Can We Survive Death Without Biographical/Episodic Memory in Life?

To think about….

When we research whether Person A survived death, the kind of material we consider evidence is of several kinds.  A very important one is getting factually correct information about Person A (usually through a medium) while she or he was alive, information that we could not reasonably expect would be known to the medium through ordinary means.  A second one, given considerable emphasis in some cases, is whether the ostensible spirit of Person A shows distinctive mannerisms of speech or behavior that were characteristic of Person A while alive, and, again, which we did not expect to be known to the medium by ordinary means and which are distinctive and uncommon.

OBE as start of death w Q mark



My best working hypothesis at present is that when I die I am likely going to survive, although the form of my consciousness, without a physical body and nervous system to constantly shape it, will probably change significantly.  To use an analogy, the “user” may survive, but the “user” is so used to functioning through certain programs, embedded in my body and nervous system, that it will be quite different to not have those familiar programs to work with.  But, judging by mediumistic material, surviving spirits must be able to recall enough about their embodied lives to come up with unique, factual memories and have habitual mannerisms manifest.

To quote from the article, “Memory researchers used to believe that there was just one kind of long-term memory.  But in 1972, Endel Tulving, a Canadian psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist, introduced the idea that long-term memory comes in multiple forms.  One is semantic memory, which allows us to remember how to spell a word like say, autonoetic.  Years from now, you might recall how to spell it, but maybe not when and where you were when you first came across the word and its definition, perhaps in Wired.”

“Tulving argued that autonoetic consciousness is crucial for the formation of another kind of long-term memory—episodic memory—which integrates time and sensory details in the cinematic, visceral way remembering where and when you learn how to spell autonoetic: that’s in episodic memory.”

The article reports on studies of a woman therein called McKinnon, who simply does not have any episodic memory.  For example, she and her husband took many vacation cruises, but “McKinnon makes clear that she has no memories of all those cruises.”  No memories of buying the souvenirs displayed in her living room, in front of her and the interviewer.  She doesn’t remember any vacation she’s ever taken.  “In fact she cannot recall a single moment in her marriage to her husband or before it…”  It’s not that she doesn’t remember these memories are in losing them, she’s never been able to remember them in the first place.

By and large she functions quite well as a mature adult.  As the article notes, “McKinnon first began to realize that her memory was not the same as everyone else’s back in 1977, when a friend from high school, who was studying to be a physician’s assistant, asked if she would participate in a memory test as part of a school assignment.  When her friend ask basic questions about her childhood as part of the test, McKinnon would reply, “Why are you asking stuff like this?  No one remembers that.”  She knew that other people claim to have detailed memories, but she always thought they embellished and made stuff up—just like she did.”

So what would happen if McKinnon died, her spirit survived, she was contacted by a good medium, and she was asked to prove her identity.?  Assuming her consciousness survived pretty much as it functions now in life, she probably could certainly produce all sorts of every day, factual material, but no really personal memories.  And so we would conclude that?

We have thousands of well-documented mediumistic cases, but this kind of memory loss is apparently quite rare, so I don’t think we’ll be in luck and find such a case…although those who know that literature better than me may find something…

It reminds me that one of the most basic questions in survival research is not so much survival per se but what is consciousness itself?  A computer could store all sorts of facts about our lives, but, at least so far, we’re not willing to attribute consciousness to any computers….

Anyway, it’s a very rich article, and I recommend it.  Being terribly old-fashioned, I subscribe to wired as a printed document, but I’m sure there’s some way to get it on the web.

I’m not sure where I’ll go in thinking about this, but it’s an unusual and interesting entry point for thinking….




  1. Rather than the brain storing episodic memories, it might “filter” them. A impaired functioning brain might inhibit access to episodic memories, or in the case of hyperthymestic syndrome (remembering everything that’s ever happened to you), allow too much access to such memories.

