Does Consciousness begin before birth, during birth, or shortly after?

Interesting article with reference and links to some interesting papers.

  • Infant consciousness emerges earlier than previously thought, perhaps even before birth. This has implications for considering infants as beings with experiences.

  • Babies are capable of conscious perceptions and basic learning from birth. This indicates they possess a rudimentary form of awareness from the start.

  • Fetuses may dream or have primitive conscious experiences in the third trimester based on their brain responses. This raises fascinating questions about consciousness before birth.

  • Infants see, hear and process the world very differently than adults. Their perceptions are generally more developed for some senses like hearing initially.

  • Understanding infant consciousness better can help clinical assessment of uncommunicative babies and guide ethical considerations in medical research involving newborns.

  • The review integrates recent advances in adult consciousness research to shed light on infant experiences. This interdisciplinary approach continues improving theories of consciousness development.

  • Many questions remain unanswered, such as the onset of dreaming, but research is advancing our knowledge of very early conscious life and neurological foundations.



You may wish to refer to DN15, section 1.

Also DN28: " Purisassa ca viññāṇasotaṃ pajānāti, ubhayato abbocchinnaṃ idha loke patiṭṭhitañca paraloke patiṭṭhitañca
They understand a person’s stream of consciousness , unbroken on both sides, established in both this world and the next.

And this post by Ven. Brahmali:
" I think the link between kamma and its fruit is captured in the EBTs by the idea of the stream of consciousness. A stream of consciousness is a continuity that does not overlap with other streams of consciousness, and as such, in a sense, there are separate individuals.

The problem with puggala may be that some words are more prone than others to be understood as indicating an “inherent essence”. Puggala, “person”, is perhaps too closely tied to the idea of an attā/ātman, whether literally as used in Vedic texts (this would have to be researched) or culturally as understood in contemporary Indian society. The idea of the stream of consciousness, viññāṇāsota, on the other hand, may not have any such connotations. As such, it is more likely to be interpreted in the right way according to the anattā teaching. In fact, the picture of a stream is quite apt. It suggests continuous change (always new water molecules), but an overall sense of continuity through the fact that the overall shape of the stream/river only changes slowly with the seasons."
(In Modern Pudgalavada? - #3 by Brahmali).

This is also interesting to contrast with the following paper by Ajahn Brahm: When Does Human Life Begin in This Body?

Can we say that a body is a continuity of matter and energy in the form of atoms/subatomic particle/waves that is ever flowing, ever in flux that does not overlap with other continuities of matter/energy?

Does a body begin before birth, at birth, after? Is there some precise moment where there is “body” and if we took away even a single atom or subatomic particle/wave, then there would no longer be “body?” If not, then isn’t “body” just a label or agreement for a very fuzzy concept that seemingly dissolves the closer you inspect it?

What’s with the “non-overlap” characteristic anyway? Is this really true in the case of bodies? In the case of matter/energy? In the case of consciousness? What does it actually mean to say that there is non-overlap?


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The quote you posted is by Ven. Brahmali, so I prefer not to offer explanations on his behalf. :slightly_smiling_face:

In a general sense, the overlap of “matter/energy” as you label it is certainly mutually conditioned and interactive with other conditions. At the same time, the particular configurations and characteristics are different in the same way as the appearances and characteristics of clouds are different.
What this example does not convey, of course, are the conditions of intention and actions which manifest in the human realm.

Anyway, my response was to offer citations for the question raised in the OP.

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Understood. My questions were questions for the aether and not for anyone in particular. Rather, inspired by the quote of Ven. Brahmali they appeared to my mind as seemingly quite related to the OP’s questions and so I thought I’d offer them. :slight_smile: :pray:

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Yes. I recall somewhere that every molecule in your body recycles every ?7 years or so. I think they radiolabel molecules and watch them. In other words, molecules keep flying off, rejoining, replacing similar molecules all throughout your body. Bones seem solid and “permanent” but we know even bones are vibrant living “things” that are constantly forming breaking down and reforming.

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I agree, this is all about semantic labelling! As I see it, “rupa” is a specific set of molecules which are assigned to the sentient being as distinct from the adjacent molecules. The molecules existed long before the “being” came to be, but the rupa came to be once the being came to be…if that makes sense…not sure if that is what you were getting at???

Does the Buddha specify or define the rupa in any way other than to say it is the course of the sensations/feelings? It doesnt matter whether you take a molecule off or add one, if a signal is sent of pain and you experience pain and then you add the sankhara of disliking pain … etc etc then the origination of the sensation was the rupa of that individual. Add or subtract molecules all you like but the sensation was still generated!!! :slight_smile:

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I take that comment to mean if there was consciousness in the preceding life co-existent with consciousness in the next life, that wouldn’t make any sense in the context of the Buddha’s explanation for how the universe works. Struggling to see where you are confused by that particular comment. The issue I have with that is whether the certainty in Ajahn Brahm’s treatise is warranted by the texts, including the stuff about petri dishes. Just to be clear, I agree with him on all those points!!! I just dont think we know for certain, and I personally wouldnt have any problem with a life-form existing in a petri dish or a bottle of appropriate medium…what matters is the rupa and nama being there not where they are…

The human body is consciousness.
Self-awareness or consciousness develops at around 18 months for some - this is the early development of mindfulness that happens automatically for those who are fortunate and without physical disability.

