It’s one of the biggest mysterious in human history: What happens when we die? Does ‘consciousness’ cease to exist, because it’s a product of the brain? Or does consciousness remain, because it does not require the brain or any other physical organ to exist?
It’s hard to tell, because we don’t really have any specific tool for measuring consciousness, but things are changing.
Non-material science is really starting to take giant leaps forward, and more studies are emerging every year suggesting that a persons’s consciousness continues to work after the body has died.
For example, one patient, who was a 57 year old man at the time, despite being pronounced dead and completely unconscious, with no detectable biological activity going on, recalled watching the entire process of his resuscitation.
The study’s authors argue this “merits a genuine investigation without prejudice.”
When science examines non-material concepts such as this, it is often hindered by skeptics who are unable to set aside their beliefs in the quest for truth, which is perhaps why we have labels like “pseudoscience” draped upon concepts that have gone through rigorous investigation, and shown to be repeatable.
Dr. Sam Parnia, the study’s lead author, states:
We know the brain can’t function when the heart has stopped beating. . . . But in this case conscious awareness appears to have continued for up to three minutes into the period when the heart wasn’t beating, even though the brain typically shuts down within 20-30 seconds after the heart has stopped.
The man described everything that had happened in the room, but importantly, he heard two bleeps from a machine that makes a noise at three-minute intervals. So we could time how long the experienced lasted for.
He seemed very credible and everything that he said had happened to him had actually happened.
He went on to emphasize the significance of these results, since this phenomenon has often been associated with hallucinations or illusions. Yet we now have proof this might not be the case.
Out of the approximate 2,000 cardiac arrest patients, a staggering 330 survived, and 140 of those 330 experienced some type of awareness during the time they were clinically, biologically dead.
According to Live Science, Parnia and his colleagues are continuing on with their investigations into consciousness after death, including observing the brain in detail during the period of cardiac arrest, death, and revival so they can better understand how much oxygen is actually reaching the brain.
Parnia says, “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, because we understand that this is going to reflect the universal experience we’re all going to have when we die.”
The Problem of Consciousness
Fascinating, isn’t it? How could almost half of these patients experience awareness during death if something extraordinary weren’t going on here? There are two possible explanations — either they are experiencing something phenomenal, and consciousness does continue on after death, or the slight brain activity that is going on is creating the experience. The latter is harder to believe, given the fact that if there is any brain activity happening beyond our ability to detect it, it’s minuscule. How could so little brain activity provide such an experience? How do we even know that there is any brain activity at all given the fact that it cannot be measured? Remember, these people were biologically dead.
The first is more believable, particularly if we correlate these findings to others within the realms of neuroscience and quantum physics. When it comes to quantum physics, according to Eugene Wignor, “it was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness.”
Consciousness, according to many within the field, including the founding father of quantum mechanics, Max Planck, is the backbone of physical material matter, in that consciousness is first required for the creation of physical matter, not the other way around. So, if we take a quantum perspective and lay it over the above cardiac arrest study, it suggests that physical matter is not required for consciousness to exist, and this is perhaps what these doctors, patients, and researchers have found.
Dr. Eben Alexander is a Harvard trained brain neurosurgeon who published a book titled “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife.” He once believed that consciousness was a product of our biology, but that all changed when he fell into a coma for seven days that was caused by severe bacterial meningitis, during which time he experienced himself outside of his body.
He explained the problem of consciousness succinctly in a lecture he gave about his experience a few years ago:
There are a lot of scientists around the world who realize that when you start getting into the mystery of consciousness, which in essence is the only thing anyone of us truly knows exists, and trying to see exactly what consciousness is, it’s kind of like asking a fish what it’s like in the water. We are so close to it that there’s no way to really separate it out. I assure you that the only thing you’ve ever really known is your own consciousness.
Here is a video of Dr. Bruce Greyson speaking at a conference held by the UN. He’s a professor emeritus of psychiatry and neurobehavioral science at the University of Virginia. In the video, he describes many instances of individuals who are able to describe things that should have been impossible to describe.
It was also encouraging to hear him mention how this type of study has been discouraged due to our tendency to view science as completely materialistic.
You can read more about that in this article.
The simple fact that “consciousness” itself is a non-physical “thing” is troubling for some scientists to consider, and as a result of it being non-material, they believe it cannot be studied by science. But this isn’t true. Studies like the one above and many more have shown that we can actually measure non-physical phenomenon in several ways.
