The recording of life
Consciousness, time and memories
A coherent interpretation of the subconscious helps to highlight a fact that is obvious and at the same time meaningful, which I have already mentioned in the page on consciousness: our consciousness is always focused on a specific point in our life, what we call the present. It flows along the whole time of human life, but as the conscious Ego proceeds in a unidirectional sense from the moment of birth to that of death, it leaves behind everything that has already been experienced in the past, transforming the most useful or more significant events (both external and internal) in habits or memories. The latter can be recalled at will in the consciousness only if they have been made accessible and available from the resources of our mind. We know that there are some people in the world with the rare ability to remember with sufficient precision every day of their life, over a period of several years: it is a surprising faculty for its anomaly, and just for this reason it is the object of particular investigations. In fact, usually our memories become more blurred with the passing of time, and also with the progress of our age, and most of the events we have become aware of are then forgotten: either they disappear permanently from the memories of our life, or they become subconscious. It is possible to recall subconscious memories to mind through an act of will, which is sometimes accompanied by mental effort, but in certain circumstances some memories spontaneously re-emerge in consciousness, connected to particular stimuli of the present.
Consciousness seems to be like a beam of light in motion, which effectively illuminates what is at the center of the scene, while leaving in a dim light progressively darker what is on the margins. As the cone of light moves on, in a unidirectional sense, what was previously well lit becomes less clear, until it disappears in the darkness, while what is at the center of the scene changes and transforms. This comparison is valid up to a certain point: in fact the intensity of the events that enter the field of consciousness is variable and contributes to determine the importance attributed to them and their transformation into more or less persistent memories. So some significant events are imprinted firmly in the memory, and these memories accompany us throughout life, at least until our faculty to remember remains intact. Even for this type of particularly important events, however, long-term memory is not able to recall the moods, emotions and feelings associated with the event at the same intensity with which they were experienced when the event occurred, but it translates into a more or less nuanced copy of what happened then: for this reason it is said that memories fade over the years. If, by hypothesis, we could evoke at will and in an integral way the emotional impact corresponding to certain events in our lives, we could live in a state of neverending happiness, since it would be enough to remember only those events that made us happier.
The transformation of the conscious Ego over time
The conscious perception of our personal individuality is subject to a continuous transformation in the course of life, minimal and almost imperceptible, at least from one day to another or from one week to the next, but clearly evident if we consider a range of several years. Except that, being our consciousness focused on the present, the comparison can only be made between our current personal identity (with all the psychic tunings associated with it) and the memory of what we have been in other periods of the past. But if we wanted to make an evaluation, or even just a revisiting, of our life as a whole, wouldn't it be more appropriate to have a recording day by day – or even minute by minute – of everything that our consciousness has allowed us to experiment during our lifetime? If we could get out of the dimension of the present, broadening our perception to all the inner experiences of our life, we would have a much more complete – and richer of psychic elements – picture about our personal identity. We may also wish to have the faculty to choose the most meaningful experiences, to be selected and integrated into our personality, separating them from those that we have experienced as negative and of which even the normal memory can be painful.
Randomness of consciousness and right to exist
Evidently, in the course of human life things do not work in these terms, and therefore it is right to ask ourselves what our personal individuality consists of, since the awareness of our existence, limited to the present state, is forced to become a memory in the future, to be replaced by a different state of consciousness, possibly more nebulous because of age or poor health, or even a state of absence of consciousness – as in the coma – when the perception of my body by the consciousness of other people no longer correspond to the inner consciousness of my personal identity. This condition of annihilation of consciousness, and therefore of the inner personal identity, contains in itself a negative element regarding the individual existence of each one of us, relativized in time but denied in its essence: a negation that can be unpleasant if we want to attribute to the conscious Ego a right to exist as an individual entity, beyond our experience of human life. Of course, one can rightfully assert – based on his/her own psychic experiences – that the natural order of things may very well scoff this (presumed) right, showing itself completely indifferent to it: this is undoubtedly true, nevertheless we can observe that once the question is placed on the table, on the basis of a psychic requirement registered by the conscious Ego, this claim would retain its value even if the right was denied to us. In fact, in the event that death should wipe out the existence of our conscious Ego, the natural order of things would be perceived as a kind of superior authority, which would have the power to deny what the conscious Ego, for a reason or for the other, feels and claims as his own logical and legitimate right.
