We can’t say for sure what happens once you die, other than the organs in the body completely shut down. It was believed that the brain would immediately turn off upon death, but now scientists are determining that that might not actually be the case. This means that you could possibly be aware that your dead once it’s happened, and you might even hear the doctors pronounce your time of death.
This fascinating claim has been made by Dr. Sam Parnia, who works at the NYU Langone School of Medicine. Parnia and his team looked at patients that have technically died due to cardiac arrest, only to be revived and continue to live their lives. Some of the patients that the researchers spoke with said that while they were technically dead, they were aware of what was happening around them, and they were asked to describe what people were doing or saying. When the nurses were able to verify these stories, it gave researchers the thought that the brain continues to function after death.
Parnia says that the official definition of death in medicine is when the heart stops beating, cutting off the blood flow to your brain. “Technically, that’s how you get the time of death,” he said. “It’s all based on the moment when the heart stops. Once that happens, blood no longer circulates to the brain, which means brain function halts almost instantaneously. You lose all your brain stem reflexes – your gag reflex, your pupil reflex, all that is gone.”
This isn’t the first time that scientists have thought that your brain continues to function after death. Researchers from the University of Michigan induced heart attacks on rats while monitoring their brain activity. They found that the rats’ brains were hyper alert, allowing them to sense their surroundings.
“In the same way that a group of researchers might be studying the qualitative nature of the human experience of love, for instance, we’re trying to understand the exact features that people experience when they go through death,” Parnia said. “Because we understand that this is going to reflect the universal experience we’re all going to have when we die.” Parnia says that this study is the largest of its kind, and has provided a lot of insight into brain activity.
So just how long will your brain continue to function after being dead? Parnia says that the brain’s cerebral cortex that processes all of your senses flatlines after death, though it can take up to 20 seconds before those brainwaves are no longer able to be monitored. Once that happens, the process begins of killing brain cells until there aren’t any left, but this can take several hours once you’ve been declared dead. Those that have had near death experiences didn’t lose their brain cells quickly, allowing them to live once blood starting pumping to the brain again, leaving them able to live normal lives.
“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,” Parnia said. “And the evidence reveals that people whose heart stopped and then restarted – usually on the operating table – could describe what had been happening around them. The new research is an extension of these findings.”
Unfortunately, it doesn’t give us too much of a glimpse into the afterlife, but does provide a nice window into the science of the brain after you’ve passed away. It can be a scary thought to know that your brain is still working and will be able to understand the concept that you’re dead, but fascinating nonetheless. It’s something that we’ll all have to unfortunately experience at one point, but at least now you can start to mentally prepare (if that’s even possible).