If you haven’t heard yet, in 2014 somewhat frightening study suggested that when we die, we know that we are now dead. The research team studied people who have had near-death experiences due to cardiac arrest. This is what they found.
When We Die, We Know That We Are Dead
For the longest time, doctors did not know if the brain continued to function after we died. They discovered, however, that our consciousness does continue at least for a short amount of time after we are officially dead. This means that when we die, we know it. (1)
Medically speaking, death is when our hearts stop beating. At this point, blood flow is cut off to the brain. Not too long after, the brain will experience cell death. Previously, scientists thought that when the heart stops working so does the brain. Now, however, they know that there is a window of time when brain function actually continues. They learned this by studying people who have had near-death experiences (NDEs).
In a study simply entitled “AWARE,” Dr. Sam Parnia and his team at New York University Langone School of Medicine questioned the idea that the brain stops when our heart does. They questioned this because of the stories they heard from patients who were brought back to life after being officially declared dead during cardiac arrest. Aside from the usual seeing a light or already dead loved ones, many patients talk about seeing and/or hearing things that they technically shouldn’t be able to. These include describing:
Watching doctors and nurses working
Having full awareness of the conversations happening around them
Visual things going on around them that they shouldn’t otherwise know
The things that they saw and heard all were confirmed by the doctors and nurses in the room. Dr. Parnia says that two to 20 seconds after the heart stops, brain waves (aka brain function) also flatline. This is biological death. The continued consciousness reported by many still evades explanation.
“We can’t explain consciousness occurring during cardiac arrest,” says Dr. Parnia. “What happens at cardiac arrest is you have no blood flow into your brain, and your brain shuts down immediately.”
Brain Activity After Death
Dr. Parnia and his team’s research isn’t the first time brain activity and consciousness have been recorded after medical death. In March 2017, intensive care unit doctors at a hospital in Canada found one patient who had brain activity for 10 minutes after they were medically declared dead. These brain waves were similar to the ones that occur when we are in deep sleep. They also record other patients who experienced this, but for shorter amounts of time. As it turns out, this consciousness after death is a rather individual experience and varies from person to person. (2)
Still Trying To Uncover The Unknowns
The research team is still studying this in an attempt to understand it better. They are looking at how the brain reacts during cardiac arrest to see how many of these experiences relate to brain activity.
“we also study the human mind and consciousness in the context of death, to understand whether consciousness becomes annihilated or whether it continues after you’ve died for some period of time — and how that relates to what’s happening inside the brain in real time,” said Dr. Parnia.
Dr. Parnia does say that of those who have an NDE and report a wakeful death experience, only 2% experience full awareness. Forty-six percent, however, share memories that all exist around the same few themes (3):
Recalling events before their resuscitation
About 9% report the experience of floating above their body towards a light but while remaining tethered to a string. Naturally, more research needs to be done to understand better what happens after we die. Likely, we’ll never fully know until we experience it.