Continuity of Self

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.

  1. Klein, Stanley B., “Memory and the Sense of Personal Identity”, University of California, Santa Barbara (http://dingo.sbs.arizona.edu/~snichols/Papers/MemoryandSenseofPersonalIdentity.pdf)
  2. 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.
  3. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/374514/memory-abnormality/23519/Traumatic-amnesia

6 future-self continuity

Inferring the Existence of the Soul?

The following is an excerpt from my book, “The Universe – Solved!”  It is a thought experiment that seems to prove the existence of the soul…

Given that in the primate world there is a continuum of neural complexity from lemurs to humans, it is safe to say that somewhere there is a species with roughly half the neural complexity of a human.  Per the atheistic way of thinking, such a species would therefore have half the consciousness of a human.  Let’s arbitrarily define the level of neural complexity on a scale from 0 to 1, 1 being human.  Out primate friend would then have a neural complexity, and therefore, consciousness, of .5.  Later in this chapter we will present the strong evidence of the distributed nature of the brain; namely, that there is no single specific place where a memory resides or a specific component of a visual image is captured.  From the cases involving brain tumors and brain loss due to injuries, it is clear that we could remove half of a human’s brain and that person would continue to be conscious.  Maybe only half as conscious as before, not unlike waking up on a beach in Cancun during spring break after a night of bad tequila.

Here comes the thought experiment part.  Imagine the possibility of a brain transplant.  It’s not hard to do, given that the brain is simply an organ, like the many others that are routinely subject to transplant with today’s surgical techniques.  There are certainly a lot more connections to a brain compared with, say, a liver, but it’s really just a matter of time before it is possible and then ultimately perfected.  Just as the cloning procedure is working its way up the species complexity scale (lab mice, sheep, humans), so will the brain transplant procedure.  A head transplant, for example, was performed by Case Western Reserve University neurosurgeon Dr. Robert White on a rhesus monkey in 1970.  It survived for eight days and exhibited many normal functions.  Cross-species transplants, also known as xenotransplants, have long since been proven to be possible, with chimpanzee kidneys in humans, pig livers in humans, cynomolgus monkey hearts in baboons, and baboon hearts in humans all achieving some level of success.  The main reasons that experimentation and advances in that field are slow to progress are the controversial ethical issue (it is right for pigs to become organ factories?) and the fear of cross-species viral infections.  But, ethical and safety issues aside, it is reasonable to assume that with sufficient technology, it will be possible to transplant a human brain or portion thereof into our primate that nominally has a .5 consciousness level.  Let’s further imagine that the process could become fairly straightforward, like plugging a new motherboard into a computer.  As long as the interfaces line up from a physical and networking standpoint, the procedure is “plug and play.”

So let’s imagine our human subject, Nick, and 2 lesser primates, Magilla and Kong.  We remove Nick’s brain and attach it to Magilla’s body.  Nick should retain his memories and consciousness, but feel really different, since his sensory input is completely new.  We would have to conclude that he maintained a continuous, albeit altered, stream of identity.  If Karl Pribham and others are right, we could theoretically put half of Nick’s brain into Magilla and the other half in Kong.  Where is his identity now?  Which body does the old Nick feel that he is in?  If we took the biological reductionist point of view, we would have to say that his consciousness is in both primates.  That must be very confusing, receiving two separate sets of sensory stimuli and two distinct developing sets of new memories.  Given that the state of the two primates is fairly consistent with the state of two similar natural primates, namely that they each have a brain of .5 neural complexity, why should there be a single conscious identity occupying both bodies in the case of Kong and Magilla, but two distinct identities in the natural case?  My answer is simple, invoking Occam’s Razor.  Nick’s soul simply chose which primate to move into along with his brain.  Alternately, his soul could have said, “This is ridiculous.  I’m returning to the spirit domain.  Let some other souls fight over those abominations.”

baboon brain transplant