Deeply Forgetful People

Does Identity Persist When the Brain Fails?

“How’s my log cabin doing?” my elderly father-in-law asked.

I winced. The New Mexico fires last spring wiped out the mountain cabin he built six decades ago. He loved that cabin. He keeps forgetting it’s gone.

He watched my face as I groped for words. Then he said, musingly, “I think maybe it burned.”

I nodded. “It did.” We’ve reminded him probably a hundred times, have asked ourselves often whether it would be better to evade, change the subject, not break his heart yet again.

His face fell. “That was a terrible thing,” he said. Then he brightened. “But we have a lot of good memories of that cabin. And you can’t burn memories!”

Except ... apparently you can. Day by day, more of his memories are going up in smoke.

So I listened with interest to a recent interview between neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and Stephen Post, author of Dignity for Deeply Forgetful People and an internationally recognized expert on diseases that affect memory.

Deeply Forgetful People

The title of Post’s book is significant. Post doesn’t care for the term dementia. While it’s accurate—it means decline from a former mental state—he says it also is associated with dehumanizing metaphors like husk, shell, vegetable. That, he says, “leads us to think about them being so categorically different from us.”

The term “deep forgetfulness,” by contrast, conveys that forgetfulness is a continuity; everyone experiences it to some degree. This makes us more inclined to expect and notice flashes when the person’s memory is better—flashes that often can be stimulated and prolonged if we’re paying attention.

Does Identity Reside in the Brain?

In such instances, is the forgetful person suddenly more present, or, as Post asks, “are these moments of rementia... simply the fragmented, sporadic firings of certain neurological connections that are really meaningless and empty?”

“That would be your materialist view,” Post says, namely that “mind is in fact matter. And when the brain goes, the mind goes and all self-identity is gone.”

He disagrees. “It’s implausible to think that somehow this rementia... this return of a personal identity, could be explained purely in terms of some small segment of brain tissue,” he says. “I think it’s unlikely.”

Rementia or “paradoxical lucidity” has caused more than one devoted materialist to stumble. Jesse Bering, a self-described neo-Darwinian materialist, tells movingly of his mother’s cancer, her decline into an “irreversible coma,” and then—at the last moment—her return:

I really don’t know how my mother managed those five minutes of perfect communion with me when, ostensibly, all of her cognitive functions were already lost. Was it her immortal soul? One last firestorm in her dying brain?

Honestly, I’m just glad it happened.

Bering witnessed what’s known as terminal lucidity, a perplexing but quite common phenomenon when people with cognitive impairment—sometimes severe, long-term impairment—suddenly regain good cognitive function just before death. Thus far inexplicable in purely physical terms, it’s just one among many other challenges to the “we’re material bodies and nothing else” narrative.

Growing Evidence

In his interview with Post, Michael Egnor notes that “many different lines of evidence—evidence from clinical medicine, evidence from the study of deeply forgetful people, evidence from recent neuroscience research—all point to the same basic insight, that the mind has existence that is to some degree separate from the brain.”

Near-death experiences are one such line of evidence, where the patient’s mind or consciousness leaves the dying body/brain and yet continues to exist and function. Some of these accounts are, unsurprisingly, difficult to verify, but others have clear evidentiary value, as when patients accurately describe events that took place far from their dying bodies.

Another line of evidence is brain surgery. In a different interview at Mind Matters, neurologist Andrew Knox notes:

If you assume that the soul entirely comes out of the brain, or that the mind and the brain are the same thing, if you remove enough of the brain, you’d expect to see substantial changes in a person. But you can do fairly dramatic surgery affecting part of the brain and not see a change in how the person acts or how they behave or who they are.

.... Even with removing half of the brain, the person doesn’t seem to change.... it’s not like they’re a different person, despite half of the brain being gone.

Some brain injuries do to some degree affect personality, or at least temperament, which is not quite the same thing. A friend whose dad had long ago suffered a traumatic brain injury told me, “It was the best thing that ever happened to us. He’s still himself, but a little dumber and a lot nicer.”

