Monday, December 21, 2009

Brittany Murphy and the thing about death...

Just saw this on the news this morning: Brittany Murphy dead at 32. Brittany Murphy is the girl who played the homely sidekick of the character played by Alicia Silverstone in the movie Clueless. She went on to become a star in her own right and I read that she even had a dance track that became a dance club hit.

I can't claim to know Brittany Murphy by any stretch. But the thing about hearing news about someone's death is that it induces an almost reflex-like process in my mind to call up all memories about that person. In the case of Brittany Murphy, it was all the scenes of her in various movies she was in that I've seen. My most extensive store of images of her was from the movie Clueless.

Last night, I went to the wake of the grandmother of a friend of ours. She was 80. I remember her as someone who'd just be sitting quietly or making light conversation with people whenever we'd attend their family gatherings. And then last night, I see her lying in her casket, silenced forever.

As Douglas Hofstadter in his book I Am A Strange Loop described the idea of someone you know dying:

There had been a bright shining soul behind those eyes, and that soul had been suddenly eclipsed. The light had gone out.

Strange Loop for me was Hofstadter's insightful journey of coming to terms with the idea of a human mind emerging over our its lifetime and then suddenly blinking out after death. If we think of the human brain as a kind of a mind-bogglingly complex machine for storing patterns, the mind would be a mind-bogglingly complex pattern that forms in the brain starting from the time we are born and as we go about living the rest of our lives. The nature of the pattern of our mind is therefore an outcome of the nature of our interactions with the world around us.

If our minds our patterns, it means that like any pattern it can be reproduced or copied. Unfortunately like most copies and reproductions, some of the finer details of the original are lost in the copying process. Our memories of the people we know who have died are, in a sense, imperfect copies of those people. So they do live on -- as patterns that are imperfect representations of the original -- in our minds and all those who remember them.

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