Denial of Death or Denial of Immortality

At year end, I have a tradition of writing a column more speculative and personal than usual.  In this post, I consider critically the standard physicalist belief that our consciousness depends on a physical brain, and hence death is the end of all awareness. 

I was 46 years old when I first considered the question, what is aging and where does it come from?  Before that, I had been a physicist with diverse scientific interests pretty much all my life. What was I thinking?  Why had I never considered this topic before? I think the answer is: fear.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been interested in preserving my health and extending my life.  But it was several years into a committed study of aging science that I thought to ask, why? Do I love life especially well, or am I afraid of death?

I’ve gradually come to realize that fear of death has cast a shadow over my thinking about aging, and possibly about many other other things as well.  I was a young child when I taught myself to avoid thinking about death because I couldn’t handle the abyss of terror into which my thoughts spun. As I developed the habit of tiptoeing around thoughts and discussions of death, what was I missing?  I’ve come to think that whole areas of my humanity became occluded, and have only begun to re-emerge in recent years.

In 1972, Ernest Becker wrote a book called The Denial of Death, which I knew even then that I ought to read.  I bought it, but years went by and it never made it remained unopened on my bookshelf.  Becker proposed that all of human civilization—art and literature, architecture, music, settlements and empires, stories of heroism, religious teachings, projects great and small—all of it stems from a drive to compensate for our mortality by creating something more permanent than our physical selves.  Even if this is only a little true, we have to wonder: Who would we be if we weren’t trying so hard to avoid death?

The Bhutanese people are reputed to be the happiest in the world.  Their mountains are majestic, their lifestyle modest and close to the land; but in this they are no different from many nations whose people seem to be pitiable.  So what is their secret? Eric Weiner tells us that their culture is steeped in death rituals, and that death is out in the open in Bhutan.  Bhutanese Buddhists contemplate their own death five times a day. Weiner goes on to cite studies that suggest thinking about death makes us more joyous.  These studies wouldn’t convince anyone, unless they wanted to be convinced. Maybe I want to be convinced

Of course, Buddhism is pervasive in Bhutan, with its belief that our souls cycle through birth and rebirth in karmic cycles.  Death is not a final end. The abyss that terrified me is not part of their belief system. I used to try consoling myself with such possibilities, but I got nowhere.  This is not science, it’s wishful thinking. Religions have manipulated people with promises about life after death since the dawn of human civilization. I’m too smart to be deceived with such fairy tales.  Even if it makes me afraid, even if it paralyzes me with terror, I prefer the realism of science.

But there came a point when it occurred to me maybe that the immortal soul was the reality and the fear was the delusion.  Did I believe in the Great Void just so I could feel smarter than people who believed in heaven? I peeked out from my fear just enough to question whether the abyss was a scientific deduction, or merely an artifact of scientific culture. Science or scientism?

But there came a point when I wondered whether the self-delusion was in the belief that it was all wishful thinking.  I peeked out from my fear just enough to question whether the abyss was a scientific deduction, or merely an artifact of scientific culture. Science or scientism?

Let’s backtrack to a different scientific myth.  We have been effective in reversing the scientific prejudice that says human lifespan is a fixed, unalterable fact of our biology. Given the intellectual bankruptcy of this thesis, why would so many people, scientists especially, have embraced it for so long?  One reason is the experience with being disappointed by charlatans, fooled by mountebanks, alchemists and snake-oil salesmen who have profited from their customers’ willingness to believe. Perhaps a larger reason is the fear of death that they have walled off with a kind of despair masquerading as science.  Hope is often more frightening than despair. As Milton wrote, “So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear.”

They leave their hope behind so they don’t have to face the discomfort of their fears.  We have exposed their unreason.

Now, I wonder if we have been drawn into the same dynamic: that we have relinquished a hope that is too uncomfortable to carry.  The hope we have relinquished is that the “self” persists in some form and awareness continues after physical death. For most of my life, I believed that physical reality is the only reality there is, that anything I feel as a “self” depends on 100 billion neurons and a blood supply.

And yet, my primary experience, the only thing of which I am truly certain, is that I exist as a point of consciousness, a primal self-awareness that all our science (as Chalmers has pounded home to us all) is powerless to explain.  Many of us believe (with Dennett) that, since physical reality is the only reality, this primal self-awareness must be an epiphenomenon of neural activity in the physical brain—some would say an illusion created by computation. Maybe this is true, but there is no scientific support for this statement, nor does scientific evidence weigh against it.  The statement that our feeling of self derives from computation is an article of faith, or of Scientism, rather than anything for which we can adduce evidence.

