The Death of Consciousness

Up until a couple of years ago, I had a pretty strong conviction that some grand, strange things happen after we die. A sort of ultimate union with the source in which all consciousness become one and individuality and identity are lost forever. I used to imagine it as a grandiose play of bright flowing lights in a space of otherwise black nothingness.

My ideas have changed since. They may change again, and even change back, but as of now they are different. I still don’t know, of course, what really happens after we die. No one really can at the moment, but one possibility I had not considered at all sounds pretty valid to me now.

Have you ever fainted? I have never fainted, but I hear that when you come around, it’s as if you enter into light again from an unmeasured period of complete blankness. As if you had simply left for somewhere. This is different from sleep. We drift off to sleep and drift out of it. We dream in it. I don’t know about others, but I have an approximate sense of time even as I sleep. When I wake up, I can roughly tell how long I’ve been sleeping. I’m more accurate in the order of minutes, and not so much when I’ve been sleeping for hours. But at least the errors are of the same order as that of the duration of sleep. It’s like a CMOS clock that keeps ticking after you turn off your computer. So sleeping is not a complete blank, except in the special case of people with a specific brain injury that renders them incapable of dreaming. They have testified that sleeping for them is a period of complete blankness, which even causes them to always feel unrested.

What is blankness? It will undoubtedly be difficult to describe it, for our language is built with the purpose of communicating conscious experience, which blankness is the absence of. To put it simply though, a period with no conscious experience whatsoever must be a period of blankness. What is it like? Again, by its very definition, it cannot be like anything because you never feel it. You are nowhere when it happens. You just come around later with no memory of it whatsoever. I don’t know if you retain a sense of time passed after you recover from a fainting, but from things I have heard, I don’t think so. It’s as if someone just cuts off the flow of time at one point and stitches it to another point some time down the line, and you miss whatever happened in the story of the universe in the middle.

Thus, blankness is physically achievable, whether via fainting, brain injury, going into a coma, or some other mechanism. Even though it may be an experience many of us have never had and thus cannot even imagine (I don’t think there’s anything to imagine about it even if you’d had it), it is undebatably possible. And people have come back from it and described it as complete blankness, devoid of experience or journeys or revelations or other worlds.

So why isn’t it possible that the experience after death is just that? Just nothingness? It is already evident that spending time without any conscious experience of anything is possible. With death this state just has to continue forever. If it is quite possible for you to ‘be nowhere’, why not in death? Why is it so difficult for some, including my past self, to believe that?

Almost the whole of what we call this enigmatic consciousness is shaped and structured by our raw sensory perception. Our consciousness, supposedly abstract and transcendental of our physiology, nevertheless turns out to be a collection of inward imaginings of various physical stimuli. We can think, you say, which has nothing to do with our senses. But what do we think? We think images, happenings, things in motion, colour and sound, time flowing and events unfolding as we perceive them in our mind through much the same routes that are analogous to our raw physical senses. We cannot imagine feeling a magnetic field or ultraviolet rays or perceiving another thinking mind. No matter how much we claim our consciousness to be transcendental of our physical senses, we cannot imagine any experiences outside the standard sensory perceptions.

If our consciousness, the only kind of consciousness that we all know personally, is thus so tied down to our biology, then when that biology demonstrably stops working at what we know as death, why shouldn’t our first assumption be that consciousness also switches off right there? If a problem with a small part of our physiology can evidently cause us to faint and switch off our consciousness, why should we expect that with absolutely no part of it working any more, we shall have experiences and meet people and go places? That we shall be judged for our actions in our lifetime, and accordingly be sent to different destinations? It sounds just like life all over again, with conscious experiences deriving from the same sensory perceptions we are used to, and logical decision-making abilities, except without the service of any of our physical senses or our brain whatsoever. Isn’t that weird? Isn’t there a problem here? Now think of all the religious war we have fought over the things that supposedly happen once we’re dead and how many consciousness-es we have snubbed out in the process.

The more I think of this, the more my favourite little theory of the grand bright uniting lights falls apart in  a hundred sad little pieces. I am known to cause myself these unhappy things, armed with just a keyboard.