It means that the same stream of consciousness has to experience the effects of its past actions. It also means that personal habits are carried forward in the same stream of consciousness. That’s two important areas of non-overlap.

When it comes to the body, I would argue it is little more than an appendage of the mind, that is, the stream of consciousness. The body is an aspect of how we experience the world (and thus closely related to the stream of consciousness), and it is in large part shaped by that same stream.


How do you know these two points? Through sutta or reason or both? Can you explain or give references?

You regard consciousness as primary and form secondary? How about the other aggregates? Do you regard consciousness as primary and the rest secondary or lesser? If so, how did you come to so regard? In my experience they cannot be truly distinguished when analyzed, they are co-dependents whose distinction falls apart under analysis much like trying to delimit the “body” as commented above.


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Kamma is intention (AN 6.63), and intention is always individual. It follows that the results also will be individual, that is, belong to the same stream of consciousness.

As for habits, it is just common sense. You can observe in this life that your habits belong to your stream of consciousness, that is, you have to deal with them, not someone else.

Yes, I would largely agree with this. The stream of consciousness could in fact be called the stream of the mind.

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I think it is true that an individual person acts with intention by way of body, speech, and mind. The Teacher says as much in MN 136. However, in my experience under analysis “persons” dissolve and no individual person can be found. It seems a bit weird and artificial to my mind to say that a stream of consciousness acts.

At a mundane level sure, but when I analyse even a little bit it seems to me that my habits and actions also result in consequences for other people. When I lash out in anger and commit acts with my body against another person that other person also experiences a consequence, right?

That’s why I was asking about overlap. It seems to me that if under analysis individual persons can’t be found, then how is it possible to draw a true distinction between persons? When I say “true distinction” I just mean a distinction that holds up under analysis. If true distinctions can’t be found, then “true non-overlap” is also missing, right?

How about the body? Do you regard the mind as primary and the body secondary? Do you find that they are co-dependent just like the rest? In my experience, under analysis both seem to dissolve with no distinction being found.



Are you saying your thoughts and answers on this forum can’t be identified or distinguished under analysis and so are no different than those of others?

Even if we agree there are no essential differences, as you might put it, aren’t they still different in their appearances and characteristics?
Is a gun a flower?

When we’re hungry do we eat dirt because analysis reveals no fundamental distinctions from apples?
If dirt and apples are different enough to distinguish for a snack, the same goes for different beings and their kamma.

In terms of our practice, we can know there is no enduring essence to anything and at the same time recognize different manifestations and characteristics for different beings – including intentions and actions, some of which lead towards liberation and others that do not.

True, when we look deeply there is no " being" or “thing”. But in experience, combinations of essence-less processes are functionally different – and that’s important for our practice, no?


Speaking for myself, yes. Under analysis I can find no true distinction between myself and others. Under analysis, the “I” seems to dissolve and so distinguishing seems not possible.

No. The distinction between apples and dirt when not under analysis is clear and apparent. I eat apples and not dirt when I have the choice.

I don’t think so? I think I was speaking about “true distinctions” as something that could be confirmed through analysis. That is in contrast to mundane distinctions I make all the time like for instance between apples and dirt.


Ok. So why not make the same mundane distinctions for intentions, actions, and different beings?

Didn’t I?

To my mind that is exactly what I was doing with the above?! I’m sorry if that was not clear, but such a mundane distinction was certainly my intention. I’ve highlighted the part that indicates my attempt to make such a distinction.



But then why this:

In other words, even if as you say no “true distinction” can be found how does that practically apply to what Ven. Brahmali wrote? It’s the very “mundane” differences that matter in terms of habits, kamma, and our individual practice.

Perhaps we’re saying the same things differently…not sure. :slightly_smiling_face:

Absolutely the mundane differences matter. I was not trying to suggest they do not. Keeps people from eating dirt for instance! :slight_smile:

The reason I questioned overlap and distinction in this thread with my first comment was twofold I think:

  • The OP’s questions seem to imply a form of analysis to my mind. They are asking non mundane questions about precise moments that seem analogous to the questions I asked about the body, where the questions of how you distinguish and whether you can make true distinctions seem important to my mind.

  • I take the questions about true distinctions and where and how they can be made as very important to my individual practice. In my experience assuming a true distinction can be made - where in actuality the true distinction cannot be made - often leads to grasping and craving.

I’d also say whether you can make a true distinction between mind and body is very pertinent to OP’s questions. At least it seems that way to me. Hope this makes clear the context for my questions.


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