afterlife

This Bungled Joy

"Infinity Mirror Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life," by Yayoi Kusama

Afterlife
by John Burnside, from Gift Songs 

When we are gone
our lives will continue without us

 or so we believe and,
at times, we have tried to imagine

the gaps we will leave being filled
with the brilliance of others:

someone else gathering plums
from this tree in the garden,

someone else thinking this thought
in a room filled with stars

and coming to no conclusion
other than this —

this bungled joy, this inarticulate
conviction that the future cannot come

without the grace
of setting things aside,

of giving up
the phantom of a soul

that only seemed to be
while it was passing.

You Will Never Know

Excerpt from "Never Say Die: Why We Can't Imagine Death," by Jesse Bering, Scientific American Mind (October 2008):

The brain is like any other organ: a part of our physical body. And the mind is what the brain does—it’s more a verb than it is a noun. Why do we wonder where our mind goes when the body is dead? Shouldn’t it be obvious that the mind is dead, too?

And yet people in every culture believe in an afterlife of some kind or, at the very least, are unsure about what happens to the mind at death. My psychological research has led me to believe that these irrational beliefs, rather than resulting from religion or serving to protect us from the terror of inexistence, are an inevitable by-product of self-consciousness. Because we have never experienced a lack of consciousness, we cannot imagine what it will feel like to be dead. In fact, it won’t feel like anything—and therein lies the problem.

...our ancestors suffered the unshakable illusion that their minds were immortal, and it’s this hiccup of gross irrationality that we have unmistakably inherited from them. Individual human beings, by virtue of their evolved cognitive architecture, had trouble conceptualizing their own psychological inexistence from the start.

iceberg Consider the rather startling fact that you will never know you have died. You may feel yourself slipping away, but it isn’t as though there will be a “you” around who is capable of ascertaining that, once all is said and done, it has actually happened. Just to remind you, you need a working cerebral cortex to harbor propositional knowledge of any sort, including the fact that you’ve died—and once you’ve died your brain is about as phenomenally generative as a head of lettuce.

Check out Jesse Bering's Psychology Today blog, Quirky Little Things.

 

How Our Minds Work

"A large part of any relationship takes place in our minds, so it's natural for it to continue much as before after the other person's death. It is easy to forget that your sister is dead when you reach for the phone to call her, since your relationship was based so much on memory and imagined conversations even when she was alive. In addition, our agent-detection device sometimes confirms the sensation that the dead are still with us. The wind brushes our cheek, a spectral shape somehow looks familiar and our agent-detection goes into overdrive. Dreams, too, have a way of confirming belief in the afterlife, with dead relatives appearing in dreams as if from beyond the grave, seeming very much alive...We have a basic psychological capacity that allows anyone to reason about unexpected natural events, to see deeper meaning where there is none. It's natural; it's how our minds work."

- Jesse Bering (Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland) quoted in "Darwin's God," by Robin Marantz Henig in The New York Times Magazine, March 4, 2007.