    So her lack of ability to remember will be due to her brain not functioning properly. If there’s an afterlife it couldn’t affect that. Indeed we should all effectively have hyperthymestic syndrome in the afterlife realm I would have thought.

    Mediums might simply obtain info through psi.

  2. I find Wired to be a materialistic publication for the most part. It might just be that as I age (59 yrs old) that I’m just not up on all the young cynical nerdism of the day. 🙂 But, this does seem interesting and I look forward (if you decide to publish anything about it) to your evolving perspective on this subject. I do lean toward reincarnation as a vehicle for us to explore this state of being. But, honestly I don’t know. I have a friend with early onset of dementia and I often wonder “where is he?” Is he stuck inside his head thinking I need to get out? Is he semi conscious on some sort of cosmic plane? Is he and ultimately all of us simply a chemical accidental bye product of the brain? Gee, I hope not. 🙂

    1. Thank you for the reminder, it’s not all interesting and “spiritual” stuff around here….and I sometimes feel that if I ever get to meet God I’ve got some tough questions to ask Her about how She could let such awful things happen! I know some mystics see that actually everything is just fine, but it usually doesn’t look that way from here…. So we do what we can, and hope, and pray, and …..

  3. Hello Charles,

    This is so nicely put that I thought of adding my two cents.
    To do that, let me paste an edited transcript of a post I recently made on a facebook group. I know this is sort of cheating, but the topic on that group thread was highly connected to your post here, so the following is on topic (IMO).
    (I actually ended up adding some *new* parts here as part of the transcript)

    Please have in mind that the following is said from the point of view of one particular belief system. Is NOT proven ideas but just beliefs.

    Let’s imagine that we are not talking about you and me, that is, Natural persons, but Juridical persons instead. That is, imagine we ask “does Facebook survive after X” (where X is not to the point)? How do we respond to that, and what an answer would really mean??

    The trick here is that while Facebook is, effectively, an “object” (it is legal person after all), with clear identity, behavior, even location (although completely non-local), and, most significantly, a virtual materialisation in the virtual world of the internet, it is not on itself an individual entity but a compund entity, and, on top of that, one with a real basis (Facebook’s people, buildings, computers) and a virtual materialization (the Facebook company and its service)

    Suppose something happens and Facebook the company bunkrupts, stops all its operations, and its employees split apart. Does facebook survive that?

    If we were to approach the question from the POV of the facebook company (as materialized by its service), the answer would be a definitive no. Facebook the company/service is gone, and we would even consider that is gone for good, unless we have a special insight into the basis for said company that would let us consider the possibility of it “relunching”.

    But, does something “of facebook” survive? a user (observers) might never know since all he can do is point to the URL, but we, you and me, reading this and knowing what facebook really is behind the scenes, know better. Of course the CEOs, the employes, etc all of them individually survive. The company it’s gone, but not it’s constituents.

    Now, what does Facebook has to do with you and me? As it turns out, according the particular belief system that I pointed to in the preceding post, we humans are pretty much like Juridical Persons… the human, at the “material side” (for lack of a better term), is quite like Facebook the service on the internet, and at the “basis side” (for an even greater lack of a better word), we are an hierarchical organization of spirits/souls/consciousness. When a human dies, the organization splits up, so the “company” closes and the “service” stops.

    BUT, and here comes the nice part, a human isn’t just a flat collection of souls, is a hierarchical organization, and it has one and only one CEO. That CEO, or “unit driving spirit” as we call it, is the you and me in us. So, according to this belief system, we (the human CEOs) survive death, along with the rest of “us” (the trillions of other “souls(**)” that makes up one human.

