Evolving news on the science, writing and thinking about Near Death Experiences (NDEs)

Brain damage and personality change: evidence against the existence of a separate soul?

Yesterday afternoon I was sitting in front of my father in his nursing home. He has advanced Alzheimer’s disease. He looks at me with his big sad brown eyes, and I know that he hasn’t got a clue who I am. He can’t speak, but he looks around curiously and he smiles…in fact oddly, he smiles more than he used to, and what I can say is that he is most definitely not the same “person” that I have known all my life. There are traces of the “person” but much of it has gone or changed, and yet he is still there, alive.

This kind of scenario is something I have thought about before with respect to NDEs and forms the basis of a legitimate objection to the belief that NDEs are evidence that the soul is separate from the brain (Chad bought this up once in one of our discussions). The argument goes something like this: if the soul is separate from the brain then when the brain is injured through trauma or disease the “personality” should not change as it is not a “function” of the brain. So this invites the question:

Are Personality and the Soul the same thing?

This is very important for trying to get to the bottom of this question, and to be honest it will not be covered fully in this post. I have actually moved countries recently, from Canada back to the UK, due to my parent’s poor health, and in the process I have changed jobs. I am now working in research in obesity (which is ironic as I am not slim!) and in particular on a drug that targets a receptor on a neuron in the hypothalamus which regulates appetite. I am therefore having to learn a lot more about neurotransmitters and how they affect behavior. People who have genetic defects that result in defects in the pathway I am working on, experience extreme hunger…all of the time, even after they have eaten. This then drives their behavior and the behaviors we observe are what we may perceive as personality…we make judgments, that person has no self-control.

Some people who have brain damage can become much angrier. Again, this affects our perception of their personality. Often they experience more extreme ranges of emotions, since emotions are often the result of hormone changes regulated in the brain. Much of this is what defines our personality, and it is absolutely, without doubt, the result of processes in our brain. But is it our soul? Are the soul and personality the same thing and if so, is the brain therefore producing our soul?

I have my thoughts on this, and one piece of anecdotal evidence that might help us understand this better is from NDE accounts. When people leave their bodies and look at themselves, they often “feel” nothing for the body. People often describe being in a peaceful or observant state as though emotions have all but disappeared. Not all though, as some report fear as well. However, in general people appear to be more “objective” in an NDE, as opposed to subjective when inside your body experiencing “life”. I’m not quite sure how, but I feel this may go some way towards answering the question about personality and soul.

I’d be interested in other’s thoughts on this as it is a really tricky question.

With regard to my father, I have tried to rationalize his situation to align with my beliefs. Specifically I believe that the destruction of large parts of his brain from a disease, has resulted in a massively reduced capacity of his soul to “interact” with his brain, resulting in some of the changes I see. Moreover, if some NDE reports are to be believed, then memory is not actually stored in the brain, but in some “central universal repository” and if this is the case, then perhaps my father’s ability to access that repository has gone. Of course, this is me squishing observations into my belief system, and I fully accept that this “understanding” is totally subjective.

Either way, brain damage causes carnage for those who suffer it and those who love them.

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35 thoughts on “Brain damage and personality change: evidence against the existence of a separate soul?

  1. Eduardo Fulco on said:

    Maybe you can use the analogy of a car. If you lose the address or the car presents any mechanical damage can cause disasters .. So it is with the brain .. In return for what you say is the issue of Terminal Lucidity

    Michael Nahm, German biologist, studied based on the English and German literature many cases of people suffering from mental imbalances, and highlighted how these people suffering from ailments like dementia suddenly regain lucidity and coherence shortly before his death. He defined basically as the terminal lucidity: “The (re) emergence of normal mental abilities or unusually increased in unconscious patients or mentally ill, including an elevation of mood and spiritual involvement”.
    These cases are a true medical mystery, especially those of obvious brain injuries such as strokes, tumors, advanced Alzheimer’s disease, etc.
    In a work done by the aforementioned scientist with Bruce Greyson on 49 studies of Lucidity Terminal, he found that the vast majority (84%) occurred within the week before death, and 43% on the last day of life.

    The one of Anna (Kathe) Catherine Ehmer, a young German woman who died in 1922 was an amazing case … She was the most disabled of the asylum patients … Since her birth she was seriously delayed. I had never learned to speak a single word. He also suffered several meningitis infections, which had damaged his cerebral cortex tissue. However, shortly after having had a leg amputated because of bone tuberculosis, he sang a death song, whose lyrics were: “Where does the soul find its home, its peace? Peace, peace, heavenly peace … “, and he sang it for about half an hour … Then he silently died.


