Are we our minds? Or are we our bodies? I believe we are our minds and never our bodies. The body is disposable. The mind, with the right protections and preservations, can live forever. The brain is a container for the mind and the mind is a neural network of memories.
Those memories, both the learned and the innate, form a perception of us and others. When the container is unexpectedly corrupted — when the brain is damaged by injury or disease or psychic trauma — strange things begin to happen.
I have several friends who have had major trauma done to their brains through purposeful surgery and unexpected accidents. I have learned memory is a terrifying and tender thing. I also learned memories cannot be shared with those who have no neural tie into the memory. My limited understanding of traumatic brain injuries is the physiology of the brain, by design, forces itself not to remember any terrible injury because that trauma can be psychically repeated on a subconscious level and in wondering and in daydreaming.
The body reacts to impulses of the mind so it doesn’t matter if the injury is actually happening or not. If the mind remembers the injury the body reacts and that can lead to ongoing peril. You may have heard people describe a moment when they were in danger — a car accident, a stabbing, getting shot — and their world went into slow-motion. I believe that slow-motion corruption of real time is actively done by the brain in order to give the recipient of the trauma time to think and rationalize their way out of the situation while the event unfolds in slow motion all around them.
When the trauma is to the brain, that slow-motion gets clicked into erasure mode to entirely wipe away the moment threatening a life. You could think of it as the brain getting shaken — and erased — much in the same way an Etch-A-Sketch loses its drawing by shaking. The brain, the Etch-A-Sketch, is still there but is memories, its sketches, have been shaken away. The memories and the sketches are still there — they’ve just been re-organized in an unfamiliar way that may never be put precisely back into the same order.
Sometimes trauma to the brain is so catastrophic that the brain skips and its erasure of the event goes a bit too far backwards and the moments of protection are extended into real memories that are then erased and lost forever. Friends and family become strangers and existence awareness begins anew after recovery from the accident. That kind of memory loss can be devastating for friends and family but the actual event of re-learning a life that was in the process of being lived is an amazing cultural and intellectual query that bends beyond the scientific and breaks into material questions of who are we, what are we and what makes us human.
There are some religions around the world that point to that scientific memory erasure as proof of a cultural idea of reincarnation. The brain trauma wipes away evidence of the lived life in the moment before death so the new life can be reborn in another form without memories of the previous life. There are some — lucky or unlucky? — who are “born” into the same form — the same body and skin — beyond all medical expectation and they have to start all over with residual body memory but no mind memory.
That conflict between body and mind causes a crisis of identification and creates distress and disconnection from the present and a sense of being forever lost in an unrecognized body. The human mind is programmed to grow and learn in tandem with the body and when one of those elements pre-exists without the other, a new, ethereal life form, is created as sense and memory try to catch up with the hard-earned wisdom of the body.
I became interested in this topic when I read a paper by one of my graduate level medical students who wrote a scientific research paper concerning traumatic brain injuries. I began to wonder about the social and cultural disassociations that are created in the wake of a traumatic memory erasure. What must those who unexpectedly live beyond all medical reason think with their new minds when the only points of reference they have are provided by those who only knew their old minds?
What must it be like to live and breathe again while being forced to create a new cache of memories from the moment of re-awakening? What must it be like to wake up imprisoned in a body you do not recognize? It must be the most horrible kind of terror imaginable.