Does Alzheimer’s Debunk the Soul?

2015120836058709 You walk into a room, intent on grabbing something, but forget what it was the minute you get there. You stand there, shocked for a minute, scanning the possibilities and hoping something will pop into view and spark your memory. But alas, it does not. Pissed, you initiate a demeaning conversation with your brain. “Five hours with a Taylor Swift song stuck on replay. Seriously, brain? Taylor Swift. And you can’t retain a relevant bit of information long enough to walk from the kitchen to the living room?” You sigh, because now you are forced to do the dreaded “retrace your steps” thing. It’s an undesirable solution because it brushes on the deeply troubling reminder that “you” could someday slip away. You could become a fully functional body with a brain that doesn’t recognize or remember any of the things that make you who you are. You’d be the living, breathing opposite of an afterlife in which the soul lives on after the body’s death. You would be a physical shell without cognizance, a corporeal form without a soul.

You walk into the kitchen and remember that you were opening a package and needed scissors. Outwardly, you roll your eyes at the brain’s ineptitude and curse it one last time. But inside, you are shuddering at the frail parameters of its functionality, the surprisingly flimsy barricades that separate witty, sharp, multitasking “you” from dementia. You make another mental note in your ever-growing list of aging concerns. The note says, “Early sign of Alzheimer’s?”

Since my departure from Christianity, I have become fascinated with seeking “supportive evidence” for my choice. I read both religious and nonreligious perspectives on a wide range of topics that imply the possibility or improbability of God, a spiritual world, or an afterlife. Most information I have read about Alzheimer’s appears to contradict the possibility of the soul.

Of course, there are differing views among religions regarding the soul and the afterlife. In Hinduism the soul, or atman, is an eternal being that can inhabit many temporal bodies through reincarnation. Buddhists don’t believe in a soul, claiming that “the ego” and “personality” are merely illusions. The Jewish concept of the soul is beautifully complex and varies among different philosophies. In Judaism, the soul is a three-part “entity.” The first, “Nefesh,” departs from the physical body upon death to be reincarnated into another body. The second, “Ruah,” ascends through levels of the afterlife for the purposes of purification and preparation for eternity. The third, “Neshamah,” is the eternally good part of the soul that simply reunites with the divine upon physical death.

Jewish tradition also paints a complex image of the afterlife. The soul is eternal and exists in four periods, the first two being the time before physical birth and during physical life. Here’s where it gets interesting. The soul spends the third segment of its life either in “Gan Eden” or “Gehenna” (or progressing through both). Unlike the Christian versions of heaven and hell (where the soul lives in a state of blissful worship or eternal punishment, with no possibility of escape from either), Gan Eden and Gehenna are a time/place to reflect on the good or evil we committed during our physical lives. In a way that would make crunchy, progressive moms proud, the reward or punishment we receive is a natural consequence of our own choices. We simply re-live the joy or suffering we ourselves created. Finally, we enter “The World to Come.” In this stage, unique to Judaism, our souls return to a physical body to live eternally.

The perspective of the soul with which I am most acquainted is the Christian one. According to Christianity, our bodies are just temporary homes for something greater that lives inside of us, our personalities, our thoughts and memories, our faith and our love. As “souls” we will be similar to the people we are today. We will recognize each other in the afterlife, be reunited with family members, conserve many of our personality traits, all without the confines of a physical body. The soul, in essence, is the part of us that lives on after the body’s demise.

At first glance, a disease like Alzheimer’s debunks the Christian concept of a soul. An Alzheimer’s patient provides real-world evidence that our personalities and memories aren’t automatically entitled to even the same longevity as our physical bodies, much less eternity. Those elements we collectively label “the soul” might be spirited away even before we die. (See what I did there?)

However, there is one monkey wrench that just might debunk my debunking, and that is the phenomenon called “terminal lucidity.” The term refers to a brief period just before death in which some Alzheimer’s patients experience clarity of thought and the unexplained and sudden return of their memories and personalities. According to PSI Encyclopedia: The most astonishing cases of terminal lucidity concern patients who suffered from severe neurologic diseases such as meningitis, tumors, Alzheimer’s disease or strokes – in short, cases in which there is reason to think that the brain’s neuronal circuits were severely impaired or destroyed.

Is terminal lucidity evidence of a “mind” (or soul) separate from the brain, where our personalities and memories reside? Could this “mind” be affected by the illnesses of our bodies and the deterioration of our brains, but return to its full capacity upon our physical deaths? Science cannot currently offer any explanations as to why or how a person who has suffered impairment of the brain may suddenly, albeit briefly, regain full use of it. That said, the phrase “terminal lucidity” wasn’t coined until 2009, and there have been only limited studies on the phenomenon. The very nature of patients who experience terminal lucidity ethically precludes extensive studies of them, so we are left to rely primarily on anecdotal evidence of the occurrence, supplied by the patients’ relatives and loved ones.

