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Student , Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art


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How does life/death manifest itself in the human brain? Is brain death the ultimate end stage of life?

Recently, I watched the TED talk “Stroke of Insight” by Jill Bolte Taylor (http://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html), in which she discusses the experience of having a stroke from a scientific perspective. She was able to diagnose herself throughout the process, even as her brain functions slowed or stopped altogether. Her story gives rise to a very important question: what is the connection between life, death, and the human brain?

In my Bioelectricity class this week, we discussed the use of EEG’s to record brain waves. A patient whose EEG reading shows a lack of brain activity is declared to be “brain dead.” In the medical community, “brain death” is considered to be equivalent to “death.” However, many consider this definition of death to be problematic. Even when a patient exhibits a lack of brain activity, her or she may still have functioning organs. The circulatory and respiratory systems, for instance, have been observed to be active in people who are brain dead. Is it really appropriate to define death as the cessation of brain function? Or, should the medical definition of death be modified from its current form?


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    Mar 9 2012: This is an interesting question and hopefully my opinion contributes to what your trying to figure out.

    If life is nothing but a flow of experiences (conscious experiences) and the human brain is the nexus of all of our experiences (which includes those experienced during meditation, drugs or even produced by our neurons, axons, neurotransmitters, etc) and then we were to damage our brain (or in this case have brain death), then I would state that yes, brain death is the ultimate stage and end of life.

    This is the case because all that we have and could possibly matter is our subjective, moment to moment experiences of the world and once this is taken away (or once we are no longer aware of our experiences) then life loses its meaning and value.

    To be more scientific, much of what we experience is sensory and these sensory perceptions make up most of what we think about. It creates our values, ideologies, etc. If we were to damage a part of our brain we lose something (it could be thought, language, memory, sight, etc). So it is evident that our senses, brain function and brain processing information, constitutes to much of what we experience in life. I think our abstractions only come as a result of the experiences provided to us by our senses.

    With this being said, one can argue that the death of the brain does not constitute the death of the body (think of someone who is a vegetable), therefore life is still going on.

    If this was indeed the case I would argue that, there are some things worse than death and if I am unable to experience and enjoy and even suffer from my experiences, then this for me is no life at all.
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      Mar 9 2012: Hi Orlando,

      I think the most confusing thing about this discussion is how we choose to define everything. With that said, I agree with many of the terms that you have laid out.

      I too would define life as the flow of conscious experience. Only when this ceases, would I consider it to be death. Someone could be paralyzed in all of the five senses, but if they still had the ability to think, and at least be conscious of their surroundings although unable to interact with them, I would say they are still alive.

      Thus to me, if it is the brain that allows us the ability to think, then the death of the brain is death in general, regardless the state of the body.

      You brought up another good point about defining these terms -- if there is something worse than death (like having death of brain but not body), then perhaps death should remain defined as it is, the cessation of brain function.

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