How Language Encourages Belief in an Afterlife

People believe in life after death for many reasons. A contributing factor, one that goes unnoticed, are certain characteristics of nouns and verbs in English and other languages. Essentially, the way nouns and verbs work help make it easy for us to imagine and talk about the dead as if they still lived.

One characteristic is that nouns don’t indicate whether the thing they name exists physically or not. Nouns do show other differences quite clearly, such as a difference in number: in English, for example, many nouns are plural if they end with an s sound and are singular if they are without it. But nouns don’t change in any way to show the difference between items that exist and those that don’t. Nouns and names (which are a type of noun) can, with no change at all, refer to objects and people right in front of us (Please meet my sister) or out of sight (my sister in Chicago) or existing only in our imagination (I wish I had a sister) or no longer alive (My great grandmother’s sister).

As a result, a sentence such as “Aunt Mary went to college when she was 16” sounds normal and clear even though the statement leaves out an important piece of information: we can’t tell from it whether Aunt Mary is living at this moment or not. In general, in fact, when we remember the lives of those who have died, we can—rather weirdly—think and speak about them with the same words we might have used when they were alive. In our imagination and conversation, thanks to the way nouns work, such people easily remain alive-in-the-past-tense.

A second bizarre characteristic is that even explicit assertions that a person has died have their own peculiarities. “Aunt Mary is dead” seems to leave no uncertainty about her current state. But not only is the noun phrase Aunt Mary by itself neutral about whether she exists now or not; the verb in the sentence, is, is in the present tense, not the past. The result, as I hear the sentence, is a subtext that allows us to imagine Aunt Mary retaining some of her reality in the here and now although she is deceased. After all, except for the last word, the statement is no different from countless statements that began with “Aunt Mary is…” when she was alive, such as “Aunt Mary is upstairs.” So, for speakers and listeners who were fond of Aunt Mary, the statement that she is dead can subtly suggest or leave open the possibility of  her other-worldly continuity as the same time that it delivers the hard message.

Finally, consider the other form of the same message: “Aunt Mary died.” No present tense verb here; “died” means died-in-the-past. But here the contradictory hint of her continuing animation is that she is the actor of the verb. Normally, the dead don’t do  things. Aunt Mary did something, so how dead can she really be? This is all very strange, but I think that such sentences tell us one thing and hint at something else. Despite the literal meaning of “Aunt Mary died,” the sentence, one might say, is whispering that she is still active. As a result, especially if we ourselves hope to live in some form after we die, we might feel quite comfortable with such statements as “Aunt Mary died. She has gone to heaven and continues to watch over us.”

Language is our human tool. It has no more or less accuracy and flexibility than we give it. We can talk about what is real and what is not real and we may not always need to be precise about the difference. One consequence is the ease with which we can “speak” the dead to life.

My Four Modes of Everyday Consciousness

I’ve been trying to get a clearer view of the different ways in which my consciousness functions during a typical day. It’s like trying to catch a view of myself in the mirror in a mirror. I’m omitting here the labyrinth of my sub-conscious and looking just at the everyday workings in my head that my head is aware of. I’m including meditation and mindfulness, since I do them every day at a basic level and in different contexts.

The literature divides up consciousness in a daunting variety of ways. But I see in myself mainly four modes.

The first is Awareness. This unfocused, baseline consciousness consists of plain sensory input with little or no processing beyond basic comprehension. It is the opposite of being asleep or unconscious. “Doctor, he’s regained consciousness.” It is the state I’m in when I idly watch a car go down the street, when I watch a movie, when I pick up the remote to change the channel. It includes familiar, unthinking actions like lifting a fork or saying “Hi. How are you?” Awareness feels passive but also primed for responsiveness.