  2. Consciousness and personality are not the same. You can program a personality without anything there. Separatly I think Hameroff has written on Alzheimers. Might check quantunconscoiussness. Also ptsd can change personality more than anything without any physical brain damage


  3. Here is a case that might be terminal lucidity. I was called to nursing home because of sudden decline of my Aunt. The reasonbwas mottling. She was alert but non verbal and I brought her Christmas candy.which she eagerly ate. She waved us all away inducating she was fine. She wasnt she just wanted us gone. I was told this sort of thing happens only later after my mother died was I told I could leave because no one awakes after mottling . Its all pointless now…..I laree found out the Aunt had freaked everbody out. She was like that. Same personality and very lucid.


  4. Thanks for reminding me of terminal lucidity, thanks also to Anne Ross who emailed me. Playing devil’s advocate, how does this provide evidence that the soul is separate? To me, yes it may, it’s like the conscious bursts through and uses every brain cell that is available to communicate with loved ones, but it could also be that the brain momentarily fires itself up. But TL does not from an objective analytical standpoint provide definitive evidence that the essence of the “soul” is proven to be a separate entity from the brain.


  5. It really doesnt bit neither does alzheimers prove. the opposite. I think the best we will have is Parnia hits even though he keeps hinting at more.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This reminds me once again of something a British nurse said …there is something beyond but not what dverybody thinks…..I think she was hinting at something like reincarnation in which not every aspect does survive.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’d consider the soul and the brain like sweet-water and saltwater, where both combined give rise to a personality. It’s hard to tell which comes from where.

    When the body is severely damaged, does that say anything about the soul at all? It might as well have a hard time expressing itself through the physical.


  8. I’d consider the soul and the brain like sweet-water and saltwater, where both combined give rise to a personality. It’s hard to tell which comes from where.

    When the body is severely damaged, does that say anything about the soul at all? It might as well have a hard time expressing itself through the physical.


  9. Sorry to hear about your dad. I’ve thought a lot about this. To me, I don’t know what on earth consciousness is doing there, the brain generates thoughts/feelings and seems to be able to do it all (except make free will decisions). But it is there, and while you can’t rule out it somehow emerging from the material brain, according to the current understanding of material it’s predicted to not exist, I’m refering to the new mysterian views that our epistemology of material is wrong/incomplete. It seems like brain produce CONTENTS of consciousness, and something observes those contents. And we make decisions BASED on our thoughts/feelings, we can always choose to act against them, there are no examples of affecting the brain and controlling someone’s will. If all normal thoughts of a person are gone (like ur dad), his consciousness is left to choose between basic primitive decisions presented by the brain, so he acts like a different person.

    NDErs often say a “universal consciousness”. This might sound weird: the individual self is nothing more than information being processed in the brain, it is NOT conscious. Universal consciousness then observes human/animal brains and experience existence from multiple view points. In this sense, there’s only 1 consciousness, same for everyone and every animal, I’ve heard this oneness thing a lot The problem then is why NDErs still report feeling as an individual on the other side, maybe there are “spirit brains”, higher versions of material brains. When you die, the information in ur material brain gets transferred to a spirit brain, and u continue experiencing being an individual self. This is all just guesses, at this point nothing matters other than what parnia has to say


    • Well put Chad. It is indeed a very interesting area, and while I agree with what others have said about the Alzheimer’s brain damage issue not providing evidence against the existence of an independent entity we name the soul, unfortunately even if we see hits from the AWARE study, it won’t fully answer this question. It will certainly tell us that yes, there is a separate entity, but not exactly what that entity is. This is where the subjective testimonies of NDEs recorded historically will be so important.


  10. Parnia sure keeps hinting something like that…what Chad said.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I tend to view that personality is something that grows with physical development, and is largely memory accumulation, which I guess can make it a brain based assimilation. What we might call the ‘soul’ I would consider to be the agency or director. The ‘pilot’ of the personality may or may not be brain based.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. So sorry to hear about your dad. I’ve lost two grandparents to dementia so I’ve thought about this alot. I also suffer from depression so even in my own case I’ve had cause to wonder whether the fact that I think and feel differently when I take medication proves were all just chemicals. I think the radio transmission analogy is really helpful here.

    If there’s something wrong with your reception device the transmission is going to be distorted at best. Bits will be missing, what does come through doesn’t make sense and some things will echo or be out of sync. For me this explains why an eternal soul may appear to break down or change in this life. The soul is constant and unchanging, but the view we have on it is clouded by an imperfect world.

    NDErs often report their experiences as being realer than real life. I take that as an indicator that when the physical material is removed there is no distortion, it’s unfiltered. That even a perfectly healthy human brain is like watching HD content on a very old TV. You only notice the difference when you upgrade.