The recording of our lives
To return to our identity in this life, the fact that our personality – determined by cultural conditioning, by social needs, by the functioning of our mind, by the events of our life and by the psychic tunings activated by all these factors – is destined to change, modifying itself over time, implies that each of us, as a conscious Ego, is the witness of a destiny that goes along and unfolds in the light of his/her consciousness. Although there is certainly an identification with the psychic tunings that, moment by moment, are perceived by the consciousness, precisely the changeability of the psychic elements we experience over time could imply their dissolution at the occurrence of the event of death (or the state of coma that often precedes this event): in this way, the Ego and its consciousness – freed from the subjection to the human psyche – could freely experience the psychic tunings of other dimensions. In some of the many testimonies of Near Death Experiences reported in the section dedicated to them, people revise their life in one form or another: in some cases one gets the impression that this life review consists not only of memories, but of vivid and plastic reconstructions – complete with thoughts, emotions and feelings – of the events we experienced from birth to death. It is therefore possible that a faithful record of everything that we have consciously experienced throughout life is stored somewhere. Just as we are able today to easily record with a videocamera everything that we can see with our eyes, there may be the equivalent of an instrument capable of recording anything that is consciously processed by our mind. It is certain, however, that in the ordinary state of consciousness we do not have access to these recordings during our lifetime.
Continuity of consciousness and functioning of the brain
Today a sufficiently intelligent person, up-to-date on cognitive progress in the field of neuroscience, goes into crisis if he/she tries to prove the existence of conscious mental activities that are not determined by the functioning of the brain. This is an assessment now acquired within our scientific culture as a fact confirmed by irrefutable evidence, and is a virtually insurmountable obstacle for anyone who wants to hypothesize the continuity of conscious individual existence after death, meaning by death that process which inevitably leads to the disintegration of our cerebral organ. This axiom, for which mental activity and therefore psychic experience depend entirely on the activity of the brain, has replaced the ancient dualism between body and soul, and leaves no room for hypothesising the existence of other instruments replacing the brain as a support for the consciousness. No one forbids us to believe in the survival of our personality of bodily death, in one form or another: on the contrary, culturally speaking, it is a form of faith spread even among people with a certain level of education and intelligence, although we must bear in mind that there are equally intelligent people who deny to believe in such an eventuality. But as to be able to explain with valid and convincing arguments how it is possible that our conscious individuality can be transferred from the brain to another instrument, of which there is no trace in this dimension, it is a different matter!
It should however be recognized that even in our day the way in which the activity of the brain determines the memory, the emotions, the thoughts, and the various psychic contents of which we become aware, is not well known in its details: generally speaking, it seems clear that the brain acquires through the senses data and information, which then compares and processes autonomously (and individually), but the ways by which these processes occur, largely escape the knowledge and the same possibilities of investigation by neuroscientists. It is true that the researches carried out, the results of which fill many thousands of pages, are so many and interesting, but the complexity of the object of the investigation (the functioning of the brain and the mental activity) is so high that each new discovery inevitably poses further questions and opens up new fields of investigation. Moreover, while it is possible to carry out various investigations on the physical system of the brain, especially if it is an organ taken from a (human or animal) dead organism, it is much more difficult and complicated to study the functioning of the brain and the correlations with the conscious activity in a living person. Experiments of this kind have been made in the course of open brain operations and have provided very interesting results, the interpretation of which remains partly controversial.
The well known experiments carried out in the 50s of the last century by the American (naturalized Canadian) neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield (1891-1976), consisted in carefully probing with electrodes the open brain of epileptic people, to identify the injured parts. The patients could remain conscious all the time, responding to the stimuli in order to guide the surgeon in the exploration of the exposed cortex: if, for example, the patient heard buzzing when Penfield touched a certain site, this meant that the site was associated to the auditory cortex. In this way it was possible to obtain a detailed map of the sensory and motor areas and of the cerebral cortex. But when Penfield began probing the temporal lobes (areas located on either side of the brain, behind the temples), he caused in patients feelings equivalent to very vivid memories, like sudden flashes of the past, along with all the emotions associated with the original event, so that a patient told him that he was freeing his unconscious. Penfield described these events in his book Mystery of the Mind, published in 1975 just before his death: «It was immediately evident that it was not about dreams. They were electrical activations of the sequential archive of consciousness, gradually formed over the course of the patient's life. He relived everything he had previously known as a sort of movie flashback». For example, a patient «D. F. could hear instruments that played a melody. I probed the same point 30 times (!) trying to get her into error, and dictated a stenographer every answer obtained. Every time I stimulated the same point, the patient heard the same melody, which she repeated proceeding from the refrain to the verses».