Stream of Consciousness, Gary Buhler (

Stream of Consciousness, by Gary Buhler

My second mode of consciousness is Stream of Consciousness. This is a noticeable flow of words, images, and memories that moves along on its own through my head regardless of my surroundings. Sometimes, for me, this flow gets noisy and intrusive, a kaleidoscope with little or no focus. It includes vivid flashbacks and anxious glimpses of the future. But mostly it consists of words, a sort of thinking-lite. Human consciousness must have changed a lot around 100,000 years ago as the brain began to store names for images of things and for countless abstractions and relationships. The result was that we could say or think, “Why are you doing it that way?” and such flotsam has been popping up in our mental streams ever since.

Next, after Awareness and Stream of Consciousness, there’s Mindfulness. Mindfulness is a concentrated but relaxed and wordless attention to something. I experience brief periods of it during meditation, in between the moments when my Stream of Consciousness washes everything else out of my head for a while. Mindfulness is at the core of not only meditation but also any exercise of concentration such as painting, music, dance and other types of physical exertion. We are mindful when we observe the behavior of a squirrel or, fleetingly, when we take a picture of someone. Sometimes I sit for a whiled to grasp the sensation of the night or the ocean or being alive. Such mindful consciousness has the quality of stepping closer to something, allowing us to experience it with greater clarity and peace.

Finally, there’s Language—as used for thinking, talking, listening, reading, writing. Language arose as a social tool, and it is essentially social even when we’re just thinking to ourselves; an audience is implied even when it’s not present. It may pop up in the Stream of Consciousness, but it’s the mental mode for extended episodes of talking, listening, and thinking, problem-solving mood. My wife and I discuss plans for the day, I think about a question for a blog post, I try to make a point in a conversation with someone, and I read a book for pleasure. While mute Mindfulness feels like I’m taking a step closer, language use sometimes feels like I’m stepping around and away from something to see it from other perspectives.

So these are the principle states that I most often catch my conscious mind in the midst of: general Awareness, swirling Stream of Consciousness, concentrated Mindfulness, and purposeful Language use. Trying to classify the different modes of your own consciousness is difficult. Despite your familiarity with your own mind, you may realize it’s not easy to find the best categories to capture the differences in what goes on in your head. This isn’t surprising given the brain’s complexity. But the process is enlightening nonetheless. You come out of it seeing yourself differently.

Meditation and Animal Consciousness

I’ve been meditating more regularly for the last couple of months—about 20 minutes once or twice a day. I’m still very much a novice but the experience is vivid and calming. I’ve been thinking about how it may be showing me a piece of the history of my consciousness.

I’m gradually finding it easier to stay tuned to my breathing and lengthen the quiet spaces between the word streams that seep through my head. I think those quiet moments take me briefly to a state that has elements in common with the consciousness of animals. Of course we can’t know much about what goes through the heads of a crocodile or a horse or what nuances of emotions they may feel. But we can be fairly sure that animals experience their sensory world without the complications and distractions of language and the social web that language is anchored in. I think meditation has about it a kind of withdrawal from mental complexity that takes us back to a small portion of the calm and direct sensory life of animal consciousness.

But in my meditative 20 minutes, this peaceful withdrawal doesn’t last long and soon the words come banging at the door again. No matter how earnestly but gently I try to float them away, they return like a too-friendly dog that refuses to be pushed off. This fervent activity is what our brains are good at. Even when they are idling with no particular task at hand, they crank away, replaying bits of yesterday, rehearsing bits of tomorrow. That’s how our minds protect us, that’s why they evolved: to anticipate the future on the basis of the past.

I have the image of two lines running through me, two orientations in time and place. One runs through me from back to front, from past to future. This is the calculating cognition of language and our intense social lives; we are almost always, in our heads, thinking about and talking to people. The other line runs through me sideways, in the here and now, the wordless, calm mindfulness of meditation (or any other concentrated task such as playing music).

With more practice, I find this orientation growing a little more available even when I am not meditating. I can take a minute to focus on myself, relax my body, turn down the volume in my head. I think of this orientation as an outrigger, extending sideways to the immediate world, stabilizing me, with little fuss about where I’m heading—a small bit of the peaceful confidence of animals.