The body's death
The body and its reasons
If until now we have turned our attention mainly to the conscious Ego, considering it as an autonomous entity, able to distance itself even from the manifestations of the human psyche, the time has come to deal also with the psychophysical instrument by which we live this life: our body and brain. On one thing I believe we can have no doubts: the body and the brain are destined to die, and in the event that death occurs in old age, they undergo a progressive deterioration of their functions. Death consists of the irreversible interruption of the informatics process that coordinates the functioning of the various organs of the body, including the brain. The mental activity, conscious and unconscious, determined by the functioning of the brain, is aware of this program, and produces all those psychic reactions which the conscious Ego experiences in relation to death, both of its own body and that of others people. The body tries to protect its life, even when the Ego's decisions put it at risk: it is evident that, in this respect, some people are more inclined to risk than others, and usually, when we are young, we risk more, while in the mature and old age protective behaviors prevail.
Obviously, the conscious Ego can be frightened of death, or at least it can be saddened by the thought of having to die, if it identifies with its own body-brain or undergoes the charm of the experience of this life, lived through that instrument. But even if death is awaited and faced by the Ego with serene detachment, it is appropriate to pay attention to what this instrument, almost always precious and faithful, even if not always reliable and often difficult to control, has to teach us about its life cycle. The death of our body is final, and for this it deserves respect. Even if the human body is a product of natural origin, and therefore an animal – except for the development of the brain that allows us to benefit from mental resources that are precluded to animals – its complexity, both in growth and in functioning, fills us with wonder and admiration, as the ultimate manifestation of the mystery of life evolution on Earth over more than three billion years. So living the life of the body means first of all being involved in this process of growth, development, capacity for action, deterioration and death. After experiencing the phase of full efficiency of the energy that turns into vital activity, the conscious Ego – following life up to its natural end – must face the progressive decline of the physical and mental faculties.
Today, in economically advanced societies, many resources and energies are devoted to the care, health and well-being of the body, certainly more than in the past. This attitude compensates for the debasement, contempt, and sometimes the very rejection of the body, which characterized other phases of our cultural history, and which may still be found in some other cultures. The scientific progress of the last three centuries has led to a deeper knowledge of the constitution and functioning of our organism, eliciting psychic reactions of wonder, admiration and respect for its complex organization and for the possibilities offered by this wonderful instrument. It should always be remembered, however, that in this respect the human body does not differ from that of many higher animals, which in some respects may be endowed with resources superior to ours. Physically speaking, what differentiates humans from animals is the development and functioning of the brain, an organ of which our knowledge is still limited. Furthermore, there are not many humans who are able to know their bodies and keep them in good fitness and health: in the majority psychic allurements of every kind or congenital malfunctions still prevail, leading to an early deterioration of bodily efficiency.
The progress of medicine and the improvement -– under a hygienic and sanitary profile – of the environmental conditions in which we live, have had as a consequence the prolongation of the life of many people, and today it is possible to reach 90 years in fair psychophysical conditions, obviously if we dedicated to the care of our physical form in time and with constancy. But even in this case the efficiency conditions and mental resources of a ninety-year-old are certainly not those that the same person enjoyed at forty. In addition, many people still suffer from the most varied illnesses well before the age of ninety: clinics and hospitals are full of people whose bodies, for one reason or another, are not able to function well. And in any case, in old age, the moment comes when the body begins to lose its functional efficiency in a progressive but irreversible way, until it dies.
The strangest thing about this process is that, although the body seems to have among its programs the protection of its life and the acquisition of livelihoods – tasks performed partly through unconscious activities, and partly through assessments, decisions and activities performed by the conscious Ego – neither the brain nor the Ego have direct and reliable information on the body's functioning: the signals that reach consciousness are often vague and not easily interpretable, and diagnosis, entrusted to specialists, often becomes a real art. In the past things could have been decidedly worse: often to the knowledge of the true causes of a debilitating illness, any kind of imaginative and absurd psychic illusions were substituted, which collective ignorance led to believe to be true. For the same reasons, instead of taking the hygienic and sanitary measures necessary to prevent the spread of certain infectious diseases, humans often acted so as to facilitate their spread. Certainly the Ego's ignorance played a major role in all this, but also the body's self-defenses – which were activated unconsciously – showed their limits. Therefore the body has always represented, to the conscious Ego, something alien and mysterious, whose knowledge has notably expanded only in relatively recent times, through a patient and intelligent research work.
