It Doesn’t Bear Thinking Of

…but I can’t stop thinking of it this morning. I can’t stop thinking of the awful destruction when an intelligent, curious, brilliant person—like all of you Scanalysts—dies.
Decades of study, of meditation, hard-won comprehension, knowledge of history, literature, plus other fields I don’t eVen know how to name properly (physics?) Pffft! G.O.N.E. A lifetime’s treasure, the furnishings of a mind.
Why should we lay it up,indeed? Why train memory, why draw in more and more of the world’s beauty and tragedy every year, every decade, priding ourselves upon our store? The awful moment comes when you look on it all and say, “I have no joy in it”.

“Why should not old men be mad?
Some have known a likely lad
That had a sound fly-fisher’s wrist
Turn to a drunken journalist.
A girl that knew all Dante once
Live to bear children to a dunce.
A Helen of social welfare dream
Climb on a wagonette to scream…
Some think it a matter of course that chance
Should starve good men and bad advance;
That if their neighbors figured plain
As though upon a lighted screen
No single story would they find
Of an unbroken, happy mind-
A finish worthy of the start.
Young men know nothing of this sort.
Observant old men know it well,
And when they know what old books tell
And that no better can be had
Know why an old man should be mad.”



This made me think of Macaulay, for some reason:

Then out spoke brave Horatius, the Captain of the Gate:
"To every man upon this earth, death cometh soon or late;
And how can man die better than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods

Mortality is part of our universe. Even stars grow old & die. We humans are no exception.

Something I puzzle over is the (historically recent) changing attitudes to mortality. Much of archaeology relates to evidence from former peoples’ careful burials of their dead – gone, but not forgotten. This spanned many cultures (arguably all prior cultures), with ancient burials still visible from the glens of Scotland to the deserts of Arabia.

What will future historians make of a culture which cremates its dead, scatters the ashes on a rose bush, and moves on? In this irreligious age, are we afraid of our own mortality, unwilling to celebrate the entire cycle of birth, life, and death? Still puzzling over that.


I think of that every time I pass a big sprawling cemetery. How much longer will we have those? I read that in Europe you can only rent a grave, for like t0 years.

Then what? What do they do with the charnel? Nobody builds chapels like at Kutna Hora near Prague, with chandeliers, altar rails, even altars, constructed entirely of human bones. Nor those chapels monks used to make, completely lined with human skulls, like Evora in Portugal.


In Switzerland, “eternity” is twenty-five years.


And then what?
Of course in France, I don’t think they’re gonna be exhuming all those famous writers, artists, musicians from Pere Lachaise.
But I read a fascinating book, a novel, about Holy Innocents cemetery in Paris.It had to be closed in 1780 because it was overflowing,so mephitic you could smell it for miles. They moved all the charnel en masse to tunnels outside the city, known as the Catacombs.

But we’re deflecting with these meditations. I don’t care about the corpses, nor even the slimy brains. I care about the MIND. It dissipates well before its bone casque and its precious convoluted clay medium, it wafts out into dissipation, to oblivion instantly with its once-proud owner’s final susurration. That’s what I’m finding unbearable.


These days, we live in the moment!

What first got me puzzling about this was a visit to a pre-Islamic archaeological site in the United Arab Emirates. The site had been apparently an ordinary village. The people lived in mud huts, which had long since disappeared back into the desert. Their former locations could be identified only with powerful modern technology. But they had built a still-extant stone beehive-like structure in which they had placed the bodies of their dead. They took more care of their ancestors than they did of themselves. Very different from what we do today.

Still puzzling over the implications for us today.


I kinda like the Towers of Silence the Zoroastrians use. They don’t want to pollute any of the elements, earth, water, fire or air with the dead, so they put ‘em on roofs of these round buildings, not as high as you’d think, for the-birds to pick clean. Come to think of it, i dk what if anything they do with bones. Rodents eat bone very quickly and thoroughly , though; if they didn’t, we’d be knee deep in antlers up here.
But the mind, the MIND! What of that, dear polymaths?

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The Mind lives on! We can still read thoughts from Plato’s mind, listen to music from the mind of Mozart, look at the paintings sprung from the mind of Gaugin. At the individual level, we all carry around in our heads memories of individuals who have now departed; their minds live within us.


When at last we can bury my darling, (which we can’t now because apparently gravediggers have morphed into wusses), I will bring the two books she co-authored. Yes you’re right, they are her progeny. But…like with me, i have one daughter, and pregnancy and birth were momentous to me, but there were many years of my life which weren’t devoted to motherhood. All that will be gone when I die. All the poetry I have memorized—well, memory is all, isn’t it? EVERYTHING I remember, know: gone with an accident of biology. It really is NOT satisfactory.