    (**) According to this belief system, things are way more complex that what I just wrote, but one thing needs to be said: there are “whole” and “factional” spirits/souls/consciousness, and a human being has one and only one “whole spirt”, at the apex, while all the rest are “spirit fractions”


    Now let me elaborate (and always keep in mind that these are unproven beliefs):

    Structurally speaking, a Human Being is as complex at the spiritual layer as it is at the material layer. Materially, we are made of hierarchy of cells, tissues, organs and systems, with the brain at the apex of the central nervous system. At the spiritual layer, there is the same hierarchy, with spirit fractions “directing” each cell, larger spirit fractions directing each organ, even larger fractions directing each system. And, on top of ALL that, one and only one single spirit, a whole spirit, directing the whole thing. That whole spirit is the you in you 🙂

    Simplistically, if we would call that single, individual, identifyable unit whole spirit that is the you in you, “PT”, then we could say that “PT” incarnates (takes on a body) in the human person “Peter Cantropus”. But reality is much more complex: you as a human are a sophisticated system on which PT but also all the zillion spirit fractions incarnate (take on a body), so is not just you. Furthermore, the time span or “life cycle” differs for each incarnated part. Most cells “live and die” all the time, so the corresponding spirit fractions are incarnated and dis-incarnated in your body all the time, while other cells, such as neurons, basically share the same life-cycle you do.

    Furthermore, from the point of view of your own subjective conscious experience, “you” are “PT”, which is the single, individual, identifyable unit whole spirit directing your whole body. However, spirits do not think, or even feel, in the way your mind and brain represents that. Thinking (and feeling for that matter) is a mind and brain operation, and you, PT, *participate* in that process feeding input and acquiring output, but the thinking is not somehing spirits (the real you) do. That is a process of the brain, and of the *mind* (which is a really complex organ that is separated and distinct from the *brain* but that exists at the spiritual, not material, layer) . For that reason, when your body cannot sustain its physiological functioning anymore (i.e. dies), all this complex spiritual hierarchy disassociates. Them you, PT, carry on (along with the spirit fractions that formed your mind and those directing the brain, the other systems, organs and cells, etc…), but then is not the same human you that “knew, said, felt or thought” this or that, not in the way we “think” of those things, for those are brain+mind features. Yet, OTOH, each and every of those things had a point of origin, and a point of feedback, in your own spiritual doing, so, at the same time, PT is still you, just not a you we could describe in words.

    Some notes:

    (*) What I presented above is a simplification. For example, a cell is a complex living organism on its own, so, inside a cell there is also a complex hirerarchy of spirit fractions in parallel with the material part

    (*) The material part itself, i.e the cells, proteins, nuceotids, molecules, atoms, quarks, photons, etc… are all also ultimately made of, or the result of, spirit fractions, except that *these* spirit fractions exist at a sort of different vibrational state that makes them somehow separate from the rest of the spirit fractions. That is, the material and spiritual worlds are similar to ice and water: both are made of H2O but there is a temperature threshold below which a group of H2O molecules solidifies and gets separated from another group that remains liquid.

    (*) An animal, a plant, a fungus, etc.. all these would be described in pretty much the same way I described a human, except that at the very top of the spiritual hierarchy there is a spirit *fracion*, not a spirit unit. Being spirit *units* is the reason why humans are very special animals.

    The relationship between the human personality and the characteristics of the directing whole spirit of a human being is a really complex topic and an entire book could be (and should be) written about it. Having said that, one significant point to consider is that, again according to this belief system, spirits are (hemi)-eternal. We existed from WAY before the Universe started, and we will exist forever and ever. On the other hand, we “live as humans” about a dozen or more times, so, from the perspective of our true timelne, this passing is extremely temporary, even if from down here it might seem like a long time. Therefore, “behind” a human personality, which is something *constructed* fom the elements of human existence (from biological processes, to words, to experiences), those traits that can be considered to transcend these biological elements, are the best reflection of the driving spirit’s nature (or spiritual personality if you like)

    Additionally, afte death, isn’t only the “unit driving spirit” which survives, but also all the spritual fractions that formed it. These include the mind (which is NOT the brain), as well as all those “directing” the countless parts of the material body. It is this whole spiritual hierarchical system which survives death and it can and will remain associated for a cetain period of time (but not forever). Consequently, this entire spritual system (in which *you* are the apex but not all of it) can an would project itself (radiate would be a better term) to the mind of an incarnated human medium, allowing “human characteristics” of the forme life to be acquiered. The “resolution” of this natuarally depends on several factors among which the persistence of the spiritual system over time is the most significant. For instance, the degree to which the billion of spirit fractions forming the mind remain aggregated.