Brain and death
As a whole, the body can be considered as the perfect operational and functional support for the human automaton. Obviously, it is not a mechanical automaton, like those built by humans, but a biological organism to which the automaton label can be applied only in relation to the ways of controlling its operation. Today practically all intelligent and educated people agree in recognizing that the operating center of the body, the computer that determines both the behavioral choices and the inner experiences, is constituted by the brain, which – rather than a single organ – is a set of interconnected structures linked, through the nervous system, to all the body's components. However, while the biophysical part of brain functioning can be investigated scientifically and is, at least in part, well known, the component that we can define as mental shows many aspects that are still enigmatic and unclear. In this regard, some subordinate every mental event, including consciousness, will and intelligence, to the functioning of the brain, thus endorsing the computational and temporary character of each human machine, as a reaction to stimuli coming from the environment in which it operates. Others believe instead that the brain determines many aspects of mental activity, but that other aspects, such as the Ego's self-consciousness, the will and some manifestations of creative intelligence, have a different origin and can exert an influence on the same brain functioning.
I think there can be no doubt that the organic cycle of the brain involves its use, deterioration and death. Over time, brain performances deteriorate, and when death occurs late in life, some mental functions may already be compromised. The users of the brain activity are, on the one hand, the social project in its various aspects – think of education, work activities, social interactions, and so on – and on the other, the conscious Ego, involved in the psychic experience. At a certain point in its life the Ego is informed – by the brain itself – that the instrument on which the very experience of human life is based is available only for a limited time, and that in the final phase of life the functioning of that instrument can show problematic aspects, difficult to manage. Often the problem becomes social, in the sense that other people have to deal with the management of a body whose brain faculties are compromised. In these cases the conscious Ego of the managed subject can still have moments of lucidity in which it realizes that its own mind is no longer a reliable instrument.
After the body's death, the brain also decomposes: every interaction of the conscious Ego with physical reality is lost. Death is in any case a sensational event, in which our body and our brain are fully involved. It is quite understandable how the psychic reactions to death are, in general, negative, with the exception of those cases in which the life experience has become so painful that it can no longer be borne by the conscious Ego. The brain cannot in any case avoid its own death, and the conscious Ego must face the future event of its brain's death: if the Ego believes that its very existence is subordinated to the brain functioning, it will think that brain death will determine its own annihilation, but also in the case in which it thinks it is the user of brain activity in the course of its life, destined to separate from its brain at the moment of death, it will have to face a substantial change. That's why I stated that death is anyway a sensational event.
It may be, however, that what appears to be an event of great importance seen from the perspective of this life, be no longer such once the border has been crossed between the physical dimension and the other dimension, the one in which the conscious Ego will move in the event of its possible survival. However, this change will not affect either the body or the brain, which will remain in this dimension, subject to the biochemical transformations of corpse decomposition. There is no doubt, therefore, that the instrument by which the Ego is formed and becomes aware of its very existence, passing through all the experiences and vicissitudes that the destiny of its life reserves for it, has a limited duration in time and is subject to phenomena of attrition and loss of efficiency, before being definitively destroyed. With regard to this condition the Ego, as a conscious subject endowed with intellect and will, can react both by taking care of its body so as to keep it healthy and efficient as long as possible, and by using the body to the limits of its possibilities, putting its safety and existence at risk: this second attitude is more widespread in youth.
At a certain point, generally when a human reaches the most advanced stage of his adolescence, the relationship between the Ego – already conscious but still little experienced, and above all very involved in the dynamics of the psyche – and its body can be compared, more than that between a pilot and his car, to that between a horseman and his horse, sometimes docile and obedient, other times nervous and recalcitrant, but always ready to die for an accident or exhaustion if his rider pushes it to limit. I think that the temporary life of the body deserves attention, care and respect, but at the same time I cannot hide a certain admiration for those who put their lives at risk to carry out an exploit, such as climbers or those who practice other extreme sports: in these cases the spirit, whatever it be, exerts a strong influence on the Ego, inducing it to prevail over the brain's self-preservation programs. On the other hand it is also true that, if someone dies at a young age, she/he renounces all the experiences deriving from the evolutionary cycle of a complete life.