And for me, this idea is counter-intuitive.  I have a meditation practice. I have studied astrophysics and quantum mechanics.  I go for long walks in the woods and I allow my mind to run all over such topics, and the result until now has been for me to trust this feeling of selfhood more than I trust any reasoning about an alleged physical basis.  The light of my awareness is a truth unto itself.

“Yeah, yeah,” says my scientific training, “where’s the evidence?”  Evidence there is aplenty, but it is ignored by the scientific mainstream.  Some of it is recognized as anomaly that we will understand someday, even though it seems strange now.  The more direct kinds of evidence are actively suppressed, banned from mainstream scientific journals and exiled to the Journal of Scientific Exploration and other publications of mixed quality, where it takes some patience to separate the wheat from the chaff.

In the former category are some of the anomalies cited at the beginning of the Michael Levin video that I reported on last week.  Caterpillars whose brains are literally dissolved in morphing into a butterfly, and yet memories survive.  Monarch butterflies that pass memories about the route to return home over half a dozen generations. Ciliated protozoa that are capable of learning and memory, though they have no nerve cells.  People who develop a musical ability or an interest in motorcycles or a vegetarian conviction when they receive a heart transplant.

In the latter category are a number of experiments for which the best source might be Dean Radin’s books, for example Entangled Minds and The Conscious Universe.  There are near-death experiences, in which people have memories, often blissful and love-filled, from the time when there was no neural activity in their brains.  Reflexively, the scientific rationalists dismiss these reports as fantasy creations of the oxygen-starved brain. But in many cases, the person recovering from an NDE reports things she would have no way of knowing if she had not been conscious during the time she was clinically dead.  My introduction to NDE science was by Pim van Lommel. His latest book is Infinite Awareness.  Similar stories have been collected by John Hagan, Chris Carter, Eben Alexander, and others.  Finally, there is the scientific study of reincarnation, pioneered in the West by the late Ian Stevenson, professor of psychiatry at University of Virginia.  His work has been continued by Jim Tucker at UVa and Raymond Moody (his book), Roy Stemman, and others elsewhere.  Carol Bowman researched and documented one spectacular case of a Louisiana couple, non-religious skeptics, whose 2-year-old son had persistent nightmares, then displayed uncanny knowledge about the crash of a World War II fighter plane in Iwo Jima.

photo of James Leininger as a child

Why does the mainstream scientific community persist in dismissing all this research without evaluating it?  Because it conflicts with a strictly-materialist, “scientific” world-view formed in the 19th Century, when the world of science was suffering under the delusion that every natural phenomenon might soon be explained by deterministic laws.  A few decades later, quantum physics put that aspiration to rest, and offered a mechanics at the foundation of science that has room for mind, for intention, for Cartesian dualism, for those who see fit to interpret quantum mechanics in that light.  Quantum mechanics may be 90 years old, but the scientific world has yet to absorb its message.  In particular, it has been shown in independent experiments by Radin, Jahn, and others that the events that are treated as “random” in QM can be influenced by conscious intent, without any recognized physical connection between the brain and the quantum system.  Furthermore, this connection is stronger when there is an emotional stake in the outcome, and its force increases non-linearly with the number of people whose attention is focused on a quantum target.

My tentative conclusion from this is that there is room within what quantum mechanics treats as “random” for (non-material) mind to influence material reality.  And there is evidence from experiment and anecdotes that this actually occurs.  Hence, the door remains open for a non-material locus of selfhood, or some aspect thereof.

“Despite the unrivaled empirical success of quantum theory, the very suggestion that it may be literally true as a description of nature is still greeted with cynicism, incomprehension, and even anger.”   — David Deutsch


The Body Electric

Aging is an extension of the developmental program into a phase of self-destruction.  This much has become clear (if not yet uncontroversial) over the last decade. But this insight is of little use to us so long as developmental biology is so poorly understood.  I have worked from a perspective in which development and aging are both driven by gene expression—an epigenetic program. Then, last week, I learned about an electrical dimension of developmental biology that is entirely new to me.  I’m grateful to Johnny Adams for pointing me to a recent Stanford lecture by Michael Levin, summarizing two decades of research from his Tufts University lab.  