    • Keith, yes that’s very much my belief on this subject, and terminal lucidity supports that understanding. I once worked in Alzheimer’s and used to discuss Aricept with physicians who treated dementia patients, and what is often observed is that a drug like Aricept, which does not change the underlying pathology of the disease (which is ongoing destruction of neurons), boosts the power of whatever brain is left. I saw this with my Dad, and the effect lasted about 18 months before he went over the “Aricept cliff” and his function caught up with the ongoing shrinking of his brain. Terminal lucidity is perhaps an extreme form of this. The spirit or the soul provides one last huge burst of will or energy that fires up the dwindling collection of brain cells so as to be able to reach out to those who are important in the final days.


  13. This article addresses the question quite powerfully, I think.,8816,1580392,00.html


  14. jablonski on said:

    What distingues you from the others is what you call ‘personality’. What makes you you and me me, is personality. Hence soul is personality or soul is nothing worth to writ home about.


  15. People have had either their left or right brain removed, and yet they are still fully conscious, they just lose certain functions. I think the 2 brains are responsible for the contents of consciousness, and consciousness itself only has to do with the brain stem. Wilder Penfield stated this as well. Nobody survives with brainstem injury. It looks to me like the hemisphere grows on the brain stem and gets more complex as the animal gets smarter, but all these animals are no doubt conscious and the common denominator is they have brain stems.

    What I’m puzzled by is why NDErs still report continuing their personality. Consciousness might persist but it should be something without an individual character.


  16. The reincarnation kids report the memories of previous life ….Also correct me if I am wrong Penfield found consciousness totally myterious and really we have fancier equipment but in many ways we are not far from Penfield in understanding brain functions. I think Roger Sperry was dualistic as of course Eccles and Karl Popper.


  17. Aware consciousness can be described as a thought flow, a process handling memory, concepts, images, sounds, impulses, wishes. This stream could be then similar to music. Indeed, music is basically an oscillatory stream (like any MP3 file), and thought could be modeled as oscillatory phenomena, ie a wave superposition with resonance and specific degrees of freedom, like improvisation. Science have linked cognitive processing to fast rhythms : low gamma (30–70 Hz), and high gamma (70–150 Hz).

    A 2018 theory says the whole consciousness is something vibrating. Given that everything vibrates in the universe, it means everything has a sort of consciousness, at its level.

    Now, think of these facts :

    – young children and/or autistic persons have consciousness but in a limited way (not full self-consciousness). The young child would think (properly) he’s the center of the universe. The autistic person cannot connect his experience with other people : he’s lacking of some human relational skills/functions (social image, language,…), he does not have full self-consciousness.

    – the same for senile people. They’ve lost full self-consciousness.

    – at the opposite, some animals, who were undeservedly treated as “movable property” in the past, prove self-consciousness. It doesn’t mean they are Einstein, but some of them are greater than being tagged “sentient”. Alex the parrot was the first non-human to have ever asked a question, a real question, because he could understand (in a proven way) what he said.

    This leads to my conclusion :
    1) there is no duality mind-body. Consciousness is part of this world. Consciousness interacts with the world (as quantum physics prove that an observing consciousness induces the quantum state of a measure).

    2) our consciousness scatters after death, like any other wave scattering in the universe.

    3) if something called “the soul” is linked to our consciousness, it means that every other physical phenomenon has a soul.

    4) It doesn’t mean that an “anthropic” God doesn’t exist. Physicists are coming to the point that everything in nature is energy (the string theory). Matter and mass are useful abstractions for the macroscopic experience, but basically we’re the energy of God.

    Only… why would God attribute souls for humans ? Isn’t it redundant with this world ? Why would he care about ?
    If God is transcendent to us (or immanent), aren’t we transcendent to Him (or immanent) ? Same for the soul… this shows the unprovable character of soul.

    I’m afraid there is no such thing as a soul. To be honest, that is very depressing for me, though i keep hope, because the mystery will never cease.


  18. If you damage a radar dish does it impair how it receives a signal? Yes it does. It’s not the signal being damaged that leads to changes. It’s the damage of receiver that’s supposed to transmit it. If that makes sense.


  19. Consciousness is nit equal to self awareness. Please read Nagles What is it like to be a bat. Its isvthe best read on the so called hard problem or sentience.


  20. Tom, your concept of autism is mystifyingly wrong.


  21. Furthermore, the idea that something can interact with -and worse, actually influence- the fundamental (i.e. “quantum physics prove that an observing consciousness induces the quantum state of a measure”), without *itself* being fundamental is ludicrous. The implications that such a conclusion carried with it were well known by physicists since the double slit made its debut… That is the reason why we ended with so many hidden variable theories that try to eliminate a conscious agent from the equation.


  22. Sorry for my absence, but was in Boston all of last week at the HQ of my new company, and my spare time was consumed with discussing the final design of my shortly to be released book on the origin of DNA…when you will learn my real name.

    Great link Z, might write that one up in my next post.

