You walk into a room, intent on grabbing something, but forget what it was the minute you get there. You stand there, shocked for a minute, scanning the possibilities and hoping something will pop into view and spark your memory. But alas, it does not. Pissed, you initiate a demeaning conversation with your brain. “Five hours with a Taylor Swift song stuck on replay. Seriously, brain? Taylor Swift. And you can’t retain a relevant bit of information long enough to walk from the kitchen to the living room?” You sigh, because now you are forced to do the dreaded “retrace your steps” thing. It’s an undesirable solution because it brushes on the deeply troubling reminder that “you” could someday slip away. You could become a fully functional body with a brain that doesn’t recognize or remember any of the things that make you who you are. You’d be the living, breathing opposite of an afterlife in which the soul lives on after the body’s death. You would be a physical shell without cognizance, a corporeal form without a soul.
You walk into the kitchen and remember that you were opening a package and needed scissors. Outwardly, you roll your eyes at the brain’s ineptitude and curse it one last time. But inside, you are shuddering at the frail parameters of its functionality, the surprisingly flimsy barricades that separate witty, sharp, multitasking “you” from dementia. You make another mental note in your ever-growing list of aging concerns. The note says, “Early sign of Alzheimer’s?”
Since my departure from Christianity, I have become fascinated with seeking “supportive evidence” for my choice. I read both religious and nonreligious perspectives on a wide range of topics that imply the possibility or improbability of God, a spiritual world, or an afterlife. Most information I have read about Alzheimer’s appears to contradict the possibility of the soul.
Of course, there are differing views among religions regarding the soul and the afterlife. In Hinduism the soul, or atman, is an eternal being that can inhabit many temporal bodies through reincarnation. Buddhists don’t believe in a soul, claiming that “the ego” and “personality” are merely illusions. The Jewish concept of the soul is beautifully complex and varies among different philosophies. In Judaism, the soul is a three-part “entity.” The first, “Nefesh,” departs from the physical body upon death to be reincarnated into another body. The second, “Ruah,” ascends through levels of the afterlife for the purposes of purification and preparation for eternity. The third, “Neshamah,” is the eternally good part of the soul that simply reunites with the divine upon physical death.
Jewish tradition also paints a complex image of the afterlife. The soul is eternal and exists in four periods, the first two being the time before physical birth and during physical life. Here’s where it gets interesting. The soul spends the third segment of its life either in “Gan Eden” or “Gehenna” (or progressing through both). Unlike the Christian versions of heaven and hell (where the soul lives in a state of blissful worship or eternal punishment, with no possibility of escape from either), Gan Eden and Gehenna are a time/place to reflect on the good or evil we committed during our physical lives. In a way that would make crunchy, progressive moms proud, the reward or punishment we receive is a natural consequence of our own choices. We simply re-live the joy or suffering we ourselves created. Finally, we enter “The World to Come.” In this stage, unique to Judaism, our souls return to a physical body to live eternally.
The perspective of the soul with which I am most acquainted is the Christian one. According to Christianity, our bodies are just temporary homes for something greater that lives inside of us, our personalities, our thoughts and memories, our faith and our love. As “souls” we will be similar to the people we are today. We will recognize each other in the afterlife, be reunited with family members, conserve many of our personality traits, all without the confines of a physical body. The soul, in essence, is the part of us that lives on after the body’s demise.
At first glance, a disease like Alzheimer’s debunks the Christian concept of a soul. An Alzheimer’s patient provides real-world evidence that our personalities and memories aren’t automatically entitled to even the same longevity as our physical bodies, much less eternity. Those elements we collectively label “the soul” might be spirited away even before we die. (See what I did there?)
However, there is one monkey wrench that just might debunk my debunking, and that is the phenomenon called “terminal lucidity.” The term refers to a brief period just before death in which some Alzheimer’s patients experience clarity of thought and the unexplained and sudden return of their memories and personalities. According to PSI Encyclopedia: The most astonishing cases of terminal lucidity concern patients who suffered from severe neurologic diseases such as meningitis, tumors, Alzheimer’s disease or strokes – in short, cases in which there is reason to think that the brain’s neuronal circuits were severely impaired or destroyed.
Is terminal lucidity evidence of a “mind” (or soul) separate from the brain, where our personalities and memories reside? Could this “mind” be affected by the illnesses of our bodies and the deterioration of our brains, but return to its full capacity upon our physical deaths? Science cannot currently offer any explanations as to why or how a person who has suffered impairment of the brain may suddenly, albeit briefly, regain full use of it. That said, the phrase “terminal lucidity” wasn’t coined until 2009, and there have been only limited studies on the phenomenon. The very nature of patients who experience terminal lucidity ethically precludes extensive studies of them, so we are left to rely primarily on anecdotal evidence of the occurrence, supplied by the patients’ relatives and loved ones.
As scientists continue to study the complexities of the brain, and philosophers ponder the possibilities of a mind, I leave you with these takeaway messages. 1. We don’t know it all, no matter where we stand on the spiritual spectrum, so let’s keep the conversation going. 2. There’s never a bad time for a good pun. Never.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned next week as I plan to discuss…now, wait a minute. What was it? I had it, but it’s gone. Oh hey, is that Taylor Swift I hear?