the self evaporates

The author is recounting her final days with a friend, three years after his HIV-positive diagnosis.

Nick collapsed suddenly one Friday night.

He had seemed so stable just a few days before. But all those interconnected networks in his body finally hit that critical threshold and the cascading failure mode kicked in. He hung on long enough to give his friends a chance to say good-bye, before quietly slipping away in the dead of night when no one was looking.

This is what I realized that gut-wrenching night when I found myself alone with Nick’s lifeless body: something essential does depart. There is more to death than just the shutdown of the body’s metabolic engine; the brain shuts down too, and once that happens, the self evaporates, because human consciousness is emergent.

It is all those underlying processes, the constant flow of neural information, that give rise to consciousness, which is why significant disruptions in that flow lead to unconsciousness. Once those processes cease entirely, the self disappears forever. . . . Nick, too, confronted the void of nonexistence, admitting to me during yet another hospital stay that, during his darkest days, he seriously considered suicide.

In the end, he said, he choose to think of his approaching death as surfing one last giant wave: “I decided I’m just gonna ride that wave all the way into shore.”

Ouellette, Jennifer. Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self. New York: Penguin Books, 2014. 25759. Print.


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