Based on what people who've had near-death experiences, scientists have tried to decipher what happens to our minds.
We’ve all heard the story of people remaining conscious seconds after being beheaded, right? All this started at the very time when beheading was the top execution method during the French Revolution when the guillotine was invented. People who witnessed these events were convinced that after the blade chopped the head, their eyes still moved as if they were conscious of what’s just happened to them. This theory remained a fact until the early twentieth century when a French physician by the name of Dr. Gabriel Beaurieux wrote a whole study after witnessing the beheading of a criminal, ensuring that his eyes still presented movement for some seconds afterward. Now, modern studies have suggested that more than being a matter of them being still conscious this is due to the body's natural reflexes. Yet, understanding what happens to our brain after death continues to captivate scientists who wish to unveil this mystery.
To start with, we must mention the fact that it is really impossible to study this formally since we can’t really know what a person experiences when dying until that time comes to us. For that matter, those who study this phenomenon have had to focus on people who have come back from the brink of death, in other words, those who have experienced near-death experiences. Just as the tale of the beheading, the idea of one seeing a light at the end of the tunnel has been taken by many religions as the light guiding us to our afterlife. Now, many who have had near-death experiences claim to have seen this light which has interested many scientists of why this happens and what it means. Is the brain still awake and conscious when we’re shutting down or does that mean that even when our bodies are dying our soul still exists as these religions claim?
I'm more inclined to believe the first option since it offers more logic to me. However, studies claim that the idea of our soul exiting our body, leaving aside the religious implications, could be explained in scientific terms. According to a study made by neurologist Dr. Cameron Shaw, when we die our brain stays awake for about thirty seconds that can be divided into 10-sec lapses each. During the first two lapses, we lose our most primal brain features like the sense of self, humor, and our ability to think consciously. It is during this lapse where we could actually see these phenomena like out-of-body experiences or seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. During the last ten seconds of our brain’s life, is when we lose our human functions or what differs us from other species, like our conscious memories or our language knowledge since it’s when the oxygen levels start to shut drastically. Now, what does this imply? That yes, there’s a time lapse after our body dies that our brain is still functioning, but is it consciousness what we experience?
According to a study conducted by Dr. Jimo Borjigin, our brain still remains conscious for some seconds after we die. In an experiment that one could consider extremely horrible and basically criminal, she connected electrodes directly to the brains of nine lab rats. Once these were working properly she would induce them into cardiac arrest to see the brain activity prior, during, and after. According to her, the brain activity shown in the studies were higher than expected after the rodents were actually declared dead. She claims that this would explain all these near-death experiences happening in a “brief state of heightened consciousness.” Now, of course, this hasn’t been attempted on humans (thankfully) so there’s no way to know if we actually work in the same way neurologically speaking.
This experiment has brought the attention of many scientists, some who agree with her and some who believe that this doesn't prove anything at all. That’s the case of Sam Parnia, a cardiologist at Stony Brook University Hospital, who listed several points shattering Borjigin’s theory. To start with, he claims that when we die, our blood flow decreases meaning that the brain doesn’t really get the oxygen and blood needed to function in a conscious way. At the same time, there’s a massive influx of calcium inside the brain cells (which actually leads to brain death). This process can be seen and read in electroencephalographic analysis which could explain the brain activity Borjigin saw (not to mention that according to Parnia she connected the electrodes almost directly to the brain which also shows higher patterns). For Parnia this is way more logical and would explain why all nine rats had similar brain patterns when only about a 20 percent of people who survive cardiac arrest or other near-death experiences, claim to have seen any of the phenomena associated to this state of consciousness.
But what happens with these experiences and how could these be related to the brain activity after we die? If we follow Shaw’s study of these thirty-second lapses of brain life after the body dies, these out-of-body experiences could be explained with the fact that our brain creates images around our lives that are quite similar to reality (something like what we experience when dreaming about places we’ve never been to but that are quite realistic). In that way, it’s not that hard to suppose that when we’re dead we might actually see ourselves in that situation as spectators. As for the light at the end of the tunnel, it has a more ground-based explanation. According to a study made by the Hadassah University of Jerusalem, when we have a considerable loss of blood in the brain, thus oxygen, it’s common to experience tunnel vision that’s followed, almost immediately, by a sudden blackness. That light people claim to see are those last images before the brain blacks out. But, if you ask me, all these would seem that if people remember experiencing these is because their brain is still conscious.
The thing with these studies is that they’re all based either on animals like Borjigin’s study or on people who didn’t actually die, which is very important to bear in mind. One of the theories is that since their bodies haven’t shut down completely there’s still blood going to the brain in contrast with people who have actually died. Moreover, as we mentioned before, it’s very unlikely to have a consistent and decisive answer to the question of the implications of studying this thoroughly would represent a huge ethical dilemma. Yet, it’s something that still attracts and captivates many and most likely will be something worth studying through other means.
For other cool facts, take a look at these:
Images by @lacabezaenlasnubes