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Envisioning the Afterlife

Sum (Book cover)

Image A for the afterlife, if we’ve got one at all, is pretty sketchy. Harps, clouds, angels, pearly gates. Fire and brimstone.

Maybe you picture something else. Strawberry fields. Bliss. Nothingness. Reincarnation.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman has a hobby of imagining afterlives. He’s pictured scores. Really thought them through. Now he’s put forty in a new book. Forty ways of thinking about the afterlife, if there is one.

God is he. God is she. God is they. God is gone. You’re young in heaven. You’re old. You’re a microbe.

This hour, On Point: Imagining the afterlife.

You can join the conversation. How do you picture it? Something? Nothing? Heavenly choirs?


David Eagleman, neuroscientist at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine and author of the new book “Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives.” 

You can read four stories from “Sum” on the book’s website. And here are short summaries of all 40 stories.

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  • Tim

    I’m interested to hear what Mr. Eagleman has to say about the Tibetan Buddhist view of the afterlife.

  • Tim

    The great unknown question. All of us must finally pass and yet of all the millions that have gone before us, no one can answer the question of what happens when we die?

    I like what the Buddha said when asked a question like this. His response was the question does not fit the case.

    I guess what is important is how we live now in the present. If you believe in an afterlife. Living a ‘right life’ might insure passage to it.

    What if you believe in reincarnation? Why prepare for the next life when you are squandering this present one? A life that you are already reincarnated from a past life?

  • Derrick

    Although I personally don’t believe in the afterlife, I have always gotten a chuckle from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. Their version of the afterlife shows that it’s ALWAYS Christmas with snow and dancing and music, and, of course, gifts for everyone. All the time. Great song: “Chistmas in Heaven.”

  • mark russell

    hello! i’m quite curious to know if the doctor has ever taken any of the more intense enthoegens ( ayahuasca, peyote, iboga, stropharia, etc. etc. ) as a kind of preparation for the after death state…

  • Greg Glassman


    I thought people might enjoy a quote from Kurt Vonnegut here:

    Kilgore Trout once wrote a short story which was a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.



  • Mary Fleming

    WHAT LOU FORGETS IS THAT ALTHOUGH IT WAS ALL BLACK TO HIM BEFORE HE WAS BORN, THIS WONDERFUL WORLD WAS THERE FOR HIM TO BE BORN INTO–In the same way, “heaven” will be revealed to him when he’s born into that, although its all black to him right now.

  • angela

    I’ve always thought (even when I was very little, and first starting to think about death) that you sit up in heaven and get to replay every moment in your life, as well as the lives of all people you ever came in contact with (parents, friends etc…). Its a totally solitatry exsistence (or non-exsistence) and its a way to reflect on choices you made. Then you go somewhere else. Not sure about that part.

  • Eric from Providence

    What about deja-vu?

    Perhaps it’s that we just live our lives again and again…..maybe we can make different choices, or maybe they are all the same.

  • Brian Galford

    I recommend a book by Kurt Leland, The Unanswered Question. It is based on many dreams he took in the afterlife and was guided there by spiritual mentors who work there. It offers multifarious views of what happens to us after we die. Yes, it depends on who we were when we lived, but that’s about all that we currently know to be true of the afterlife. This book is enlightening and fascinating. It is a little like What Dreams May Come insofar as what some of the afterlife realms are like.
    This is a book written by an anthropologist of the spiritual world, who has gone to the actual places that NDE’ers have reported from, but his reportsare more far-reaching, with a scientist’s dispassion and a humanist’s compassion.

  • John

    This is a bit foolish. We are likely just dead when brain activity ceases. If not, we’ll find out later. Life on earth should be enough.

  • http://www.wakeuphamptonroads.com alma kesling

    I found it seriously contradicting that we are a species that need proof of everything, but Christians and others have NO problem believing in something that has never once proven itself, God, including what’s going to happen in the afterlife, if there is one.

  • jeffe

    Well come on, talking snakes and dead people living on clouds with angels and a supreme being who rules over everything, and there is music too… Must be a big place this heaven, as the history of human kind is what a million plus years. Are their hominids and chimps in heaven?

    This is a Bronze age myth.

  • Natalia

    These are great ideas. As much “fun” as it is to discuss the afterlife, he’s really talking about the “now-life”.

    Physics and philosophy used to be the same discipline. He is keeping the tradition, but a heck of a lot more fun to read.

