or have you grown so far apart from who you used to be that you are in fact a whole different person?

A different consciousness?

If so, when did that happen?

If it happened before, it could surely happen again.

Would you, this consciousness reading this right now, cease to exist one day, to make place for a new one?

If so, rest assured that you won't notice.

It would simply be like falling asleep.

Without you waking up.

Without you waking up

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