And sometimes it’s not clear whether a given problem lies with the brain or the mind. It’s complicated, trying to disentangle brain, mind, personality, soul—and it’s still more complicated for strict materialists, who, even if they bracket off “soul,” must explain rementia, consciousness, emotion, personality—all manner of unseen things—as purely the results of physical processes.

No Human Dignity

Under the materialist view, once the brain begins to malfunction, the person ceases to exist. He’s gone. There is no longer a human on the premises, and the “empty” body can be warehoused, killed, disposed of like a worn-out set of clothes. Post says:

One time a reporter asked Bertrand Russell if he thought there was any such thing as human dignity. Now, Bertrand Russell was a devoted materialist, and he said, and I’m quoting accurately here, he said, ‘No, how can there be? We are simply glorified pond scum.’ Now, if you take that view, then you’re right back to 1939 in Munich.

Post then describes the 1939 Tiergartenstrasse Four (T4) project, when German researchers experimented on 70,000 people living in asylums. About half had senile dementia (including Alzheimer’s, though that word wasn’t in use back then) and the rest were developmentally disabled.

“They felt that these individuals had absolutely no moral value,” Post says. “They were not members of the human family. There was nothing there to be concerned about.”

So they put them out at night in small groups to lie down in the cold snow, they would pack them in ice, they would leave them in freezing water for hours, until then they would bring them in back into the asylum, and they would warm them up at different temperatures in different mediums—sometimes water, sometimes hot air blowing on them.... The German scientists said they were doing this because they wanted to know at what point would it really become totally futile to send rescue teams into the cold waters of the North Atlantic for [maritime disasters].

Post then underlines the atrocity: “We’re talking about the annihilation of people simply because they’re having problems with their memory.”

Actually, we’re talking about torture followed by annihilation.

Still Themselves

Meanwhile, back at the old folks’ home here in Texas, my father-in-law can’t remember what year it is (“the war is over,” he reasons, “so it must be 1946.”) And yet he gallantly gets to his feet, props himself against his walker, and guides a woman I’ll call Sophie—unsteady and usually lost—to her room.

At what point, according to materialism, would he cease to be himself? At what point would he cease to be human? If he entirely forgot his beloved cabin, if he lay in bed mumbling nonsense, if he lay in bed in silence? If Jesse Bering had used those criteria, he’d have missed his treasured farewell with his mother.

Sophie, for her part, seems to have no idea where she is or why. But her face lights up when I walk in the door, and she says, “You have a precious, precious baby,” and pats my hand to drive the point home. For whatever reason, the photos of my new grandbaby have stuck with her. Her memories are largely gone—her brain is broken—but there is something undeniably sweet and Sophie-like in what remains.

Several others at the home are in a similar boat. Deena (and, again, I’m not using real names) perpetually searches for her long-deceased husband as if he were still alive, but if I start “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” or any other old gospel song, she can sing every verse.

Patty’s memory is the worst of all. She’ll deny she’s had orange juice while still holding her cup, ask every two minutes whether her daughter is coming, greet you enthusiastically every time you cross her line of sight. And yet last week she turned to another elderly female member of the house—whose pleasantries generally carry a subtle sting at the end—and told her, “Stop it with those backhanded compliments! You need to be nice!”

When I repeated that later to Patty’s daughter, tears sprang to the woman’s eyes. “That makes my day,” she said. “On the way over here, I always say a little prayer, because it’s so hard. But things like that remind me. She’s still there.”

“She’s still there.” Identity doesn’t vanish when the hardware decays. It may become obscured—which is only to be expected if the brain is a failing interface between some immaterial essence of ourselves and the world around us—but that obscuring doesn’t mean the self ceases to exist. There are powerful lines of evidence from multiple disciplines telling us that in the immaterial realm of mind and spirit, nothing is lost. Every happy memory, every nuance of self, is preserved, waiting just out of sight to be found again.

Further Resources:

PhD, is an editor for the Discovery Institute and the author of four dystopian novels and many shorter works, both fiction and non-fiction. Before turning to editing, she taught as an adjunct English and humanities professor. She and her husband homeschooled their three children.

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