The body cycle and the conscious Ego
At certain stages of its life the Ego is inclined to re-examine through memory, and in some way to try to revive, the salient events of the past. It may happen then that it realizes how its body has changed over time, through a cycle that, from the first steps of childhood – when the first glimmers of consciousness began to emerge – will end with post-mortem dissolution. Brain transformations are not so evident, since they are not perceptible to our senses, but we can realize how the functional efficiency of the brain, and the mental activity that derives from it, are also subject to significant variations. On the one hand we can argue that the elderly of today and the child of yesterday are the same person and have the same identity, at least from a social point of view, so that two ancient schoolmates, who had lost sight of each other for decades, can recognize each other if they meet, and communicate as if they really knew each other; but, on the other hand, time flows in only one direction, and the changes induced by the vicissitudes of life in the brain's functioning, as time goes on, are very evident.
What seems less subject to life changes is the conscious Ego, obviously considered as a separate entity with respect to the psychic events in which it is more or less intensely involved: whether you look at the world through the curious, amazed and eager for discoveries mind of the child, or it reflects on the deterioration of its mental faculties, which prevents it from fully living its life, when it is old, the conscious Ego recognizes its identity as an explorer, experimenter and user of a particular human adventure, including the consciousness blackouts that can intervene between birth and death (and that regularly occur during periods of deep sleep). Indeed, precisely through the careful observation of the functioning of its own brain, and in particular of the transformations to which this functioning is subject in the course of life, the Ego's self-consciousness consolidates, on the basis of the perception of its own autonomous existence as an entity connected to the spirit, as well as the brain and the body. Finally the moment comes, in the life of each of us humans, of the definitive detachment of the Ego from the successive events to which the body (including the brain) will be subject. This detachment can also occur before the heart finally stops beating and clinical death is declared. In the same instant in which the Ego detaches itself from the body, any objective consideration with respect to its destiny becomes impossible, given that objectivity is determined by the mental consent of people who continue to live in this physical dimension, who can verify the phenomena that continue to affect the body, but not what is experienced by the Ego after the detachment.
In the course of life a relationship, of a nature that we could define as affective, is established between the conscious Ego and its own body: the intensity and effectiveness of this relationship shows significant variations from one individual to another, and from one culture to another. Some forms of defense and preservation of the body are already inscribed, so to speak, in its basic programs, but it is well known that small children, in their largely unconscious activities of exploring the world, face all sorts of risks regardless of their own bodily survival, not to mention the high risk of infant mortality still present in various geographical areas. So these basic programs try to make the body survive, but, not seldom, they fail their purpose. Usually the survival and safety of children's bodies depend on the adults who take care of them. Over the years, the decisions taken by the Ego become determining for the body's destiny, even if these choices often present conflicting aspects.
In this regard, many examples can be given: except in the case of suicide, the Ego can decide to put its body in environmental risk conditions, even if it does not want the body to suffer even definitive damages. Those who practice extreme sports know that a mistake can be fatal, and do everything possible to reach a psychophysical condition that allows them not to make mistakes. Those who use drugs often – but not always – know that their body can be damaged, but hope that this does not happen. Those who fight in war know that their lives are at risk, but hope to get by: in this or in other similar cases, the Ego can be involved in circumstances that it has not been able to escape due to its social obligations, or psychical programs that condition it. The Ego generally seeks to protect the life and functional integrity of its body, and when environmental conditions or internal defects compromise the body's functioning, the Ego's decisions almost always aim to remedy the damage and save what can be saved. As a consequence of cultural conditioning, natural death itself is delayed by the Ego as much as possible, and is suffered as a tragic and unavoidable event.
In order not to passively suffer death, clinging with all its energies to the body as the only instrument that can give it the feeling of existing (through the brain), the conscious Ego must be able to loosen and then cut – at a certain point in human life – the affective bond that binds it to its own body and, through this, also to the bodies of other human beings. To many of us this detachment may seem something unnatural, accustomed as we are to identifying ourselves not so much with our body, as with those psychic tunings that describe the body and brain as the only and indispensable tools that allow us to have a minimum of existence, however poor and unsatisfactory it may be. It is good to remember, however, that this detachment is inevitable precisely because of those natural causes that lead to death, and therefore it may be more appropriate to deal with it knowingly when we are still able to do so, rather than postponing it indefinitely to an age in which our own mental resources could be seriously compromised.
