Human beings have been curious about what happens after they die for as long as they have been on this earth. And that is why they are so many rites that we associate with death. It is also why all religions deal with it and with what happens after as a central concern. Even science can’t explain what happens after but there is research available on what happens right before.
What happens to our brains when we die is something that scientists have investigating so at least part of what happens when we die is no longer a secret. The moment of death has been depicted in art for hundreds of years. Most people get their ideas about it from popular culture (mostly, movies). So it is not uncommon to hear about seeing a light or having your whole life flash before your eyes right before you die.
“Those who have had near-death experiences will tell you that realm is far more real than this world, more crisp, vibrant, alive.” — Eben Alexander
Is there any truth in those things that are often portrayed in movies? How far have scientists gone in the quest to understand what happens to our minds as we slip out of consciousness forever? I think it is something more than simply morbid curiosity what pushes us to want to find out what happens to our consciousness when we die. There is only so much we can know about this because, logically, those who have experienced can no longer discuss it with the rest of us.
Beyond Near-Death Experiences
There are plenty of accounts of near-death experiences and it is likely that our ideas of what happens to the brain when we die might come from those. There are, no doubt, religious or spiritual approaches to near-death experiences but they have also been used for scientific research. But, whatever the approach to those experiences, they are some commonalities to the near-death experiences in human beings:
Many people talk about feeling “aware” that they were dead. This overall feeling could be broken up into different sensations. For example, most people would talk of a peaceful and painless feeling. Contributing to that feeling of detachment there is also what many describe as an out of body experience. It is quite common for people who have one of these experiences to describe how they have an external perspective on their own bodies. This is particularly prevalent for people who have near-death experiences during surgery. They would often talk about observing their own operation as it was taking place. Both, seeing a powerful light or moving toward darkness as common. Also, some people describe the vivid feeling of seeing either people wearing white or reuniting with loved ones who had previously died.
“I understand what happens to the brain when people are near death, and I had always believed there were good scientific explanations for the heavenly out-of-body journeys described by those who narrowly escaped death.” — Eben Alexander
The flashing of one’s life that we have seen in movies also seems to come for these near-death experiences. Often these experiences end with a sensation of re-entering one’s body.
What Have Scientist Found Out About Brain Activity At The Moment Of Dying?
One of the most recent and fascinating discoveries about what happens to our brains before we die is that there is a big spike in brain activity moments after we die.
There is no evidence as yet that this happens to humans but scientists at the University of Michigan have discovered this brain activity peak in rats. It is still unclear what causes this peak in brain activity but these scientists discovered that it is extremely brief in duration.
These scientists claim that they “identified a transient surge of synchronous gamma oscillations that occurred within the first 30 seconds after cardiac arrest and preceded isoelectric electroencephalogram. Gamma oscillations during a cardiac arrest were global and highly coherent; moreover, this frequency band exhibited a striking increase in anterior-posterior-directed connectivity and tight phase-coupling to both theta and alpha waves”.
What the University of Michigan did was induced cardiac arrest in anesthetized rats so their brain activity could be monitored. They found out that there is brain activity even after cardiac arrest.
Before this scientific discovery, it was assumed that the brain became immediately inert as soon as blood flow stops. We now know that this is not necessarily the case. It is important to note that this surge in brain activity has not been observed in human beings yet. And just because it happens in rats, we could not assume that human beings would experience this too. But if this were the case with human beings too then we could begin to have a framework for scientifically further studies into human near-death experiences.
“Sometimes a little near-death experience helps them put things into perspective.” — Anne Shropshire
If scientists could prove that the human brain also experiences a surge in activity moments after death, this could go a long way to explain some of what people who have gone through a near-death experience claim to have felt. This would be particularly relevant to the high percentage of people who claim they’ve had a near-death experience of the sort that they were resuscitated after suffering from cardiac arrest.
The awareness that people who have undergone these kinds of experiences could be scientifically proved by a peak in brain activity taking place after blood ceased to blow through the body. This might also be a way of explaining those out of body experience that some people claim to have experienced. They are so prevalent that even people who have never gotten close to a near life experience assume that this is exactly what happens. And as much as popular culture may be responsible for disseminating this experience by portraying it so often on film and television there might be some truth in that, after all.
It is clear that more research needs to be undergone in this direction. So this is what scientists have discovered about brain activity when we die. There is still so much more that science has not been able to explain it yet.