What’s really going on when you die?

Chilling new research says your brain knows you’re dead

There were times reading the University of Western Ontario’s study, published this January in the Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences, when I couldn’t tell if it’s all a big scary attempt to terrify us or if it’s an earnest, scientific and intellectual inquiry into what happens to our memories when we die. The findings — which say our brains are working as much as 10 minutes after we pass — are mind blowing enough to argue that it’s both.

As you know, the topic of what happens at the end has gotten a lot of attention in recent years. Authors have written books about it. Hollywood has made movies. The 2014 film Heaven Is For Real, about a 4-year old boy who told his parents he visited heaven while having surgery, was a huge box office success.

But even before that, we’ve all heard stories of how people who have died and come back to life say they saw light at the end of a tunnel. Or that they floated above their bodies, watching doctors desperately work to bring them back to life. I know one such person.

Back when I was in my late twenties, one of my coworkers, after being in a car accident years before, said he found himself floating near the operating room ceiling. Down below the doctors were working on his body. He didn’t know that he’d hit black ice, or that his car had spun out of control and slammed into a utility pole. All he knew was that people wearing surgical masks were putting electric paddles on his chest, and that a voice was calling his name. He said the voice sounded faint, as if coming to him from an enormous distance. He knew the voice, as I remember, and yet he did not recognize it. Then the doctors gave him a shock and he was magically back in his body again. He awoke finding himself in a hospital bed.

When I first heard this story, I paid barely any attention. Though I pretended to be interested, my coworker’s words seemed to be spoken by someone who was, how do I say it, a bit strange, and so I ignored them. I’ve never believed in the tunnel-and-bright-light thing, and my coworker and I were not close enough to delve into his beliefs. But I clearly recall hearing him say, “I knew I was dead,” which to me was an incredibly absurd statement to anyone of intelligence. The idea that someone could know that they are dead after their heart stops beating was ridiculous — hilarious, even. To me, the thought of knowing that I am dead is as terrifying as the thought of being buried alive. It has that “My God, I’m under six feet of dirt” feel to it.

But however strange it may sound, recent scientific evidence has made us rethink when death happens, with evidence the brain keeps working after the hearts stops beating.

In the study cited above, Canadian doctors at the University of Western Ontario who were monitoring four terminal patients in intensive care seemingly found that brain activity can carry on long after life support systems are turned off, with death confirmed by unreactive pupils and the absence of a heartbeat, among other means.

The team found that for reasons not completely understood, after the four patients died, the brain continued working in one patient. In fact, for 10 minutes and 38 seconds this dead person’s brain exhibited the same waves — known as delta waves — living people experience during dreams and deep sleep.

I remember from the 1990 film Flatliners (there’s a 2017 follow-up) that the experience of death can be very different for different people. It goes without saying that this was not a serious movie, but it did take its material seriously, and just as it had with Kiefer Sutherland and Julia Roberts, the Western Ontario team found that death is a unique experience.

Living in the real world not a movie, the team found that across the four patients, the electrical activity in their brains as measured by an electroencephalogram (EEG) test displayed few similarities both before and after they were declared clinically dead.

“There was a significant difference in EEG amplitude between the 30-minute period before and the 5-minute period following ABP cessation for the group,” the team said. (If you’re wondering, “ABP” stands for arterial blood pressure).

What this means is that it’s not entirely clear at what points certain parts of the body shut down in death. What happens after death remains mysterious to science.

But in hopes of bringing some clarity to the question, other researchers besides those at Western Ontario are looking into what happens when we die.

A study in 2011 by neurologists at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, as an example, discovered a burst of brain activity in rats for about one minute after they were decapitated. This seems to confirm that the brain and heart have different moments of death, and it might be the reason a revolutionary picked up Marie Antoinette’s head and waved it to the crowd, believing that she was still conscious, even if for just a minute, after being beheaded.

A more recent study, published this year in the journal Royal Society Open Biology, also found that some cells continue to function in the days after we die. But get this: stem cells, it turns out, even attempt to repair themselves, according to the international team of researchers.

I think it’s important to point out that the scientists conducting these studies are being very cautious about the implications of their research. For instance, the Western Ontario sample size was small, with only one patient with brain activity after death and three without. Considering the sample size of one, the study’s findings could be the result of some type of error at the time of the EEG recording, the authors reported.

And while the team responsible for the study published in Open Biology concluded that being clinically dead (no pulse or heartbeat) does not mean all of the cells of your body — including your brain — are dead, they also concluded that additional study is necessary, as is usually the case with scientific research.

That being said, as jarring as it is, this type of research is a game-changing area of science. As I see it, it’s clear that very strange things can happen at the moment of death — and afterwards. With cells still functioning, the one thing science now knows for certain is that death is a process. Which means pinpointing the exact moment we die can be difficult.

Just think about that — not knowing exactly when we pass has enormous moral implications, particularly for things such as organ donation. Would you want to donate your vital organs if you knew your brain was still working?

I would, I confess, be uneasy with it. And almost everyone I talk with has the same reaction.

At the end of the day, most people think of death as a conclusive event. So it’s difficult to fathom the possibility of life-like activities occurring in the bodies of people who have died. It leaves us with the chilling possibility that in the several minutes following death, as much as 10 minutes or more, our brains know what is going on. Reading about this in a scholarly article didn’t just educate me — it made my jaw drop.

But before you run to your local motor vehicle department and cancel your organ donation registration, keep in mind that although science knows more today about what happens when we die than it did before, this newly acquired knowledge hasn’t even scratched the surface.

The Western Ontario study seems to suggest the possibility your brain knows you’re dead, at least in some cases. As terrifying as that sounds, who knows what tomorrow may bring. According to a 2005 study published in PLOS, nearly two-thirds of all published research cannot be confirmed by subsequent studies. Will that help you sleep at night?

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