The question of what happens to all that we have learned and experienced when we die depends upon what consciousness is and how it functions. And science knows essentially nothing about consciousness. As Nick Herbert provocatively said,

Science’s biggest mystery is the nature of consciousness. It is not that we possess bad or imperfect theories of human awareness; we simply have no such theories at all. About all that we know about consciousness is that has something to do with the head, rather than the foot.

I like to describe there being two main models of consciousness: the “computer model” and the “radio model”. In the computer model, the brain is a essentially a computer made of meat which runs complex software which has, somehow (about which we have no idea) become self-aware and able to introspect and model its own operation and behaviour. Like any computer, when it is physically destroyed, it ceases to operate and loses all of the information it has stored.

In the “radio model” the brain is a sense organ which receives a consciousness field that exists outside itself, just as a radio picks up waves from the electromagnetic field. If you look inside a radio, there are not tiny little musicians, but rather just circuits sensitive to fluctuations in this external field. If the radio is destroyed, the field is unaffected, information in it is preserved, and others can pick it up.

Since we live in an age in which computers are the hot technology, we tend to model everything as a computer and dismiss other models, but I think it’s safe to say as many, if not more people over history and maybe today believe the radio model is more accurate.

As I wrote in my review of Roger Nelson’s Connected:

Over millennia, many esoteric traditions have held that “all is one”—that all humans and, in some systems of belief, all living things or all of nature are connected in some way and can interact in ways other than physical (ultimately mediated by the electromagnetic force). A common aspect of these philosophies and religions is that individual consciousness is independent of the physical being and may in some way be part of a larger, shared consciousness which we may be able to access through techniques such as meditation and prayer. In this view, consciousness may be thought of as a kind of “field” with the brain acting as a receiver in the same sense that a radio is a receiver of structured information transmitted via the electromagnetic field. Belief in reincarnation, for example, is often based upon the view that death of the brain (the receiver) does not destroy the coherent information in the consciousness field which may later be instantiated in another living brain which may, under some circumstances, access memories and information from previous hosts.

Such beliefs have been common over much of human history and in a wide variety of very diverse cultures around the globe, but in recent centuries these beliefs have been displaced by the view of mechanistic, reductionist science, which argues that the brain is just a kind of (phenomenally complicated) biological computer and that consciousness can be thought of as an emergent phenomenon which arises when the brain computer’s software becomes sufficiently complex to be able to examine its own operation. From this perspective, consciousness is confined within the brain, cannot affect the outside world or the consciousness of others except by physical interactions initiated by motor neurons, and perceives the world only through sensory neurons. There is no “consciousness field”, and individual consciousness dies when the brain does.

But while this view is more in tune with the scientific outlook which spawned the technological revolution that has transformed the world and continues to accelerate, it has, so far, made essentially zero progress in understanding consciousness. Although we have built electronic computers which can perform mathematical calculations trillions of times faster than the human brain, and are on track to equal the storage capacity of that brain some time in the next decade or so, we still don’t have the slightest idea how to program a computer to be conscious: to be self-aware and act out of a sense of free will (if free will, however defined, actually exists). So, if we adopt a properly scientific and sceptical view, we must conclude that the jury is still out on the question of consciousness. If we don’t understand enough about it to program it into a computer, then we can’t be entirely confident that it is something we could program into a computer, or that it is just some kind of software running on our brain-computer.

I don’t think we know enough about consciousness at this point to begin to say what it is or how it functions, and therefore whether or not it may, in some fashion, outlive the brain with which it is associated.


…and Gavin, actually,this ties into my comment about Pere Lachaise cemetery. Yes, if the dead person is…famous, notorious, if his/her thoughts were well published during life and beyond, then we can and we always will know his or her mind, to some extent—just as we can visit their graves.
But what about all the “mute inglorious Miltons” as Grey put it? As the Kabbalah says, every time one person dies, an entire universe is lost. That’s true for me, because now there is no one left who speaks the native language of my childhood, I am the sole survivor of a country no one ever has visited, nor ever can.
Languages die out every day. Have you ever wondered how the last living native speaker feels? I have. And now I know.


JW, months ago I read an article in Aeon online magazine, about how the mind is not limited to the brain; memory is stored in all the cells of our bodies. F’rinstance,a French civil servant who had lost half or more of his brain to some kinda encephalitis went on functioning at work and at home for years! But what really terrified me was the part about worms, planaria; You can cut those little guys up and each piece will regenerate into an organism that has the memories of the original. You can even feed the cut-up morsels to other planaria which will then exhibit “memory” regarding certain stimuli to which their last meal was exposed.
Ei yii yii! Does that mean that worms which eat US after death, as they famously do, might ingest a bit of our memories? That some slimy invertebrate will eventually be crawling around tortured by my memory of a mean thing I said, an incompetent thing I did? And will any of my “mind” be aware of it? This is too horrible to contemplate.
So actually, this is a great argument for cremation.