The body and the mind
If it is true that the activity of the brain tunes the psychic manifestations – also on the basis of the signals sent by the peripheral nervous system – which involve the Ego to the point of making it, in many cases, a docile instrument driven by the psychophysical interactions with the environment, it is equally true that the Ego, through its will, can drive the mind and determine the actions of the body, even – as we have seen – in contrast to the self-preservation programs of the brain itself. In this respect, it seems necessary to me to try to clarify – as far as possible – what I mean when I use the word mind. It is possible to understand the activity of the brain rather well when the stimuli and signals coming from the peripheral nervous system are processed and interpreted by the cerebral cortex, to then be transmitted to consciousness, through which they involve that particular coordination and control unit which we call conscious Ego. We can thus remain in the ambit of the non-dualistic interpretation, according to which the Ego would be nothing but a self-representation of the conscious brain activity: in other words, of the brain itself.
It is not so easy to understand how this control unit – wherever it is in the brain – can take decisions and initiatives, then transforming them into coordinated impulses that are transmitted inside the cortex, up to the motor nerves of the muscles. In other words, we can imagine a very well-designed automaton equipped with a first-rate computer, but we have no idea who beats the control system keys. If we were to spot a particular group of neurons, we should ask ourselves how they can decide, want, invent: the problem would simply be transferred from the inner self-perception of the Ego to a particular neural network, without being solved. Therefore, as long as we do not know more, we can continue to consider the issue from the point of view of our conscious inner experience, calling mind this dimension, well aware of its connection with that part of the brain activity that becomes conscious. We can therefore state that, just as brain activity influences the mind, the mind can also influence brain activity. When someone will tell us that they have discovered in the brain the neural counterpart of what we experience as conscious Ego, we will take note of it, and we will try to understand on the basis of what programmed mechanisms certain decisions are taken.
The mental dimension, subjectively real for each of us, appears to us as something separate from the physical dimension of the body, even when we are aware of its dependence on the brain activity: indeed, precisely the fact that from the functioning of an organ, which is part of the physical reality of our body, something so complex and immaterial, as the mental activity consciously experienced by the Ego, can derive, in all its nuances, with its lights and shadows, fills us with wonder and admiration. In this respect, no one can reasonably deny the existence of mental activity: it would be like denying the existence of consciousness itself. We have therefore to deal with an irreducible dualism, even if, from a functional point of view, the whole phenomenon could be traced back to brain activity alone. The fact that the brain activity determines the arising of consciousness, the formation and subsequent development of the conscious Ego, and that the latter, through its own decisions and consequent psychic experiences, can follow a path of evolution and liberation, it is in itself surprising and meaningful, beyond the destiny that awaits the Ego at the death of its body. It is a dynamic process based on important successive transformations, and therefore cannot be trivialized and reduced in mechanistic terms.
The Ego controls the mind by becoming one thing with the mind itself, and at the same time not identifying with any of the psychic tunings determined by mental activity. Through the mind the Ego can also control the brain activity, and the very functioning of the body. This type of control is not what is exerted when one wants to impose something on the brain and the body with an effort of will, aimed at achieving a desired and preset goal: it is instead the achievement of a state of harmony thanks to which the Ego feels itself in tune with a higher law, by virtue of which everything works as it should work. It is a state of grace that, through the Ego and the mind, spreads throughout the body. This state of grace should eventually lead to a definitive non-traumatic separation of the conscious Ego from its own body. Obviously, in this case I cannot speak from personal experience, since I am still alive, but there are various cultural examples of human beings who died without suffering and in a state of perfect mental serenity.
The brain and the conscious Ego
The impossibility of accepting the survival of the conscious Ego to the death and dissolution of the brain, arises from the observation of the effects that the lesions or alterations of certain parts of the brain and areas of the cerebral cortex have on the conscious perception and on the same self-perception by the Ego. It is therefore taken for granted that the Ego cannot have any autonomy with respect to the functioning of its brain, and it is concluded that with the dissolution of this organ consciousness ceases to exist, and consequently even the conscious Ego no longer exists. This cognitive scheme seems unassailable, were it not for paranormal and mediumistic phenomena, and for the limits of our knowledge regarding dimensions other than the physical. All we can say is that the human brain is an extremely complex structure, but we do not know either how or for what purpose it has evolved in this way, nor why – functioning at its best – it gives rise to the experience of the conscious Ego and all the nuances of the human psyche.