As scientists continue to study the complexities of the brain, and philosophers ponder the possibilities of a mind, I leave you with these takeaway messages. 1. We don’t know it all, no matter where we stand on the spiritual spectrum, so let’s keep the conversation going. 2. There’s never a bad time for a good pun. Never.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned next week as I plan to discuss…now, wait a minute. What was it? I had it, but it’s gone. Oh hey, is that Taylor Swift I hear?



38 thoughts on “Does Alzheimer’s Debunk the Soul?

  1. Danica … I’m curious. Where did you get the information on the Jewish beliefs? I did quite a bit of research for my book and never came across any of this. (Then again … maybe I forgot???? 🙂 )

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hopefully there is a clickable link in the body of my blog post. I cross-referenced what I learned there with various sites that concurred with the superficial overview I presented here. Also, I only presented one line of Jewish philosophy. I found there were many different perspectives, and specific afterlife beliefs seemed less “chiseled in stone” than Christian ones. There is even wiggle room for belief in reincarnation, one of my favorite spiritual subjects to ponder. Of course, I am no expert on Jewish religion or traditions, so I’d welcome any thoughts or feedback from my readers. Thanks for asking!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Whoops! Missed that. Sorry.

        It’s my understanding that “traditional” Jewish belief is different than later versions — after they were exposed to Zoroastrianism, for example. IOW, much of what is believed today (among more “modern” Jews) is much different than what the bible teaches. And one must also consider Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism.

        Essentially, the Jewish religion is not much different than Christianity in that it has changed and been modified over time to be more in line with “modern” thinking.

        Apart from all this … I enjoyed your post … except I hate being reminded of those instances of “forgetfulness” … 😀

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Thanks for that contribution. I’m actually very intrigued by Jewish belief, as well as Jewish mysticism. It’s one of the religions I never studied in depth (probably under the assumption that it wasn’t much different from what I knew of the Old Testament.) There seems to be a wider space for philosophical interpretation and a less stringent view of a hell-type punishment (slightly reminiscent of Purgatory, a Catholic belief I always felt deserved more attention in non-Catholic Christian arenas.) I will definitely be doing more research on it. Blogging is a great avenue for skimming the surface of countless topics, and not such a great one for providing deep and thorough explorations of them. I guess one could argue that that’s what the comment section is for. 😉 “Don’t forget” to have a great weekend!

        Liked by 3 people

      3. @Danica

        Generally, Jews would say they have no dogma about the afterlife. This means there are beliefs, but there aren’t official positions that you must adopt.,Judaism isn’t really focused on eschatalogy like Christianity.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. You know, Consoledreader, I was really hoping you would stop by and shed some light on that very topic. Thank you! Your broad knowledge base is always welcome on my blog. 🙂


  2. Brain injury most definately does. If the soul represents the person, their personality, then damage to the brain should not, in any way, affect the person’s personality… But it does, often dramatically.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Amnesia falls under that category as well. And not just injuries, but regular life events play a role in determining our personalities. In a nature versus nurture arena, we can examine the case of monozygotic twins raised in different environments. It’s clear our surroundings shape our personalities at least as heavily as genes do.

      If I look back on writing or art I did as an eight-year-old, it is as if it was done by a whole separate person, nothing like the one I am today. To me, it seems clear that our personalities “are” our brains, the way they are genetically wired, nutritionally and emotionally nourished, and affected by time, growth, education, and life experience. It seems rational to believe that, upon the brain’s death, our “personalities” would die as well. The brain would go back to nature, the personality would become a memory in those left behind. And yet, I can’t help but wonder……….

      Liked by 4 people

      1. “If I look back on writing or art I did as an eight-year-old, it is as if it was done by a whole separate person, nothing like the one I am today.”
        I think that’s a key observation, because it demonstrates the meaninglessness of a ‘separate’ soul or ‘separate’ mental substance.
        The personality is sculpted by events in the world just like a dune on the beach.
        The problem with a separate substance isn’t the substance – should we someday discover the élan vital hiding behind some carbon double-bonds, it would not shake our intellectual world, any more than the discovery of dark matter (whatever that may be) – it’s the ‘separate’.
        The way the advocates of soul-stuff or mental substance would have it, the separation is a causal one and that breaks down in usage instantaneously.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. This is brilliant, Keithnoback. I agree that the problem lies in the “separate,” though my post didn’t put it in such poetic and concise language. I am open to the possibility of a “collective soul” or unified force of nature that transcends reality as we understand it. But it would be something underlying and universal, an unchanging or everchanging connectedness, nothing like the “individual spirits” religions imagine ascending into heaven, or descending into punishment. Thanks so much for reading and for your very relevant comment!


  3. Very interesting post. The changes in the brain are happening all the time and we can put our effort into changing it to better our lives. I constantly try to train my brain not to forget what tools I went to get out of my van, however I am not a very good trainer. I have had some success in meditation on an anxiety problem, however I find it needs to be constantly repeated to avoid brain slippage. If it fails old age is always a good excuse.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I agree the brain is far more powerful than most people would believe. I have kept on top of the neuroscience as much as I can and the general consensus I believe is that most scientists in this field do understand the brain is where all gods exist.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Love everything neurotic… whoops, I mean neurological! 😛 Yes indeed, let’s keep the dialogue going, open, courteous, and productive. Hear hear!