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But there should also be worms going about their essential business of improving the soil while remembering that wonderful evening you had in Venice, and that stunning view from the top of Pike’s Peak. Happy worms, courtesy of your memories. :slightly_smiling_face:


For what it’s worth, the “cannibal planaria” experiments by James V. McConnell in the 1950s and '60s have long been generally considered to have been discredited. Here is a discussion on Skeptics Stack Exchange, “Can flatworms learn a maze by digesting other flatworms?”. All attempts to reproduce the original experiment by other researchers appear to have failed, and the experimental design has been criticised as incorporating insufficient controls to rule out other hypotheses. (For example, planaria leave a slime trail as they move, and are known to follow slime trails left previously. If the maze is not scrupulously cleaned between runs, this can give the appearance of “learning” when in fact it is simple trail following.)

Carl Sagan cited the planaria studies as an example of pseudoscience in his 1997 book The Demon-Haunted World:

Typical offering of pseudoscience and superstition … are … the alleged discovery that untrained flatworms can learn a task by eating the ground-up remains of other, better educated flatworms.

I exclude arguments such as “the results contradict theory” or “memory does not work that way”, because that isn’t how science is done—If an experiment falsifies your theory, you need a new theory. The inability to reproduce an experiment, however, is the gold standard for rejecting it.

In any case, I wouldn’t expect a worm to be able to experience any memories it ingested because it doesn’t have the hardware (a brain) with which to do so. Planaria have clumps of neurons called “cerebral ganglia” near their eyespots, but the complexity is many orders of magnitude below what is considered required for abstract memory and consciousness.


Long time ago, I read a book “The Heart’s Code” which recounted a number of cases of transplant recipients gaining habits (& maybe memories?) of the transplant donor.

From DuckDuckGo: The Heart Consciousness - a Neurological Perspective | Wake Up World (

"During organ transplantation there have been numerous reports of emotions, memories and experiences being transferred along with the organ which is being transplanted, from the donor to the recipient. Dr. Paul Pearsall has collected the cases of 73 heart transplant patients and 67 other organ transplant recipients and published them in his book, “The Hearts Code” (1). Here is a sample of a case that has been reported.

Transplant recipient develops desire for chicken nuggets and green peppers."

There must be a lot of dissatisfied worms out there, with unrequited cravings for a porterhouse steak and a fine cigar! :slightly_smiling_face:


Thanks JW. I’m surprised people are still writing articles about the planaria experiment, since it’s been discredited. I feel embarrassed but relieved!

Ei yii yii! But does that kinda food craving really constitute memory? Maybe there was some physical characteristic of the donor’s cells which triggered the pica, and now those cells are in the donee, so…

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JW has put this entire worm trail to rest…but still what you say is interesting. Greek mythology has the Harpies, who hover around the dead reminding them of every awful, mean, cowardly, evil thing they ever did. But I’ve never heard of any opposite-number spirits in Elysium, constantly reminding the good and worthy of all the kind and brave things they did. Y?
While meditating on this i DID think of the happy memories, but my feeling was it would be even more awful to think of those while stuck in a worms body, crawling blindly through mucky decay, than it would be to remember the bad stuff.
And maybe that explains the Harpy thing. When you’re dead it would only be torture to be reminded of your days incarnate, like Ajax or is it Achilles says when his shade is summoned by a blood libation, “Better a living dog than a dead lion.”

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"Why should we lay it up,indeed? Why train memory, why draw in more and more of the world’s beauty and tragedy . . . "

We do that for love of life; we want to live, and so we do, as fully as we can, fighting entropy all the way. We do that despite awareness of a tragic aspect of the human condition: that in most cases, most of the gardens - gardens of the mind, of family connection, of built or grown things - will go to seed and waste when we are gone.

These are among the testaments to the power of human love and loyalty and imagination and urge to live: rage at the loss of loved ones, rage at the loss of precious human minds, the positing of afterlife with reunion, and the positing of supra-consciousness with the permanence that it implies.

So many millions of human beings have had lives cut short by violence, accident, disease, or other misfortunes, that it feels ungrateful to fail to appreciate life while we have it, as if we took no notice of the misfortunes of others and the great good luck we have to be alive. So I say live fully, tend your garden of life, and rage all you want that you and your loved ones cannot live forever. Just channel the rage into living well, and helping others to do so, when you can.

And know, Hypatia, that your friends think of you.


Of course you’re right dear Jzdro, learning is a life-affirming thing to do, like eating, like making love. Consumption! Carpe diem!
“No motion has she now, no force
She neither hears nor sees,
Rolled round in Earth’s diurnal course
With rocks and stones and trees”.

And thank you, very much!

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