July 5, 2014 1 Comment
Dr. Pim van Lommel presents an interesting question in his book “Consciousness Beyond Life” regarding the continuity of consciousness: “Every day, fifty billion cells are broken down and regenerated in our body. And yet we experience our body as continuous… Every two weeks all of the molecules and atoms in our body’s cells are replaced. How can we account for long-term memory if the molecular makeup of the cell membrane of neurons is completely renewed every two weeks and the millions of synapses in the brain undergo a process of constant adaptation (neuroplasticity)?” Further, he notes that since quarks and gluons are destroyed and reconstituted every 1E-23 seconds, effectively so are our bodies. How then does it appear continuous?
Our cells can live independently of our bodies, so effectively “we” are a large network of cells, much in the same ways that beehives are large networks of bees and computer networks are large networks of interconnected computers. In these cases, it is fairly easy to identify that the whole is the sum of the parts, while allowing the parts to be swapped out. If a few bees die and some new bees join the colony, one still sees the entire hive as continuous, although it might undergo continuous change. So the puzzle at the core of this question is not a philosophical debate about the validity of the existence of a large identifiable structure, but rather the existence of something that is truly continuous despite the replacement of its parts, such as human consciousness.
Or is it continuous? Are you the same person you were yesterday? Can we say to the judge: “Your honor, that wasn’t me that stole the car on that date. I was a different person then.”?
What links our past to our present (and hence, generates the appearance of continuity) is our structure for memories. If I lost every memory when I slept at night, would I even have the sense of having a continuous consciousness? Or, to flip the argument around, is it really the central database of memories in our brains that makes us have a continuous consciousness? The research actually supports the idea that the sense of “continuity of self” extends beyond mere memory recollection. For example, patients who have full retrograde amnesia, completely incapable of recollecting a single event from their past, nonetheless have the sense of a continuous personal identity1 and often show no personality change after the event that triggered the amnesia2,3.
This would seem to suggest that since “sense of self” is greater than simply memories, our consciousness is either due to some as yet unknown aspect of the brain that maintains a continuity of “self” aside from memory, or it is a superset of brain function entirely.
Given the evidence that values and personality extend beyond the brain and the preponderance of other evidence that a consciousness exists beyond the brain, it seems likely that continuity of self is just one more data point that supports the consciousness driven digital reality model.
- Klein, Stanley B., “Memory and the Sense of Personal Identity”, University of California, Santa Barbara (http://dingo.sbs.arizona.edu/~snichols/Papers/MemoryandSenseofPersonalIdentity.pdf)
- Brooks, DN and W McKinlay, “Personality and behavioural change after severe blunt head injury – a relative’s view” Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry 1983;46:336-344.