Levin starts by contrasting the intelligence of an ovarian tumor (teratoma) with the intelligence of a tadpole under metamorphosis.  The tumor has stem cells that can create organ tissue, teeth, bones, and hair—but their placement is haphazard, and therefore without function.  The different tissues grow in every direction with no guiding logic or structure.

In contrast, the morphing tadpole knows exactly where it is going and what it wants to be when it grows up.  Levin cites experiments from the 1960s in which a salamander tail grafted onto the side of the body turns into a functional leg, complete with foot and toes.  In experiments in Levin’s lab, he moves an eye to the back of the tadpole head, and it migrates to its correct position as the tadpole becomes a frog.

Where is the information that tells the body how to form itself?  In what form is the blueprint for the body’s shape and structure?

“Very much like the brain, Somatic tissues form electric networks that make decisions.  The decisions are not about behavior, but anatomy.”

Nerve cells communicate by passing electric currents through ion channels and deploying neurotransmitters to pass electric charge from one cell to the next.  Somatic cells use these same mechanisms to communicate with each other and decide where to go, forming into tissues and structures in a functional body. Using voltage-sensitive fluorescent dies, Levin and his colleagues have visualized the electrical structures that precede and determine corresponding anatomical structures.  

This is radical.  It is a new and unstudied mechanism of biology.  Cells in a developing body are wired together electrically, and in their connectivity is encoded the structure of the body toward which they are aiming.  The electrical connections work very much the way nerve cells in the brain do, but their purpose is entirely different. And Levin emphasizes that the time scale is very different.  Electrical signals that make brains think and make muscles contract last for a few thousandths of a second. The circuits that code for bodily structure last for hours or days.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and so Levin has been studying this system to manipulate it for almost 20 years now.  Recently, his lab has cracked the code sufficiently to manipulate development and regeneration at a level higher than biochemistry. They have worked with planaria worms and developing amphibians, two experimental models that are capable of regeneration.  They have experimented with rewiring the circuits, and now understand the system well enough to create two-headed worms and ectopic limbs on frogs.

The story of 21st Century biology has, thus far, been about gene expression.  The body is controlled by chemical signals, and these are produced on demand by masking and unmasking different portions of the chromosome, exposing the code for the proteins that are needed in a given cell at a given time.  Our activity and our homeostasis is maintained in this way from moment to moment, and I believe that our life histories, from development to aging and death, are also controlled via gene transcription.

Now comes Levin with a demonstration that, at least under some circumstances, there is a system upstream of gene transcription that is based on electric circuits.  The system controls development at a level higher than gene transcription. For example, an entire eye can be ordered up by artificially creating an electric pattern in the right place, and the eye will have all its parts intact and be functional.  They have placed eyes on a tadpole’s tail and demonstrated that the tadpole can see through them, and their brains can interpret the images.



Living fluids, within and between cells, contain dissolved salts in the form of positive (Na+, K+, Ca++, Mg++) and negative (Cl, PO43-, SO42-) ions, Cell membranes have pumps that can pump ions out of the cell selectively and ion channels that allow some ions through, but not others.  typically, the cell has more negative than positive ions inside, so it has a negative membrane potential, ranging from a few mV for blood and skin to tens of mV for nerve and muscle cells.  Rapid changes in membrane potential are the driving force behind muscle contraction and nerve firing.  

There are drugs that can affect membrane potentials by blocking ion channels selectively.  Membrane potentials have multiple signaling functions, most notably the potential has to drop close to zero before a cell can reproduce, and drugs that keep membrane potential high are able to inhibit cell replication.  There are proposed applications for cancer treatment (inhibiting replication) and for regeneration (promoting replication). Within cells, different organelles also have membranes and there are associated intra-cellular potential differences.  Mitochondria are the most negative parts of the cell, at about -140 mV.

DiBAC is a voltage-sensitive fluorescent dye that is used to visualize patterns of voltage variation in and around a cell. [ref]  Patterns within a cell show locations and activities of the organelles.  Patterns on larger, multi-cellular scales function like blueprints of development, and in animals that can regenerate, the patterns persist and guide later regeneration whenever limbs or organs become damaged.


How do they manipulate electric patterns experimentally, to demonstrate the effect on morphology?

