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Musings on Death and the Modular Mind

We are swung naked into the writhing streams of life, interacting with its myriad forms as we grow old, and ultimately, succumbing to the cold wind of death. These scenes—these snippets of film—are wound together as moments of passing awareness, encapsulated in their own contexts and time-frames. As T.S. Eliot put it in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
One day, however, the visions and revisions will end. One day, our incessant wanderings, whether in time, space, or thought, will reach their inevitable destination. The processes sustaining us—the modules that jingle and jangle in the crowded sphere of our bodies and minds—will either dwindle down or come to an abrupt stop. One by one, our organs will begin to fail, and likewise, our mental processes will probably decay in a haphazard fashion; first, we may lose our sight or our hearing—or our sight and hearing may remain intact but our ability to recognize our loved ones may suffer. Here, we are forced to ask: who is “doing” the dying? Are we synonymous with our sight or hearing? If not such peripheral sensations and perceptions, are we synonymous with those mental entities that recognize and care for loved ones—i.e., are we the conglomeration of various neuronal connections that represent memories of individuals who are dear to us, or, perhaps, of other representations, such as we the artistic neurons, we the intellectual neurons, or we the ethical neurons? 

On a more foreboding level, which aspect of death are we most afraid of—is it physical deterioration, the deterioration of lower-level mental functions such as sight and sound, or is it the deterioration of our higher-level capacities for emotion, abstract thought, and creativity? I believe that the answer differs for everyone. Some prize their capacity for love; others, their virile sexuality; others still, their financial success, or academic knowledge, or moral virtue. Most of us, however, spread the cloth of the self to include a cacophony of “selves” by identifying with all or some of the above. Ask what an individual is most scared of losing and you will come to know what that individual values most.

Here, however, we are forced to reflect on the “who” or the “what” that is conducting the valuations. Although we may prize something about ourselves, say our artistic talent, it is not clear who the critic doing the prizing is—that is, reviewing and evaluating the worthiness of those aspects of ourselves that are vying to represent ourselves. Is this critic an even “higher” self, perhaps undergirded by self-awareness circuits in our prefrontal cortex or scattered across the brain’s default mode network, and even more worthy of being identified as the self? Of course, there is no critic if there is no artist. Our sense of a “higher” self would not have developed, and in any case, would have been but a pale shadow of who we are if not for the “lower” level processes upon which it is built—e.g., the sights and sounds of beauty in mountain gorges and jazz compositions, or the ecstasy elicited by the aroma of “toast and tea” or our lover’s hair. The critic, it seems, is like a looming chimera, feeding on all of the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells, and parasitizing the incessant flow of our phenomenological world. 

In the embattled realm of our bodies and minds (where divergent interests are incessantly vying for representation), the cycles of victory and defeat—the “visions and revisions”—may ultimately determine who we are and who we get to be. Some warrior “selves” may slay other warrior “selves” in a Darwinian struggle for “self” preservation—both on the brain’s battleground, where neurons and their connections make up the infantry and artillery, and literally vie for existence with other neurons and their respective connections, and on the crest of the present moment, where some “selves” continuously knock other “selves” out of the psychological ring of what is currently activated. Some warring parties in our psyches may sign peace agreements and engage in relationships based on mutually-benefitting co-preservation—essentially extending an olive branch to other warring parties in our psyches and defining who we are by collective rule. Yet even the winners of such struggles are at the mercy of various evolutionary and developmental influences, such as genes, the ecology, and societal reinforcement and punishment. In short, these victors are not disconnected from history but are heavily influenced by their genetic and cultural inheritances. 

I suppose that my discussion is meant to highlight the vagueness of life’s dwindling moments—a meditation on the continuous nature of the dying process, where the fuzziness of our final moments slowly gradates and disintegrates into the naked ether of non-existence. Much as a species gradually mutates into another species throughout the course of evolution, we likewise mutate, gradually transforming from life into death as our mental functions give out one by one. Of course, the transition may not be all that gradual, as our inner-representatives may come to a relatively abrupt termination if they hit the ground in unison while skydiving without a parachute.

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