  • Brian K.

    “This is a Bronze age myth.”

    Which is what I find interesting about this book. The author says that people thousands of years ago looked around and tried to imagine the universe based on what they knew then, what if we did the same thing based on what we know now? We’re just as likely to get it wrong of course, but it sounds like he came up with some entertaining and thought provoking stories.

  • jeffe

    God’s word, God’s word! Was it in English these words?
    Or what Aramaic, Chinese, Hebrew?

    It’s so interesting how sure born again Christians are of what the bible says. Talking snakes, walking on water, raising the dead, parting seas, angels, and a man who we are told was the son of God, is this a left over from Greek and Roman myths? In the Hebrew religion this is blasphemy as no human can be the son of God. Hence the reason so many Rabbis were pissed of with Christ.

    As I said Bronze age myths and nothing more.

  • http://brahmag.com Brahma

    Love the topic Tom… but all the conceptions presented seem nightmarish twilight zone senerio… subtly suggesting that this often very painful place is as good as it gets. What a depravity of the imagination! Just goes to prove we are mental prisoners of our conditioning… if we can’t imagine a better place, we are not ready to go there.

    I agree most of the stories of heaven and the after life leave much to be desired, and too much unexplained.. but some are more comprehensive subtly scientific then others.. I was disappointed not to hear the Hindu views of “Vaikunta” not drawn from… a culture that has given more serious though and explanations to life after death then any other culture in the history of the world.

    for more info read:


  • barbara Elzohairy

    normally, don’t make public comments, but feel urge in this case. Knowing, in the cognitive/scientific sense is the wrong paradigm to use. When one learns to stop this “wild mind” and to learn how to be silent internally as well as externally, widom/knowledge comes and rarely can it be shared because it is our individual journies, the monads/molecules that we are containing chemical memory that will understand. When one reaches that level of knowing one understands that speculation/guessing/positing certainties are all attempts of our ego and need to diminish fear with very uncertain certainty.

  • Drew

    My theory is this:
    The answers are all around us. From the universe down to superstring theory, everything exists in, and is ruled by, vibrations. Be it day and night, demorats and republicans, sounds we hear, colors we see…everything is an expresion of a vibration. More importantly, what we feel emotionally and give off or project to those around us is also about vibrations. Even in binary code you see a simple vibration. Our soul, our own vibration, our own “energy” continues on after we die. We join what I refer to as the broad spectrum. A place where all the dimentions are experienced, and where, like on earth, we group with vibrations that are close to ours. We don’t need our physical selves to experience our surroundings. The way we interact in the here and now (bad pun) is with our given tools: ears, eyes, etc. In the spectrum it will be a pure connection. Now, my hope for whats next: all the answers we ever seek are attainable, and we swim in all things positive.

    …and all creatures get to play. Anything that exists, vibrates.


  • Mike

    On the whole, I thought this was a great interview. However I must take issue with one thing that Dr. Eagleman said. Citing Richard Dawkins, he said that every religious person believes fervently in his or her own religion and thinks that other people’s religious beliefs are clearly absurd. This may be true of religious fundamentalists, but certainly not of all religious people. There are a great many religious people who recognize that there are elements of truth and wisdom in every spiritual tradition. While different religions may differ on the details, the traditions that have stood the test of time all agree on one essential point: that we do not live in an indifferent universe, but that there is a divine power which invites us to live lives of compassion, kindness, and purpose.

  • Christine W.

    I was SO HAPPY listening to this generous, brilliant man’s celebration of the creative process and of questioning across realms! Science and art together as the true partners they are, launching varied domains or vaulting into varied domains! And, then, the call from the Bible worshipper took me into a deep downward spiral. The phrases “God said so, Jesus said God said so, God made it so, God willed it so” just allow people to throw away their own responsibility to think about possibilities, feel the varied wonders both known and only vaguely imagined, create multiple, opposing or parallel potentialities, alone and in communication with others. It also allows people to ignore the wisdoms of cultures outside their own religion. The worshipper’s urge to get it all down to the ONE exact interpretation of the one, true truth is utterly depressing to me; and I DO believe it has been the cause of most of the world’s wars, or has been the rallying point for those wars that are about real estate and power but that must recruit through something “higher”. Alas, the brain is capable of binding itself up in this way, too. I truly feel strangled when confronted with the thinking style of those who worship. I am living with a lethal disease (not called “life”, a true disease) and it is curiosity and the creative process that nourish me, not worship!

