Despite what you may believe, you don’t actually have a birthday and you did not even exist until several years after your body was born; furthermore, you have already died, many times in fact.
A long time ago, some of the greebles (scientific word used to describe anything whose name eludes me) from which we evolved, were unusually fearful about dying. This seemingly useless adaption made them very reluctant to allow themselves to be eaten. As a result, more of them lived longer lives and produced more little greebles who also had a distinct aversion to being eaten.
Eventually all the greebles and all their descendants, including us, inherited this no longer unusual aversion to dying.
Now this was very good news for the species and before they went extinct, most of them lasted hundreds of thousands of years largely because of this extraordinary trait. This was not such good news for the individuals in the species because they all then had to live with this terrible fear every time a twig snapped, not to mention absolute terror when about to become someone’s lunch.
Humans got an even worse deal. Their expanding brain eventually developed so many connections, they became self-aware. Now, they knew they were going to die so the terror was there 24/7. A tough way to live.
Being the resilient folk we are, we cleverly devised a way to deal with it. One of our grand parents thought up the novel idea that this life was just a practice run and we were going to get another ride on the roundabout. This was indeed a breakthrough and enthusiastically embraced by all who learned of it.
Notwithstanding the obvious flaw in the concept, this is still widely held to be true even in the 21st century, driven mainly by the terrible fear we inherited. Fortunately, education is gradually reducing the world-wide level of self delusion and replacing the lip-service comfort version with knowledge and understanding. ‘Are you a rationalist?’ (opens in a new window).
So, what exactly is YOU?
We tend to think of our bodies as ‘ME’. When we say “I took the bus into town” we are thinking about our body getting onto the bus and getting off again at the other end but this is not reality.
Think of an unfortunate accident that robs a person of his or her arms and legs. Does that person feel, or do we think of that person as being 25% less than before? Of course not.
If you lost a couple of teeth, had your appendix, tonsils and gall bladder removed, are you now 10% or 15% less of a person than before? That would be ridiculous, but it does serve to make the point that WE are not our bodies.
Is there is a case then for claiming that ‘you’ is totally divorced from the complex automatic system that is your body? That proposition is as faulty as our intuitive idea that our bodies are ‘us’.
We, our perception of ourselves, is more than the absolute separation of mind and body. Every time we wake we project our minds as an overlay onto our bodies, exemplified by painful phantom limbs and the confusing parlor trick of caressing a hand that’s hidden while seeing the caress on a fake hand.
Despite projecting your mind onto your body, the real ‘you’ is the sum total of your self-awareness and your self-awareness is the sum total of the activity between the connections inside your head.
The number and pattern of these connections determines your intelligence and personality, bred from the combination of ‘nature and nurture’.
Think of the light on the ceiling. The light is not the fitting, it is not the filament, it is not the electrons moving across the filament, it is not the clear glass bulb, the light is the sum total of the above. In the same way you are not your body, you are not your brain, you are not your neurons, you are the signals, the traffic between those neurons.
Every part of ‘you’ is enclosed in that traffic. Every thought, every memory, every inclination, every feeling and all your emotions are the traffic. Like the light, they only exist when moving between your neurons. You are what you are thinking right now, reading this article, that is ‘you’ at this moment. You are not your memories or your education or your emotions unless you call them up and then they become you. You are the traffic, you are essentially intangible, ephemeral, mysterious and unique.
Each of the 100 billion neurons in your brain contain billions of atoms and while a large percentage of those neurons remain with you for life, that is not the case with the atoms that make up the structure of those neurons. Any one of the almost indestructible atoms in your head will only stay for a little while, moving off to become part of something else, a plant, a chair, a molecule of oxygen, perhaps a component of your big toe, but not an atom in your head.
You and your body are a process, not a destination and that part we call ‘US’ is truly no more than the light from your TV. That favourite program is not the TV set, not the broadcaster or even the characters portrayed, it is just the light. The essential ‘you’ is not more or less.
At conception, the process of developing the basic running gear, the nuts and bolts of your future existence, proceeds in much the same way as it does in all animals.
