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David Eagleman

“It may be that people have different flavors, or levels, of anxiety about death. I’m actually quite optimistic about death. I feel like everything about our existence is so mysterious. For example, you don’t remember getting here, you’ve just sort of always been here as far as you recall. You’re told you’re going to die; nobody knows what that means.

We don’t understand the fabric of reality yet. We know that space is somewhere between nine and thirteen dimensional — not just the three dimensions that we see. So I sort of feel optimistic about it. And I feel like, I’m curious about what happens next.

So let me make up a couple of things that could be happening – I’m not saying I believe these, but they’re perfectly possible. So let’s say what happens when you die is that you slip out of these three dimensions and into some other dimensions. Okay, well there’s no evidence to support that, it’s a lovely idea, and when a loved one dies, you can certainly think about that happening.

When it comes to questions of consciousness… most neuroscientists will say something like, ‘Oh well, when you die, you just shut off. That’s the end of it, because the brain stops functioning.’ What’s clear from a century of good neuroscience is that you are totally dependent on the integrity of your biology, and when this starts going downhill, you change. You lose the ability to see colors or name fuzzy animals or understand music. You are your brain. So it seems the logical conclusion to that must be that when your brain stops, you stop.

But there actually are other ways of viewing it that are equally as plausible. And again, please don’t cite me on this, because I’m not saying it is true, but let me give an example of something that could be true.

Imagine you’re a bushman in the Kalahari desert and you find a radio. You don’t understand what it is or how it works, but it’s making voices.

You discover through experimentation that if you pull out the different wires, the voices stop or change. So you would conclude, correctly, that the voices are dependent on the integrity of the physical system. But you’d be missing something very large there, which is that it’s not really about just the integrity of the physical system: there’s electromagnetic radiation, which you don’t have the capacity to detect yet.

So the reason I mention these sort of wacky, far out ideas is that they’re equally as plausible as anything else we have in neuroscience. They’re consistent with all the data. And those different options – there are lots of them – make me feel, when I see somebody die, as though there are many things that could be happening.

Including that they’re slipping off into some different place and the broadcast may still be going on.”

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A transcribed portion from neuroscientist David Eagleman in conversation with novelist Will Self. This is a fantastically illuminating interview (the second best for my money, behind the greatest interview ever given, Martin Amis with Charlie Rose).

Eagleman, who I’m proud to say lives and operates a lab in my home city of Houston, Texas, is one of the great living communicators of science. I try to listen to or read everything of his.

Watch a portion of the conversation here:

Listen to the entire Eagleman-Self conversation here.

Read a story from his acclaimed collection of fiction, Sum: “In the Afterlife You Relive All Your Experiences”