    Finally, we enter “The World to Come.” In this stage, unique to Judaism, our souls return to a physical body to live eternally.

    Hmmm, so do Jews (or this version of Judaism?) come back as say a 2-yr old for eternity or a 102-yr old? Or is there some “ideal” age and how is that determined? 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much, Aspiringherbalist. Slightly off-topic, but there was a brief period right around the Millennium, in which Asian horror movies were the rage. As a fan of the genre, I remember being spooked by the theatrics, but conscious that I was probably missing huge pieces of the actual scariness, being so far removed from Asian spiritual lore. I think it’s the same with religion. We tend to filter our ideas about spirituality through the religion we are most familiar with, and often forget that others might have a completely different definition for spiritual terms and concepts. I almost wrote this article without taking into account that a “soul” might mean different things to different cultures. 🙂
      Hope you’re enjoying this beautiful snowy weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Having ecperienced terminal lucidity with my wife’s father, who passed in his 90’s and could not carry on a normal conversation for years, but gifted us with an incredible evening just before he died in which we watched a baseball game and he interacted with us as if it was 3 decades earlier, telling stories from his life we had not heard. Great, thought provoking post. Very well written. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for sharing this. That had to have been such an incredible experience, and one that brought both of you peace and a wonderful, lasting memory. There is so much about the brain and the mind that we still don’t understand. Thanks for reading!


  6. I consider it telling that the Resident Sinner, Mr Branyan, has not turned up to offer us his erudite theological perspective.
    I’m wondering if this topic is above his pay-grade or maybe he is waiting on a supernatural neurological email from his boss to explain it to him?


    1. He won’t. He got terribly embarrassed (and angry) discussing this very subject with me last year. To wit:

      If the “soul” represents the “person,” is their personality, as you are professing it is, then explain to me how and why that personality changes so profoundly (and predictably) with traumatic brain injury?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes , I vaguely remember that dialogue.
        There is no answer forthcoming from theists on this topic as far as I am aware.
        Does someone like Craig or Lennox have an explanation, do you know?


      2. I doubt it. I suspect they avoid it like the plague, or else they’ll end up in the fit Branyan found himself in.

        Odd, I just googled that comment and did find it on a Branyan thread, but it’s only Amanda conversing. It appears Branyan either deleted the original post in which we had this long (painful) conversation, or he’s deleted his involvement in that thread. He really, really, really was embarrassed.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. There was a comment left on my blog under a different avatar which I suspect may have been him. He left a link to an old post of someone I had commented on. The comment included an almost verbatim quote I had written to colorstorm about not being able to take me seriously and on the linked post there was Branyan’s like on the same day!
        He denied he had commented on my blog under a different avater and demanded I provide a link. I promised I would post the entire comment and the link on his blog if he finally explained the evidence that convinced him to become a Christian. ( for which I have been asking for some time)
        He quickly had a fit , called me a liar, deleted a couple of my comments and banned me, then indulged in a Branyan-Fest with Amanda.
        Of course I can’t prove it was him, but the coincidences do tend to stack up.
        I removed the comment and foolishly forgot then subsequently emptied my spam box.


  7. Having being around people with Alzheimer…I noticed behavior changed and the character changed to a point at you don’t recognize the person anymore. But that is because you try to recognize the person as you knew him/her being an adult. Sever Alzheimer patients even ‘cramp’ back into a ‘fetus’ position. If you knew the person as a child, you might notice you recognize the person again.
    So, maybe that is why it is so important to listen to your inner child? Even in the end you go back to the innocent pure soul you have as a child? Not influenced yet by any religion, belief-system, etc?


    1. That’s a valid observation, Patty! It is possible we go back to a pure-soul state. I definitely think that makes more sense that the idea of retaining our souls at whatever age we died. Alzheimer’s could also be a preparation for letting go of the physical body, or even the life one lived. I imagine there are some people who are so in love with life that they simply wouldn’t let go, unless their brain took over and allowed them to “forget their life” so they could begin the process of dying in a more peaceful state. Just a thought that occurred to me upon reading your comment. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Now that is a thought…as I am a strong believer in ‘your body knows’ (being apart of nature, natural instincts…we should trust more), maybe the body does prepare in a way for death. I think people don’t like their life that much, I think fear of death is getting in the way of acceptance all life has to end at some point.
        That would be an interesting study, is there a relation between people who fear death and getting Alzheimer’s ?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Or even those who are in love with life, or just set in their ways. I have a great aunt who was always so passionate about life and so in control of her own destiny. She now has Alzheimer’s, and maybe I was basing my hypothesis on what I know of her and how this condition has altered her personality and calmed this vivacious go-getter into someone who barely leaves the sofa. It would be an interesting study, indeed. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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