Unlike humans and to some extent other apes, for many animals, once this basic structure is formed, the job is done and when the creature pops into the world, it is essentially the full product, with just the growing to maturity left to be done. This is a fully automated system with little input from the creature, operating mostly on instinct with most decisions based around eating and procreation.
The growing part is fully achieved by eating either plants or other animals using the basic tools they were born with.
Humans also form the basic running gear at conception and it is similarly used for pumping blood, digesting food but not a lot more. Where we differ, is that while the brain tissue that operates our automatic system is fully functional, the development of what sets us apart, the conscious brain, is still a long way into the future at that point.
In fact, the same neurons that exist in your head, also exist in large numbers in your body, mostly in the gut, food processing and waste disposal system. Yes indeed, you have 100 million brains cells, aka neurons, in your gut, spine, bowel and associated plumbing.
These perform many of the basic functions of keeping you alive to breed more little humans, whether we need them or not.
As our brains grow and develop more connections, we gradually become self-aware. Just like evolution on the wider scale, there is no single point where we transition to self-awareness. There is no single day where we say, yesterday I was not self-aware, today I am so there is no single day we can say our ‘me’ was formed.
That’s why ‘YOU’ does not have a birthday, only your body has a birthday.
So, what then is DEATH exactly?
Self-awareness is the activity of the sum total of your neuron connections, so if they stop firing, ‘YOU’ no longer exists. This is the same condition that was normal for the first two or three years of your life and the reason why you cannot remember it. ‘YOU’ did not exist at a high enough traffic flow for you to remember. When you were one year old, you did not know you existed. If you had died then, you would never know you ever had existed.
In every hospital every year, some patients will become ‘brain dead’ in that the brain no longer has any traffic across the neurons, however the auto system, with medical assistance, is still functioning.
When they switch off ‘life support’ they are merely allowing the auto system to run down naturally. The person who previously inhabited the body had been long gone because that person’s ‘ME’ was not his or her body, he or she was the traffic across his or her neurons.
If we consider the suspension of traffic across the neurons as ‘brain death’ then it is similar to something you experience every night although you don’t go quite that far. When you drift off to sleep, you generally enter the first dream phase and as those who study sleep will attest, at some point during the night, you will phase out of dream into a time when normal traffic across the network falls to specific maintenance mode a bit like the flashing amber lights at the intersection.
This is called the Slow Wave Sleep stage when the brain goes into general maintenance, makes repairs to the glia (the wiring insulation) and puts the growth hormones to work. The network is down which means the ‘you’ part is ‘down’. You don’t really exist at that point because all the normal functions are in maintenance mode.
Unlike the normal chaotic firings of the brain when wide awake, the wave is synchronised and slow but with high peaks and troughs (in the red rectangle) a re-setting of the clock. Counter intuitively, it does produce dreaming but not the abstract wanderings of normal dreams, these are very close to reality, as if the brain is resetting our reality perception ready for another day although there is no evidence yet to suggest this is the purpose of the observed effect.
(Many animals do this repair work one half at a time in order to remain alert for predators.)
Wikipedia has a pretty good description of SWS here
In the same way, if all internet traffic, all web sites, all emails, everything stopped for 5 minutes and only maintenance programs were run, the internet would be ‘dead’ for that period.
For all practical purposes, the ‘YOU’ part, the self-awareness, is dead and like the more permanent version, you are not aware that you ever lived because the ‘YOU’, the construct, the ‘awareness’ of your existence, does not exist at that point.
The same thing occurs a few minutes after you meet the anaesthetist. One minute you’re lying there anxiously wondering if you will survive the operation. The next minute, you wake up, it’s all over and you wonder where you are.
Fortunately with your regular sleep you don’t need the anaesthetist to help. Mostly your auto system re-boot kicks in, your very own batch file, maybe 25-30,000 times before one day, it just doesn’t. Then you are dead officially.
Not much to worry about really. You do it every night so you’ve already had lots of practice and you’ll never know about the reboot that didn’t.