  • chris

    What a great change from talk of the economy and political rancor. I missed the first part of the show but as one person pointed out, it’s not that we’ve had anyone return with information. I’ve often wondered what the terrorists thought when they found no virgins waiting for them afterall. Too bad that information couldn’t be forwarded. For me personally, I hope it’s Monty Python’s vision and good dumplings on the side.

  • Greg

    The hopping music with horns about “the afterlife” about 40 minutes into the 2nd hour was great, anyone know the artist?

  • http://www.onpointradio.org Sam Gale Rosen

    Hey Greg, that was “Hell,” by the Squirrel Nut Zippers, from the album “Hot.”

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    Absolutely fabulous show. What a great mind David Eagleman has and a great way of explaining the limits of science but also how those limits are part of what makes scientific inquiry so useful in exploring these kinds of marginalized ideas.

    I can’t wait to listen again on my iPod, this show is worth burning a CD of.

  • Karla P.

    Great episode! I love the way it started with listeners thinking that a leading neuroscientist was going to make some proclamation about the afterlife (the way religious people do) — but then the tide turns and we realize that Eagleman is highlighting (with humor and poignancy) our deep ignorance about what we cannot see and the deep human desire to make up stories and tell them with certainty. As Natalia points out above, these stories really have nothing to do with the afterlife: they are literary vignettes about the human condition. And they’re scientifically artsy. Or artfully scientific. I don’t know. But I do know we need many more voices like his from the scientific community!

  • http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/7847753.stm Frederic C.


    Consciousness is an illusion.

    What if god is nothingness?

    And your soul exists only so far as you impress yourself upon the senses of the living.

    The measure of one’s afterlife is directly proportional neurological changes you make in people while you are alive. I.e. Memories. Like the corners of my mind. Misty water colored memories…..da da (da.)

  • jeffe

    The Huron tribe believed that the world around them was an illusion and that what they dream was the reality.

    The Jesuits tried for years to convert them to Christianity, and they resisted thinking that their enemies the Iroquois would deem them weak by worshiping the White mans God and destroy them. They were right, only a few years after converting the Iroquois destroyed the Huron commonwealth

  • Non-me

    If we remove the word “is” from all discussions of belief, we arrive at a place where we won’t kill each other (or resent each other, or be forced to contrive the essentially non-existant/impossible concept of “religious tolerance”), i.e., a discussion of the mechanics of belief, and a celebration of humanity, i.e. a celebration of WONDER.


  • mike
  • Tom Dreogan

    I am disappointed that having such a topic to discuss you didnt have any spiritual speakers specially from Eastern spiritual wisdom, which is so much prominent in our society these days and so better answers. I would loved to have someone like Deepak, Wayne or Sri Sri etc. You cant explain basic things in life through science how can you convincingly answer such difficult questions through science. I didnt expect you to have such bad selection.

  • Dave

    Great program! It really made me sit and think about what I believe and why I do.I love the opportunity to consider my own beliefs. My only comment is that of all the 2000 different religions most if not all have a relational aspect with a higher being, creator, God. That relational aspect is key to what I believe. To say that there is so many beliefs so I don’t believe in any of them seems to limit the way I relate to my God. In other words “You gotta believe in something”(Bob Dylan). My relationship with my God has made me who I am. It is how I live my life.

  • http://www.ericgrace.com Eric Grace

    Thank you so much for this show topic, please bring on more that go into spirituality, religion, sustainability, emotional maturity, new forms of education.

    I wanted to share how I just heard about the research is being done on Children that is scientifically documented to remember past lives, which then have been researched and found to be accurate. You can read up on it at:http://www.amazon.com/Old-Souls-Compelling-Evidence-Children/dp/0684851938

    I loved the ending of this show with celebrating what we don’t know… Celebrate the Mystery. And keep on living the questions. Anyone remember the movie Contact?

  • Sam E.

    I sort of have a love-hate relationship with Dr. Eagleman on one hand I very much enjoy his visions of the afterlife. However on the other hand I find his underlying that message that

    1. Technologyically inferior cultures are also morally and spiritually inferior to be repugnant

    2. Religion gives you a set view of the afterlife to be simpleminded. I suppose there are some religious beliefs that do but beyond being a place of unity with god my christian faith gives me no conception of what the afterlife will be. The bible deals primarily with the problems and issues of human existence it only talks about the afterlife as being a sort of culmination of the events of this life.

