The question of what happens after we die has mystified humans since before we figured out how to make fire.
Some believe in a spiritual afterlife, where humans will be judged according to their actions on earth, while others believe some part of us will continue through reincarnation.
For many of those without religious conviction, the consensus usually is that when your time is up, your consciousness is wiped out in an instant; kind of like switching off the telly with a permanent remote control.
However, could it be our deaths and their aftermath are not quite as black and white as all that?
Researchers from New York’s Stony Brook University School of Medicine have found evidence to suggest human brain activity still functions for a short while after death.
The heart will stop beating, but for a brief time the deceased person will be aware of what’s going on; fully understanding their life is over. The scientists even reported how the deceased individual could even hear themselves being pronounced dead by medical staff.
The time of death is usually announced at the point when the heart ceases to beat. Blood is no longer circulated to the brain, leading to a person losing their brain stem reflexes almost instantly, including their gag reflex and pupil reflex.
The cerebral cortex — the ‘thinking part’ of the brain — also slows down at once; flatlining within approximately two to twenty seconds. This means brainwaves can no longer be seen on an electric monitor, initiating a chain reaction of cellular processes which eventually brings about the death of brain cells.
However, this process can reportedly take hours to complete after the heart has beat its last.
The team of scientists came to this grim understanding of post-death consciousness by looking at cardiac arrest cases in both Europe and the US.
Those who had survived heart attacks were fully aware of what was going on while they were technically dead before being resuscitated. They were even able to describe things which happened after their hearts stopped beating.
Dr Sam Parnia, who led the team of researchers, told LiveScience:
They’ll describe watching doctors and nurses working, they’ll describe having awareness of full conversations, of visual things that were going on, that would otherwise not be known to them.
It [the time a patient is declared dead] is all based on the moment when the heart stops. Technically speaking, that’s how you get the time of death.
Dr Parnia added:
If you manage to restart the heart, which is what CPR attempts to do, you’ll gradually start to get the brain functioning again.
The longer you’re doing CPR, those brain cell death pathways are still happening — they’re just happening at a slightly slower rate.
Interestingly, those who have endured an ‘after-death’ experience were found to be become more altruistic, often showing a notably positive transformation.
Dr Parnia explained:
What tends to happen is that people who’ve had these very profound experiences may come back positively transformed.
They become more altruistic, more engaged with helping others.
They find a new meaning to life having had an encounter with death. But there isn’t like a sudden magical enhancement of their memories. That’s just Hollywood jazz.
Going forward, this research intends to improve the quality of resuscitation; working towards the prevention of brain injuries while the heart is being restarted.
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Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.