It should also be carefully considered that, since the brains are interconnected in what I called the big cloud, when a brain has defects in its functioning, there are other brains ready to intervene to investigate the causes of these defects and eventually restore the functioning of the damaged brain. One has the impression that the brain is a device for tuning and elaborating complex programs which, through it, are introduced and applied in the physical dimension, but do not have a physical origin: they belong rather to a mental dimension. A single damaged brain is like a computer connected to a network that works poorly – or stops working at all – due to the defects of some of its components: consequently the operator who uses that computer will be in a handicap condition. But the other computers connected to the network will continue to function and receive the programs transmitted by the programmers. The defects of that single computer concern only the operator who must use it, but the functioning of the network as a whole is not compromised, and above all the activity of programming and transmission of signals goes on.
It makes little sense to refer to the defects of a single brain, and to the fact that every brain is destined – sooner or later – to be destroyed, to conclude that what happens to the brain will inevitably happen also to the conscious Ego. It is true that the conscious Ego is produced (or perhaps, one might say, is awakened) and then fed by brain activity, but its evolution is significant in a process of which the brain represents the physical support: this is the reason why I have compared the brain to an egg, and the conscious Ego to an embryo that develops within it. As the conscious Ego grows, it is nourished by the psychic substance that the brain produces, but at the same time it acquires a greater power of control over the mind, that is, over the food substances it needs to continue to live. It must also be recognized that the conscious Ego knows nothing about its own brain's unconscious activity, which nevertheless occurs continuously and produces various effects on the functioning of the body and on the conscious perception of the Ego itself. When asked if there is a control center of the unconscious activity in the brain, obviously distinct from the conscious Ego, we do not know what to answer.
The most perplexing and confusing aspect of the Ego's dependence on the brain functioning is that whatever we learn about brain anatomy, the activity of its components and cortex areas, and the interaction of neural networks, constitutes a mental acquisition by the conscious Ego, and is not the object of a direct experimentation of what happens in my brain: it is as if the Ego were something external, a stranger, with respect to the same brain by which, at least according to a certain orientation of scientific research, it should be produced. This mental aspect is inescapable: anyone who studies a brain, verifies and interprets the anatomy, physiology and functioning of its various parts, does it mentally, since the Ego consciously uses the mental faculties of thought, reasoning and creative intelligence: in the event that both the Ego and the mental faculties at its disposal should be traced exclusively to the brain functioning, we would find ourselves in the paradoxical situation of a brain – or a network of brains – that studies another brain from the external, so to speak, rather than directly transmitting to consciousness information on its functioning. Instead, a certain alienity of the mind is confirmed with respect to the same brain of which, according to a certain mechanistic view, it should be only an epiphenomenon.
Equally enigmatic is the unconscious aspect of brain activity, above all for the effects of involvement, disturbance, conditioning and oppression that it can have on the conscious Ego. It is evident that the conscious Ego is not able to control the unconscious activity of its brain, even if it can try to do it, at least in part, through techniques of mental concentration and meditation: investigations on physiological data carried out on some yogin have shown the effectiveness of mind control on functions that are normally unconsciously regulated by the brain, such as heartbeat or pain caused by surgical wounds. On the other hand, even surprising forms of control of brain's unconscious activities can be obtained through hypnosis. Our knowledge on the brain functioning is still too fragmentary and insufficient to make us claim on unquestionable grounds that every form of mental activity is due exclusively and solely to brain activity.
The Ego becomes aware of the complexity of a system of which the brain represents the physical aspect and the inner conscious perception the mental aspect. Another part of this system, represented by the unconscious activities of the brain, remains outside of consciousness, and therefore of the possibility of control by the Ego, but its effects can be translated into psychic manifestations of which the Ego becomes conscious. This complex individual system, which we could consider as a receiving and processing device, is interconnected in a network of other more or less similar individual systems, all of which are immersed in a cosmic field of mental transmissions, of which some particular bands of frequencies can be tuned. Compared to this so complex and mysterious field, the physical destiny of a single brain receiver – moreover subject to wear and tear – becomes almost insignificant, so it is understandable how the mental activity of the conscious Ego can be aimed at preparing for its detachment, at the right time and in the least traumatic way, from the psychophysical support that allowed it to experience some aspects of the human condition.