Consciousness as a definition of death: its appeal and complexity

Clin Electroencephalogr. 1999 Oct;30(4):156-64. doi: 10.1177/155005949903000408.


A new formulation of death proposed in this study is based on the basic physiopathological mechanisms of consciousness generation in human beings. Two physiological components control conscious behavior: arousal and awareness (content of consciousness). We cannot simply differentiate and locate arousal as a function of the ascending reticular activating system and awareness as a function of the cerebral cortex. Substantial interconnections among the brainstem, subcortical structures and the neocortex, are essential for subserving and integrating both components of human consciousness. Therefore, consciousness does not bear a simple one-to-one relationship with higher or lower brain structures, because the physical substratum for consciousness is based on anatomy and physiology throughout the brain. This new account of human death is based on the irreversible loss of consciousness because it provides the key human attributes and the highest level of control in the hierarchy of integrating functions within the organism. The notion of consciousness as the ultimate integrative function is more consistent with the biologically-based systems than the more philosophically-based notions of personhood.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Arousal / physiology
  • Brain / physiology
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology
  • Consciousness / physiology*
  • Death*
  • Humans