Here is a part of the shorthand recording: the numbers are associated with some stimulated points of the temporal lobe. «12 - I hear rumors along the river, somewhere: a voice of a man and a woman... 5 - A small glimmer of a sense of familiarity, and the impression of knowing everything that was going to happen in the future... 17 - A memory, very familiar, of an office somewhere. I could see the desks. I was there, and someone was calling me, a man leaning toward the desk with a pencil in his hand... (At this point Penfield warned the patient that he was about to stimulate her, but did not, and the patient said she did not remember anything). 18 - (in response to a stimulus without warning) A little memory, a scene in a game, they were talking and I could see the scene...». Penfiel believed that the brain could memorize in its original form all that its owner had consciously experienced, even if the patients could not intentionally recall the memories aroused by electrical stimuli. The flashbacks, rather than being confused or deformed, seemed to show themselves in a coherent order, like the scenes in a movie. He concluded that: «since the less important and completely forgotten memories of the past could appear, it seems reasonable to suppose that the archive of memory is complete and that it includes all the periods of the conscious wakeful life of each individual».
But where were all these memories stored? At first Penfield thought they were stored in the structure of the same temporal cortex, and therefore called the corresponding area the memory cortex. Later, having ascertained that the stimulation of the areas of the cortex activated a repository of memories located in the upper encephalic trunk, he named the temporal cortex as interpretive cortex. However, the American psychologist Elizabeth Loftus (born in 1944), a scientist of memory and in particular of what are called false memories, believed that the experiential flashbacks reported by Penfield patients were isolated visions experienced as memories, but not correspondending to actual events. Indeed, beyond the fact that our ordinary memory rarely has the requisites of a one hundred percent reliable recording tool (since it can alter, over time, various aspects and details of the events experienced), the syndrome of false memory causes imaginary events that are created in a person's mind to be perceived by him/her as memories of real events. According to Loftus, some details of the scenes described by Penfield's patients, following the repeated stimulation of certain areas of the temporal lobe, gave the impression of being false memories. Moreover, the problem of verifying the events that are experienced and presented as memories also occurs in the recollections obtained by subjects in a state of regressive hypnosis. Also known are several cases of false memories induced, as a result of suggestion, even in the course of psychotherapeutic treatments (including psychoanalysis): according to some researches, suggestionable subjects are more inclined to have false memories.
In any case, both Penfield's experiments and the interpretations of how memories are acquired and stored in memory prove the fundamental importance of the brain and its functioning for our personal identity. However the brain is not a perfect device, even if it fills us with wonder for the complexity of the functions performed and for the creativity of the solutions found out. It should also be kept in mind that we will hardly be able to understand its functioning, since in order to study the brain we must use the resources of the brain itself, that is, of an information system with the same degree of complexity, whereas a higher level system would be necessary.
The possible survival of brain death is never referred to this physical dimension
In the end, it is necessary to make clear that, with all evidence, when considering a possible form of the conscious Ego's survival of death and the dissolution of the brain, we do not mean to affirm that the conscious Ego can continue to exist in the same physical dimension in which we live our earthly life. Once this aspect has been cleared, the obstacles to overcome become a bit less difficult: in fact, even in this dimension, the feeling of our individual existence, however surprising, can hardly be denied. If someone, questioned about their conscious existence, answered: «I do not exist, there is only a brain X», we would consider this answer not only not sensible, but also not very sincere, precisely because a normally functioning brain determines the existence and evolution of a conscious Ego. The recognition of this form of existence by the conscious Ego, in turn, contains in itself an element of surprise of psychic origin, which leads the Ego to wonder why it exists and why precisely in this form, with this destiny and in this dimension. A similar surprise could occur in case the Ego discovered to be living consciously in a different dimension, and with an instrument different from the human brain.