    1. Glad you’re thinking so deeply! I’ve never been on Facebook, though, and generally avoid social media, too little time to do the things I want to do, so can’t comment specifically…

  4. Hi Dr. Tart,

    Great article. I will point my Twitter followers to it.

    Then there are also cases of people with savant and/or Asperger’s syndrome such as Daniel Tammet and the late Kim Peek who exhibited photographic memories and calculation abilities which, for all practical purposes, are mentally miraculous. Has Kim Peek retained his mental powers after death? Maybe. But in life he was not a highly functioning savant. He couldn’t even dress himself.

    I do believe, however, that death has removed his deficiencies. In Peek’s case, his savant abilities were mostly due to almost a complete separation of the right and left hemispheres of his brain. It makes me wonder if such genetic defects will ultimately lead to a mutation in the human genome allowing for more and more people to have similar “super-human” abilities minus the deficiencies of course.

    NDEs involving glimpses of the future suggest human evolution will result in greater mental and psychic abilities (or perhaps the discovery of the efficacy these abilities). Howard Storm, for example, mentioned that people in the future will be able to grow gardens through prayer.

    I don’t know where I am going with this either. All I know is that NDEs suggest that death eventually results in people obtaining (or regaining) super-human abilities and the possibility that these abilities are gradually being brought into the human gene pool by those being born into the world. That’s my 2 cents worth.

    1. >Has Kim Peek retained his mental powers after death? Maybe. But in life he was not a highly functioning savant. He couldn’t even dress himself.<

      I find it interesting to think about a "soul" being given a body temporarily, and that body is like a specialized tool, a "space-time ship" for functioning in this reality. Maybe a soul gains something when it puts down a tool, maybe it loses something…

  5. There always seems to be this big thing about are medium communications telepathy or communications with an entity. Well what does idealism tell us? There is only one mind and we’re all it. So there can’t be telepathy as normally defined since there is no place to send anything. It all already exists in the one mind and it’s just a question of resonating with information. As far as personalities continuing to exist why not? Right now we SEEM to be individual personalities even though we’re really not. There’s no reason why this shouldn’t continue.

    I’ve read plenty of medium communications where the “spirit” identifies things like a book and says “I want this returned” or “You’ll find some papers in my desk I want burned immediately” or describes where a will is located. These all express a desire and and intention to have something done. It’s not just simply saying there is a book here and papers there. The spirit WANTS something done in these cases. A person wants something done. Information retrieved wouldn’t care about having anything done.

    1. Yes, the intention shown by spirit communicators is important evidence that we are not simply tapping some sort of impersonal information bank. And yes, what “individual” identity really means is a good question!

      1. I’m surprised no one has pointed out that it is clear from NDE literature that this memory problem of hers would be non-existence when she passes to the other side. Those over here whom have trouble hearing can hear on the other side. We hear of those needing glasses as being able to see clearly for the first time. Whatever her problem is, it is a problme of the physical brain, which in our afterlife model is merely a medium which can become damaged and hence the “signal” damaged. There is no reason to suspect the woman will have any memory problems at death. Though it could be an overwhelming experience if they all come back at once, indeed she may not actually have those memories as the brain was simply to damaged to pass them through, however from that moment on there is no reason to doubt her memory would function as normal.

        1. I have no doubt the physical brain in involved with memory, just as this computer’s circuits and programs are involved with my ability to communicate here. But attempts to make all of memory accounted for by brain functioning have not worked…

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