  • Charlie Mc

    To conceive of something requires a previous sensible experience. I can conceive of a “horse” because I’ve “seen” one before, and of a “sonic boom” because I’ve heard one before. I can even conceive of a “green winged donkey” even though I’ve never sensed one before, but have experienced “green”, “wings” and “donkey” before, and can synthesize conceptually.
    Both Astrophysicists and Theologians agree that as far as we know, at the “Big Bang”, Space and Time came into existence along with the evolving Cosmos. There was no prior sensible reality so one can only conclude that God, and “heaven” is “not sensible” and consequently absolutely inconceivable, i.e., “no thing”.
    The closest we can come would be the evidence of those who have returned from an “after life experience” such as those related in Dr. Raymond Moody’s book, “Life After Life”. Other than that might be Paul’s “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, What God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9)

  • william davidson

    Thanks for the Vonnegut – always appreciated. It strikes me as fun, great, and sad that so many took this show with such utter seriousness. This is one of the best possible topics for human brains to unwind and let loose about. What’s off limits? After he tells us 3 times these aren’t serious suppositions, we’re still defensive? This guy has noticed that he has an imagination, that he is capable of conception and even extrapolation . He also seems to enjoy it. These little imaginings can imply their own commentary, but not necessarily on the afterlife.
    Woa! What’s he on – how dare he!
    Great show, by the way. Thank you Tom.

  • jeffe

    “Religion gives you a set view of the afterlife to be simpleminded. I suppose there are some religious beliefs that do but beyond being a place of unity with god my christian faith gives me no conception of what the afterlife will be. The bible deals primarily with the problems and issues of human existence it only talks about the afterlife as being a sort of culmination of the events of this life.”

    The bible also talks about stoning adulterers and countless other bronze age punishments.
    It has talking snakes, burning bushes and a man living in a whale. It also has Moses parting a sea, Jesus walking on water and angels. It’s a fantasy world, with great stories and characters, if one chooses to believe in myths and thinking as a bronze age person that’s fine with me, I just hope one can separate the myths from the facts of reality.

  • Ed Helmrich

    Mr. Eagleman correctly states that science can’t say anything about the afterlife: it doesn’t have the tools. I disagree with his agreement with the evil Mr. Dawkins: religious traditions differ on details, but those who believe in God see the afterlife as union with God and human happiness and fulfillment. Still, it’s interesting to explore the idea in terms of possibilities.
    As a Catholic, I can say that God has told us a lot about the after-life: we have a record of Jesus after He rose from the dead: He was recognizable, He had His personality and identity, He ate food, He spoke, moved, etc.
    We believe that the Catholic Church is holy, one consequence is that it teaches the truth, and it teaches us:

    “This perfect union with the Most Holy Trinity – this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed – is called ‘heaven’. Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.” Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1024.
    “This mystery of blessed communion with God and all who are in Christ is beyond all understanding and description. Scripture speaks of it in images: life, light, peace, wedding feast, wine of the kingdom, the Father’s house, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise: “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has in store for those who love Him.” 1Cor 2:19, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1027.

  • http://www.ericgrace.com Eric Grace

    Hi Everyone,

    I just found another great article to reference here on Death and Science from EnlightenNext’s current issue. There is an article on Closet Mystics of Esalen that speaks about how rare science explores death and the afterlife. There is a book called ‘Irreducible Mind’ that offers scientific evidence, from CTR at Esalen, of paranormal phenomena and life after death.

    I would love to see/hear of more shows about sexuality(alternative relationships to it than current mainstream forms – like The One Taste community for instance, David Deida, Satisfaction by Kim Cantrell, and Peace Between the Sheets by Maria Robinson). Other great topics to explore: emotional maturity, mysticism within current religions and outside of them, and new money/currency exchange systems (webspiritcommunity.com and http://unmoney.wik.is/ and Catherine Austin Fitts Solari Action Network – http://solari.com/) that are being explored and those of the past.

  • Abbey

    I want to thank Mr. Eagleman for the word “possibilian.” His view of religion and the world is, almost word for word, the same philosophy of mine that I’ve been slowly figuring out over the past year. I can call myself a possibilian now with absolute confidence, and I’m so happy that there are other people out there who understand how I see things. The majority of my friends are Christian, and I just don’t think they would understand my wish to leave my belief open to whatever eventually presents itself as reality. But it’s comforting to hear that there are people out there who get it.

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