Death, Amnesia and the Nature of Subjective Aliveness
“Try to imagine what it will be like to go to sleep and never wake up… now try to imagine what it was like to wake up having never gone to sleep.” — Alan Watts
Clive Wearing is a man forced to live in an eternal present. After a brain infection in 1985, he has been unable to form new memories that last more than a few seconds at a time. Again and again, minute by minute he feels as though he has woken up for the first time, as his diaries show.
“I AM AWAKE!! I DO LIVE!!”, he declares, endlessly, unable to access the continuity of his consciousness. For almost forty years he has lived this way. Even as you read this, he feels as immediately the sense of having first woken up, as he did in 1985. He has been alive this whole time, but from his subjective perspective in any given moment, he hasn’t.
When people first hear about Clive Wearing’s story, they are apt to feel a sense of horror. Indeed, Clive himself has repeatedly felt existential fear and confusion at his condition, intimating that something is wrong, although he can’t understand what it is. He forgets these moments of panic too, as if they had never been. He is born every seven seconds, and dies, with the fleeting of his memories. Too short a time to make sense of it.
But I want to give a different perspective on Clive’s condition, and show you how it’s not as dissimilar to your own experience of consciousness as you might first think. And while Clive’s story may be confronting, the overall implications about the nature of death, are comforting.
Do you remember when you first became conscious?
When did you start? When did you “wake up” for the first time?
In fact, do you remember when you woke up this morning? The moment where you crossed from unconsciousness to consciousness? (I’m not talking about dreams, if you remember them, because remembering a dream meant you were conscious for the experience of the dream).
When I think back on my life, I perceive unbroken consciousness. It feels like I have always been aware. All the moments where I was unconscious are hidden from my qualia (that integral sense of “being alive as this consciousness” that I inhabit), if they never existed, leaving nothing but a timeless sense of wakefulness.
Even as I write, my brain ignores all the times I blink, so that unless I stop to think about it, I perceive the world as if I didn’t blink at all. As if all that mattered, were the times between the blinks.
A few years ago, I was put under general anaesthetic for dental surgery. I wasn’t afraid, although perhaps I should have been, since from a subjective perspective I was about to encounter true unconsciousness, which seen from the inside of myself, is the same as death. “I know what you’re trying to do, you’re trying to distract me but it’s not working”, I joked with the doctor as he flicked my shoulder, counting down, feeling the icy climb of the drug up my arm from my wrist.
Or rather, that’s what I intended to say. Halfway through the sentence I blinked, and the scene shifted. I was in the recovery ward, sans wisdom teeth, and several hours had passed.
True unconsciousness, such as under general anaesthetic, feels like nothing. And because I remember the time before the anaesthetic reached my brain, and I remember waking up, the experience felt continuous, stitched together with a blink.
Are you afraid when you think about your own death? You shouldn’t be. You already died, countless times, in this lifetime alone. You have forgotten more than 99.9% of all the experiences you have ever had. The imprints remain, trailing behind you, like the wake of a ship, fading with time.
I can’t remember what it was like before I could speak. What it was like to not be able to read. How it felt to be myself, before I first experienced love.
And yet, there is a sense of consistency I feel, that someone like Clive Wearing lacks. I can organise my memories into a linear narrative, or rather, I’d like to think I can. I sometimes wonder if I examined my own memories too closely, whether they would start to change as I observed them, until they fit the story rather than the truth. Memory is not nearly as reliable as we’d like to think, even for those of us without anterograde amnesia like Clive, or Alzheimer's Disease.
So whence comes this sense of continuity?
Again, we can look to Clive’s case for clues. While he’s almost unable to function in ordinary life with his severe amnesia, his ability to play or enjoy music is unmarred. The seven second rule doesn’t apply to music.
Why is this? The reasons for this is not fully understood by neurologists (for an excellent book on recent scientific thinking about it see Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia). However the nature of memory is somewhat analogous to the nature of music. Music is a pattern of vibrations, of waves and oscillations. Made up of sounds and silences, and spaces between tones. We perceive the melody, not the silence. We perceive our lives as patterns, condensing the years of our wakefulness into a mnemonic that can be summarised to ourselves in a moment or two, reminding ourselves of who we are at any given moment.
At the same time, this remembered version of ourselves shifts and is shaped by imagination and retelling, leaving us with memories of our past selves barely more accurate than the memories held by our loved ones. And in some cases, our past selves exist only in the memories of our family. My baby self has died to me, living only in the memories of my parents.
And yet, this feeling of continuance. The nature of consciousness is not to be aware of unconsciousness, and thus the feeling of consciousness is eternal wakefulness.
When did I first become alive? When I was born? When I was conceived? In the life of the egg and sperm? In the bodies of my parents? In our common ancestors?
When did we as humans become conscious? We evolved from single celled organisms, from chains of proteins in primordial soup. When did we evolve this feeling of awareness? When did life itself first become conscious?
The patterns of evolving consciousness repeat themselves on the level of the individual and collective. Fundamental to it all, is the feeling of aliveness. Memory or not. And so, when you die, you will not perceive your own death. The memories of who you were at the moment of your death will be gone, just like the memories of who you were as a baby will be gone.
But just as Clive feels, every seven seconds, the feeling of “I AM AWAKE! I DO LIVE!” will persist. Because it is in the nature of “the feeling of being alive”, to always feel continuous.
“We can say the body is the I, but the body comes out of the rest of the universe, comes out of all this energy — so it’s the universe that’s I’ing. The universe I’s in the same way that a tree apples or that a star shines, and the center of the appling is the tree and the center of the shining is the star, and so the basic center of self of the I’ing is the eternal universe or eternal thing that has existed for ten thousand million years and will probably go on for at least that much more. We are not concerned about how long it goes on, but repeatedly it I’s, so that it seems absolutely reasonable to assume that when I die and this physical body evaporates and the whole memory system with it, then the awareness that I had before will begin all over once again, not in exactly the same way, but that of a baby being born.” — Alan Watts, What Is It Like to Die
Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be. — Bhagavad Gita