Is There Mind After Death?
The science of immortality and the loss of a friend
Some years ago (so the story goes), a scientist placed a few dozen worms in a powered-off blender and weighed them with a very precise scale. He then turned on the blender, and after the worms were reduced to a slurry, he weighed them again. To his disappointment, the scale read exactly the same; he was hoping that worms might get lighter when they perished, due to the lost weight of their escaping soul.
Although this experiment may seem cruel and unusual, it was inspired by the research of Dr. Duncan MacDougall, a Massachusetts physician who worked with tuberculosis patients in the early 1900s. MacDougall monitored patients until they were within hours of death and then placed them on a very sensitive industrial scale. He then recorded any potential weight change as they died. In a handful cases, patients become slightly lighter after death — 21 grams on average.
MacDougall interpreted these results as revealing the existence of the human soul that transcended death. While future studies failed to replicate his work, they remain a topic of conversation a century later because of what they suggest — life after death.
Each of us will one day die, an inevitability that no one is happy about. But though our bodies will eventually fail, many of us hold out hope that our soul — or mind — will somehow live on. How exactly how it lives on depends upon our religious beliefs. Christians believe in eternal Heaven and Hell, Hindus believe in reincarnation, and Mormons believe in three Kingdoms of varying eternal glory.
Believers in the afterlife often point to Near Death Experiences (NDEs) as support for immortality. Consider the case of Pam Reynolds, who in 1991 underwent surgery to fix an aneurysm next to her brainstem. As part of the operation, doctors intentionally induced cardiac arrest by lowing her body temperature. In other words, they briefly rendered her dead.
While she was dead, Reynolds had the sense of floating above her body where she could observe the operation and listen in on conversation. She also reported being pulled toward a bright light in which she could make out the shapes of deceased relatives, including her grandmother and uncle. Despite the peace she felt, her uncle led her back into her body. She awoke sometime later with a repaired brainstem and a deep belief in immortality.
Many have suggested that Reynold’s experience has more mundane explanations such as anesthesia-induced hallucinations, retinal ischemia, over-production of dopamine, and stimulation of the temporoparietal junction.
As yet, science offers no good evidence for the literal survival of the mind, but it does highlight a less controversial form of immortality — mind perception.
We often think of other minds as objective things out there in the world, but other minds also exist within our own mind. We often create mental models of other people’s personality, thoughts, and feelings, which allow us to determine how they’d react to things without asking them. When you determine whether your spouse might like a Christmas gift, you likely conjure an image of their mind and then see how that image reacts to each gift.
Importantly, we can simulate other people’s minds even when they aren’t physically present. You can be at restaurant and — using your mind perception — know that your long-broken-up-with ex-boyfriend would absolutely hate it. You can also simulate a mind that has passed away, especially if it’s a mind that’s left a very clear impression in your own mind.
One way of leaving a clear impression is by doing grand deeds that communicate clear intention or thought. Another way is to leave writings and speeches where people can plainly see your idea and feelings. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. lives on for many because of his heroism and tenacity for civil rights, and his inspiring speeches that vividly painted his hopes and dreams.
Most of us will never fight for freedom or give famous speeches, but our minds can still live on through those who knew us. The more time you spend with people, the more they think about what you’re thinking and feeling, and the more vivid their facsimile of your mind within their own mind.
By having deep personal connections with people, you copy your mind into theirs, creating at least some form of immortality.
I experienced its truth over the last view years in writing our book on mind perception.
In 2010, my graduate advisor, social psychologist Daniel Wegner, told me that he was planning to write a book. It would explore the science and stories of the most mysterious minds, from dogs and gods to robots and the dead. He also told me that he had just been diagnosed with ALS. He wasn’t sure how fast the disease would progress, and so wondered if I might help him finish up the book if he ran out of time.
As my advisor, he told me that since I was a newly minted junior professor, it would be in my best interest to tell him no. Tenure decisions are based on papers and grants, not on books for a general audience. But then he said that he would be grateful if I said yes, and ended his speech with this doozy: “I don’t want you to think of this as the last request of a dying man, but it is.” It was hard to say no.
Over the next couple of years, we worked together on the book, but the disease went much faster than anyone expected. Although he planned out many chapters, he had only time to finish the first chapter before he was too sick to continue. In July 2013, he passed away, leaving a gaping hole in psychology and in many lives, my own included.
Luckily for the book, in the decade I spent learning from Dan, I had built up a pretty reliable facsimile of his mind, which I could use as I wrote. For example, when writing Chapter 2, I was trying to decide whether to include an anecdote about a Florida man who made love to a donkey named Doodles. I asked him what he thought, using my model of his mind, and got back a very clear answer: “Yes.”
As I progressed through the chapters I took solace in these conversations with Dan. To me, he was still alive because I was constantly asking myself “WWDWD?” As I wrote, I could hear him cracking jokes, or making suggestions, or — more often than I wished — telling me to cut an entire paragraph.
And so when I finally finished, it was with a sense of both accomplishment and deep loss. Without the book to pull us together, my conversations with Dan would become less regular. I would think more about other ideas — ideas that we never had the chance to discuss — and it would be harder for me to perceive what he might say or think.
The facsimile of his mind would be stuck in time while my life moved forward.
I would slowly lose Dan again. Even now, as the book is being released, I find my memories a little hazier, and that makes me sad.
There’s still hope, however. His mind lives through his many papers and books, and through the minds of those who knew Dan even better than I did. I’d also like to think that his mind lives on in the pages of our book. And if the religions are right, there may come a day when I can speak to Dan again in the afterlife, and not just in my own mind. The three of us could have a wonderful conversation together: me, Dan, and the blender worms.
The Mind Club: Who Thinks, What Feels and Why it Matters by Daniel M. Wegner and Kurt Gray. Published by Viking, 2016.
We thank the funding of the John Templeton Foundation and the UC Riverside Immorality Project.