Mysteries of death

April 7, 2024

Mysteries of death

Dear All,


 recent article by Alex Blasdel in The Guardian (Long Reads) sheds light on new research and trends in what he terms ‘the science of death.’

Death is the only certainty in human life, yet it is also the only real unknown: it is the final frontier and nobody has ever really come back from it to tell us in detail what happens to you when you actually die. Death is powerful because it is such an unknown. Death is what the main religions of the world are predicated upon: the belief in an afterlife gives a sense of purpose to life. Religion uses the afterlife to create moral boundaries and control human excess. It tells us that those who do good deeds will be rewarded in the afterlife and those who do not will be punished. Heaven and hell are powerful concepts of an afterlife and are used by religions to set moral standards and maintain public order.

Death has always been a human pre-occupation: we have centuries of myths and histories telling us how people have explained it and prepared for it. But much about it remains unexplained. When one’s vital organs cease to function what happens to what we term ‘the spirit?’ And what actually goes on in the brain?

The spirit is difficult to track or study but what happens in the brain at death is now being studied with a great deal of interest.

Blasdel’s piece begins with the case of Patient One in 2014, a case which is central to the sort of scientific research being done into death these days. The patient was a 24-year old pregnant woman who had collapsed at her home, been unconscious for more than 10 minutes and whose heart had stopped. Paramedics took her first to one hospital which could not treat her and then to the emergency department at the University of Michigan. There they managed to restart her heart and put her on a ventilator and pacemaker and she was “transferred to the neuro-intensive care unit where doctors monitored her brain activity.” What they witnessed took them by surprise.

After she had been in a ‘deep coma’ for three days, her family decided that it was best to take her off life support but “it was at that point – after her oxygen was turned off and nurses pulled the breathing tube from her mouth that Patient One became one of the most intriguing scientific subjects in recent history.” As life support was removed there was a surge of activity within her brain, “areas that had been silent while she was on life support suddenly thrummed with high-frequency electrical signals called gamma waves. In particular, the parts of the brain that scientists consider a ‘hot zone’ for consciousness became dramatically alive. In one section, the signals remained detectable for more than six minutes. In another, they were 11 to 12 times higher than they had been before Patient One’s ventilator was removed.”

Mysteries of death

It was observed that during this burst of activity “areas of her brain associated with processing conscious experience – areas that are active when we move through the waking world and when we have vivid dreams – were communicating with those involved in memory formation. So were parts of the brain associated with empathy. Even as she slipped irrevocably deeper into death, something that looked astonishingly like life was taking place over several minutes in Patient One’s brain.” Blasden points out that this was astonishing because up until then, the predominant belief was that neurological activity falls as soon as oxygen stops going to the brain. Also astonishing was how the patterns of recorded brain activity corresponded to the accounts people have given of near-death experience: Professor Borgijin noted that “it’s likely that Patient One had a profound near-death experience with many of its major features: out-of-body sensations, visions of light, feelings of joy or serenity and moral re-evaluations of one’s life.”

Previously, the thinking was that brain activity will cease with cardiac arrest – when the heart flatlines then so does the brain – but researchers like Borgijin are now finding that it is not that simple. And because modern medicine is able to bring so many people back even after cardiac arrest, there seem to be indications that the brain does not just switch off but perhaps goes into the near-death mode that Patient One’s brain was observed to do. Hence, the accounts of patients who have survived cardiac arrest – like a colleague of mine who after surviving a major heart attack and coming back to life after cardiac arrest said he did remember experiencing a sensation of great lightness, of moving through a sort of a tunnel lit by a bright and comforting light.

Anecdotal accounts of this sort of experiences have been around for centuries but what is happening now in research is exciting because it is evidence-based as it looks at brain activity in moments of death or near-death. Among the various questions raised by the findings is that of consciousness. When does consciousness cease, is it separate from the brain and what its source or driver?

Blasdel’s article is a fascinating examination of both the research into “the new science of death” and the history of how human beings have, in recent times, been trying to understand and explain death and near-death experiences. It raises a number of questions and looks at the implications of this research on trying to resurrect the brain even after it seems to have switched off.

Best wishes.

Umber Khairi

Mysteries of death