“Some materialistically inclined scientists and philosophers refuse to acknowledge these phenomena because they are not consistent with their exclusive conception of the world. Rejection of post-materialist investigation of nature or refusal to publish strong science findings supporting a post-materialist framework are antithetical to the true spirit of science inquiry, which is that empirical data must always be adequately dealt with. Data which do not fit favoured theories and beliefs cannot be dismissed as priori. Such dismissal is the realm of ideology, not science.”
– Dr. Gary Schwartz, professor of psychology, medicine, neurology, psychiatry, and surgery at the the University of Arizona
Below is a great lecture from him discussing the anomaly of consciousness, where he explores whether it exists independently of our biology or not.
The newest one comes from a team from New York University’s Lagone School of Medicine. They investigated twin studies from Europe and the United States that looked at people who suffered cardiac arrest, flatlined, and then came back to life. We’re talking about people whose hearts have stopped; once this happens, blood no longer circulates to the brain, which means brain function is also completely dead.
As reported by Live Science, “The brain’s cerebral cortex — the so-called “thinking part” of the brain — also slows down instantly, and flatlines, meaning that no brainwaves are visible on an electric monitor, within 2 to 20 seconds. This initiates a chain reaction of cellular processes that eventually result in the death of brain cells, but that can take hours after the heart has stopped.”
The study, conducted in 2008, was the largest of its kind. It involved 2,060 patients from 15 different hospitals in the United Kingdom, United States, and Austria, and it emphasized the need for more studies of its kind to focus on cardiac arrest when asking these questions, because it is biologically synonymous with death.
The study found, as have several others, that many of these patients were still aware and able to see following their biological death, but from “outside” their body, so to speak.
The portion of the study that focused on UK cases, which was conducted over a four year period by researchers at the University of Southhampton, found that nearly 40% of people who survived described some type of ‘awareness’ during the time they were pronounced clinically dead, before their hearts were restarted.
Time of death is considered when a person has gone into cardiac arrest. This is the cessation of the electrical impulse that drive the heartbeat. As a result, the heart locks up. The moment the heart stops is considered time of death. But does death overtake our mind immediately afterward or does it slowly creep in?
Some scientists have studied near death experiences (NDEs) to try to gain insights into how death overcomes the brain. What they’ve found is remarkable, a surge of electricity enters the brain moments before brain death. One 2013 study out of the University of Michigan, which examined electrical signals inside the heads of rats, found they entered a hyper-alert state just before death.
Scientists are beginning to think an NDE is caused by reduced blood flow, coupled with abnormal electrical behavior inside the brain. So the stereotypical tunnel of white light might derive from a surge in neural activity. Dr. Sam Parnia is the director of critical care and resuscitation research, at NYU Langone School of Medicine, in New York City. He and colleagues are investigating exactly how the brain dies.
In previous work, he’s conducted animal studies looking at the moments before and after death. He’s also investigated near death experiences. “Many times, those who have had such experiences talk about floating around the room and being aware of the medical team working on their body,” Dr. Parnia told Live Science. “They’ll describe watching doctors and nurses working and they’ll describe having awareness of full conversations, of visual things that were going on, that would otherwise not be known to them.”
Medical staff confirm this, he said. So how could those who were technically dead be cognizant of what’s happening around them? Even after our breathing and heartbeat stops, we’re conscious for about 2-20 seconds, Dr. Parnia says. That’s how long the cerebral cortex is thought to last without oxygen. This is the thinking and decision-making part of the brain. It’s also responsible for deciphering the information gathered from our senses.
According to Parnia during this period, “You lose all your brain stem reflexes — your gag reflex, your pupil reflex, all that is gone.” Brain waves from the cerebral cortex soon become undetectable. Even so, it can take hours for our thinking organ to fully shut down.
Usually, when the heart stops beating, someone performs CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). This will provide about 15% of the oxygen needed to perform normal brain function. “If you manage to restart the heart, which is what CPR attempts to do, you’ll gradually start to get the brain functioning again,” Parnia said. “The longer you’re doing CPR, those brain cell death pathways are still happening — they’re just happening at a slightly slower rate.”
Dr. Parnia’s latest, ongoing study looks at large numbers of Europeans and Americans who have experienced cardiac arrest and survived. “In the same way that a group of researchers might be studying the qualitative nature of the human experience of ‘love,'” he said, “we’re trying to understand the exact features that people experience when they go through death, because we understand that this is going to reflect the universal experience we’re all going to have when we die.”
One of the objectives is to observe how the brain acts and reacts during cardiac arrest, through the process of death, and during revival. How much oxygen exactly does it take to reboot the brain? How is the brain affected after revival? Learning where the lines are drawn might improve resuscitation techniques, which could save countless lives per year.
“At the same time, we also study the human mind and consciousness in the context of death,” Parnia said, “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.”