But indeed, why are we so easily persuaded to believe that there exists experience after our body has stopped working? Why do we, after an entire lifetime of continuous real-time proof that our consciousness is inseparable from our physicality, expect it to just carry on after death? Is it because we fear nonexistence? I, for one, do. Although I cannot put down simply why one should fear it, it is a deep-seated fear among many. But I have a hunch that it is a baseless, irrational fear. It is not simply a fear of the unknown, as some would opine. I do not, for example, as far as I can tell in my limited self-analysis, have a fear of the unknown. I think it is instead a fear of estrangement, of being torn away from all that we know and love and depend on. Familiar people, things we like to do, and all that we love about the world. These are things that exist, and they will be absent in nonexistence. The only limited substitution we can imagine for nonexistence is thus complete solitude, in a stifling static blackness. But it is, as we see now in the light of the discussion, a false picture. For in nonexistence, one cannot oneself exist. Experiencing nothingness, in the form of static blackness, is not non-experience. If there is no experience, one cannot experience this nothingness either. Thus, there can be no loneliness, no estrangement, no sadness. There can only be nothing. Sadness therefore lies only in our moments of thinking about a false picture of nonexistence, not in nonexistence itself. So what are we finally worried about? Should we worry at all? One moment you’re here and you’re happy with everything around you, the next moment you’re not there, you’re not anywhere. What’s to worry about? It’s completely twisted, this fear and deep sadness that we have built around the prospect of death.

In conclusion, I still don’t know if this is what happens after death, but it sounds like a likely possibility, and also by Occam’s razor I suppose any alternate, more elaborate theories can be dumped in favour of this one. In the end nobody can be sure. But we’ll all find out anyway, won’t we?

What do you think happens after death? Why do you think so? Hit me with your thoughts.


6 thoughts on “The Death of Consciousness

  1. Death is the loss of structure. There is no single agreed-on definition of when something is considered dead exactly, but after a certain tolerance limit, the difference becomes pretty clear. Whether conciousness persists after death is debatable, but it seems likely, considering the kind of evidence that comes up time to time. Someone I met recently believes that what happens to one after death depends on how one bends their mind during their lifetime- in essence, they experience the worlds they create in their minds.

    And why not.

    The nature of things is that they are the thin film of fibers, carefully crafted, that separates us from the unaltered form of the source, and to which we are entangled by our minds. Death does not ensure the dissolution of these entanglements, but I like to think of it like a sort space to refresh more speakable containers, like the body and the soul, both of which are temporary. There is no escape in death.

    What I think about what happens after death has any context only if I tell you what I think of life. What we are -everything, human, animal, collective or individual entities, by the way of life, or alife- are like formative blocks of meaning. We’re like coal. The only purpose is to burn well. We burn off bodies the easiest, souls may persist longer. The more the burning, the greater the proverbial light it provides to the proverbial other side. If one manages to burn off body and soul, in one life, jolly good. If there are things to be burnt off, they’ll need a few rounds through the furnace. The point of the exercise being, it gears the cosmos with more illumination- a better punctuation, which will outlast us. I think this folds fractally. The source depends on us, not just we on the source. Like the symbiotic relationship of a person and their thought. Or a writer and their words. It is an exercise in realization, and an exercise in solace.

    “A sort of ultimate union with the source in which all consciousness become one and individuality and identity are lost forever.”
    That’s exactly what you’re saying now, too. The imagery and wording are different.


  2. There is a hell lot of stuff in your blog for someone who loves to read. Keep writing!
    As far as this one is concerned, I agree with the title. Emptiness, silence and absence of consciousness, is what death is all about, apart from the biological way of defining it. And for the above reasons, we Humans fear Death, which actually is the utter reality!


  3. Matthew

    I think I does not exist in death. I doesn’t think it matters what I thinks about what happens when I dies as all I knows is that I will not be there to experience.
    I am squeezed. I will be back until I is you and you is me and we is altogether.


  4. steve agnew

    It is always interesting to imagine what happens when you pass away. Death, though, has many interpretations. Your heart can stop, your brain can be unconscious, or you can exist in various comatose states of consciousness or sleep.

    I think of living and passing away mostly in terms of time and memory. We are alive because our neural activity processes sensation, imagines action, and then acts. When we pass away, it is first like passing into a dream state and we become unconscious. Next, neural pulsation eventually slows down as our heart stops and blood no longer flows and so time will appear to slow way down as our thoughts slow down. What is time in a dream anyway? With that last neural impulse, then, time for that person will stop, which is after all a definition of eternity.

    In the last moments of our final dream, the neurotransmitters that determine our emotions flood the brain. Our last neural impulse will be either feeling an eternal joy that reflects a life well spent or it will be feeling an eternal misery reflecting a life of anguish…or somewhere in between.

    Although we imagine that somehow a person’s consciousness keeps on after their neural activity ceases, imagination, sensation, and action all end when neurons no longer pulsate. Although we can imagine eternity, we can not know the eternity that a person feels upon passing until our own final dream and time then stops for us as well.


    1. Beautiful comment, Steve. It feels great to read a nice, long comment. It sounds like you know a bit about the biology of this stuff. Thanks for dropping by and hope you’ll visit again!


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