This is not clear in Levin’s oral presentation, but an audience member asked the question.  It is not done with external electric voltages. It is done with biochemical modification of the gateways that control ion channels.  Levin drops a hint that there are photo-sensitive drugs that can control ion gates that can be used to translate a projected geometric image into a pattern of membrane potentials.  He argues that the patterns encode “blueprints” rather than a “construction manual”, based on the fact that the program is adaptive in the face of physical barriers and disruptions, and organisms are capable of detecting damaged parts and growing new parts to the original specs. Levin’s group has tampered with membrane potentials in order to guide the growth of nerve axons in regenerating tissue [ref].  This is just the beginning of the understanding that will ultimately be necessary to reprogram electric circuits to order for medical applications[ref].

In the Levin Lab publication list, there are 28 academic publications in 2018 alone.  There’s a lot here to absorb, and it’s all new to me.

Levin was a computer scientist before he was a biologist, and he continues to be fascinated by the ways in which cells in tissues outside the brain can act as logic circuits.  Gap junctions are bridges connecting adjacent cells, through which ions can flow, transferring charge.  This is the basis of electric circuitry that supports complex logic. A post-doc in Levin’s lab designed a computer simulation that can model the activities of gap junction circuits.  This paper from 2018 ALife Conference proceedings is a good introduction, with context and lots of references.


What does this have to do with aging?

I’m writing about this work more because I think it is potentially a paradigm shift, not because I think it has immediate implications for aging.  Still, because I am who I am and you are who you are, I include possible implications for aging science.

  1. Body parts become damaged with age.  Regeneration will probably be a necessary part of any long-term anti-aging program.  We’ve learned that robust regeneration is available in many invertebrates and amphibians, but it is switched off actively in mammals.  The mechanisms remain latent, untapped, and there are examples of turning them back on.  Bioelectric programming is a new avenue to explore for regaining control of mammalian regeneration.
  2. I believe that the developmental clock continues seamlessly into an aging clock.  The same timing mechanism controls both development and aging. If development is under electrical control, then we might find that there are electrical signal networks that trigger aging.  I’ve written to Levin to ask if he is looking into this.
  3. Some people in the anti-aging community are also interested in simulating the brain in a computer program, and they imagine that if my brain’s connectivity can be simulated in enough detail, the computer simulation will start to “feel like me”.  For people who believe that consciousness is a function of the brain, and that computer modeling of the brain provides a path to a sort of eternal life, Levin’s work may be sobering. Knowledge and information processing take place not just in the brain but throughout the body, and not at the level of neural circuits but at the level of molecules.
  4. The spirit of modern biology is the reductionist spirit of 19th century physics.  Levin argues that we have been remiss in not exploring ways in which living systems are organized from the top down.  I agree.

It is widely assumed in developmental biology and bioengineering that optimal understanding and control of complex living systems follows from models of molecular events. The success of reductionism has overshadowed attempts at top-down models and control policies in biological systems. However, other fields, including physics, engineering and neuroscience, have successfully used the explanations and models at higher levels of organization, including least-action principles in physics and control theoretic models in computational neuroscience. Exploiting the dynamic regulation of pattern formation in embryogenesis and regeneration requires new approaches to understand how cells cooperate towards large-scale anatomical goal states. Here, we argue that top-down models of pattern homeostasis serve as proof of principle for extending the current paradigm beyond emergence and molecule-level rules.  [ref]

A Speculation

In epidemiological studies, it has become clear that exposure to radio frequency radiation is associated with higher cancer risk [review].  There are anecdotal reports of people whose mental function is affected by wifi and by nearby cell phone towers.  Part of the reason we don’t know more about the subject is that the entire telecomm industry works behind the scenes to discredit and defund the science.  (I have found that the relevant articles are suppressed in Google Scholar and PubMed searches.) Another reason is that we have no theoretical understanding of how radio frequencies interact with living cells.  The standard biological paradigm regards living systems as chemical systems, and there are no obvious ways that radio waves at the levels we are commonly exposed should affect chemistry.  Interaction of radio frequencies with ion channels is a possible mechanism, and may open the door to understanding (and then minimizing) the hazard.  Most interesting is the effect of RF on mitochondrial potential, which may connect to an emerging paradigm that cancer has a mitochondrial origin. [Here’s an older reference from the 1980s. More recent ref. And another]