    Tom. You espouse some modern/Buddhist thinking on the subject of consciousness, but NDEs are the phenomenon that suggests this is an incorrect understanding of it. The conscious persists rather than dissipates. David, Eric, and yes, RegentKingReprise, are more along the lines of how you would interpret consciousness if NDEs are real.


  23. Was watching this and towards the end he pretty much said what I thought about consciousness vs brain, that consciousness observes the brain and doesn’t have intrinsic properties itself. Btw he had a precog like stuart kauffman, these are hard nosed scientists who had precogs.

    The problem is, i believe, this common misconception that PHYSICAL sensations are due to the body/brain, and NON PHYSICAL sensations like emotions/thoughts/self are due to the soul. This is the main reason there’s such a universal hostility among neuroscientists against soul/afterlife, its been proved beyond doubt material objects can drastically change emotions and thought patterns. They also equate the mental experiences with consciousness itself, of course the brain produces the mental experiences but you still need something extra to observe it because materialism predicts consciousness doesn’t exist.

    I think what happens is, like i said above, almost all of a person’s actions are due to behavioural dispositions, the brain is very smart and can live fine without a conscious agent. Consciousness is what disciplines the brain (the next time u do something u desperately don’t want to do, that’s u exerting free will on the brain). Maybe consciousness is even an epiphenomenon. The brain is like a channel, when you die you simply change channels. Under anaesthetics, all channels are blocked, so its like a tv thats turned off. The viewer has no intrinsic properties, the viewer doesn’t have a self or personality or thoughts, it simply makes decisions or maybe just watches without making decisions at all. This is the only way I see to be consistent with all empirical evidence.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am currently working in an area that is extremely relevant to this comment. I am working in obesity (I am also a bit of a porker myself), and eating behaviour is driven to a very large extent by networks in the brain controlled by the Leptin-melanocortin pathway. People with genetic mutations in this pathway have uncrontrolled hunger, and will become severely obese if allowed access to food. they have no self control…it is beyond their abilities. (I am working in research for a biotech that may well treat this). Their emotions are entirely driven by these defects. They are miserable without food as their reward centres in their brains are not receiving the upstream signals which are released when people are full and make them content. They are unhappy.

      So yes, as usual Chad, you make an extremely incisive point. How much of our behaviour is driven by the soul and how much by processes that are largely beyond our control in our brain? How much can our “soul” override these processes? How might that be connected to how our life review goes?


  24. Eduardo Fulco on said:

    I do not know if Sam Parnia has any legal impediment to give very detailed information by virtue of his commitment to publish the results in a scientific journal after peer review. Sometimes I wonder this. These magazines could initiate some legal action if Parnia anticipates the final results. I think he takes good care of himself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You don’t sign ‘exclusivity’ deals with magazines when doing this kind of research, its just the scientific standard procedure to have your work peer reviewed. Deviate from it and your work is most likely going to be called rubbish on the grounds of faulty methodology. Also, part of that is preventing the appearance of a priori bias, which you can easily create by promoting the results in public.

      If there are legal obstacles preventing him from going public, they are most likely tied to the funding.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Spot on Eric. No one signs deals with scientific journals prior to having data to publish. However, if data has been presented at a congress, or worse still a TV show or blog, prior to submitting to a journal, then a self-respecting journal will most likely turn its nose up at it. Journals like the Lancet and NEJM are highly prestigious and to maintain that status they like to have exclusivity on new research breakthroughs…this helps drive sales. However, no one is bound to stick to these rules. Moreover, data can be released prior to a journal article, but provided it is not an entire dataset then a journal may still accept it. Also, journal articles will have a lot more in terms of discussion and conclusions. It is also possible that the funders of the research have some control over the release of data, as Eric said.

        I think that this has the potential to be a seminal piece of work, either way, and therefore deserves a more rigorous approach. Just means we need to be more patient.


  25. Samwise on said:

    New info:


    • Samwise, amazing find. Although this was filmed in September, it appears that it only appeared on YouTube yesterday. There is some new info, but no “news”. I will create a post out of this…once again thank you!


      • Samwise on said:

        My pleasure. I was happy to hear that the studies are ongoing and look forward to reading your post as well.


  26. Peter Stanbury on said:

    I think a better way to look at it is that the brain is something that ‘fixes’ the permissible state of the soul and anchors it in the physical. I’m sure we’ve all felt, at times, that our ‘true’ selves would love to float free but we are in a sense trapped not just within our place in society but within our own brains with their physical cravings, desires, fears, needs, etc. If none of those restrictions and needs were there, I very much doubt if we’d be the same people. One does not even need an NDE to perceive this. Even in a basic state of meditation it is quite apparent that the ‘me’ that I experience is not the same ‘me’ that expresses itself in the external world.


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