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Medical What happens to human consciousness once we pass away?

  1. Nov 17, 2011 #1
    So, as the title says, I'm curious to know what (theoretically) happens to human consciousness after we pass away. Obviously no one knows for sure, I'm just curious to learn more about this particular topic, from a scientific perspective. I'll admit, I'm curious about this because in July of this past summer, a good friend of mine committed suicide, and today is/was her birthday; and I can't stop thinking about her :frown: I'm not religious in any way, shape or form, so I kind of just assume that she "entered the void" or "left the universe" in some way. Any information/links to theories pertaining to this is greatly appreciated. Thanks!
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 17, 2011 #2
    Since you're asking about a close friend, I don't think you really want to hear a scientific opinion about this. Instead, I'll explain it the way I read a Zen Buddhist Roshi explain it:

    A river is not conscious of itself until it comes to a waterfall and spills over it, breaking into billions of drops. The drops can see the river from the outside and be aware of it and each other. That is what life is like: we are all drops in an enormous river going over a waterfall. We are only aware of ourselves and the river by virtue of being separate from it. Once we hit bottom and rejoin with the river we return to unawareness.

    This Zen explanation is not exactly inconsistent with the current scientific notions, because it's accurate, in a manner of speaking, to say we return to the state of unconsciousness we had before our birth.
  4. Nov 17, 2011 #3
    As near as science can tell, consciousness is a property of brain chemistry. As such, when the chemistry stops working, the consciousness ends. It doesn't "enter the void", "leave the universe", or return to the "river of consciousness". Each of these claims is completely unscientific.

    I know this probably wasn't the answer you were hoping for, but it's the truth.
  5. Nov 17, 2011 #4


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    Many of life's most fascinating phenomena emerge from interactions among many elements--many amino acids determine the structure of a single protein, many genes determine the fate of a cell, many neurons are involved in shaping our thoughts and memories. Physicists have long hoped that these collective behaviors could be described using the ideas and methods of statistical mechanics. In the past few years, new, larger scale experiments have made it possible to construct statistical mechanics models of biological systems directly from real data. We review the surprising successes of this "inverse" approach, using examples form families of proteins, networks of neurons, and flocks of birds. Remarkably, in all these cases the models that emerge from the data are poised at a very special point in their parameter space--a critical point. This suggests there may be some deeper theoretical principle behind the behavior of these diverse systems.

    http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/11/starling-flock/ <--Stunning beauty of starling murmuration, must see!
    It’s easy for a starling to turn when its neighbor turns — but what physiological mechanisms allow it to happen almost simultaneously in two birds separated by hundreds of feet and hundreds of other birds? That remains to be discovered, and the implications extend beyond birds. Starlings may simply be the most visible and beautiful example of a biological criticality that also seems to operate in proteins and neurons, hinting at universal principles yet to be understood.

    It's safe to say that human consciousness has something to do with interactions among neurons. In the case of starlings, it obviously has something to do with interactions among the neurons of an entire flock, raising the question that consciousness may a distributed property of some sort, with individuals as nodes in a larger, well connected system.

    But as to the question of what happens to human consciousness after death, it can safely be asserted that, whatever consciousness may be, it is no longer human.

    Respectfully submitted,
  6. Nov 17, 2011 #5


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    Staff: Mentor

    And since this is a science forum, this is a good place to end.
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