What Really Happens as We Die?
Near-death experiences suggest the brain keeps going after the heart stops, and death is not so absolute
People who’ve been to the brink of death and back often describe an inexplicable state of heightened consciousness and awareness involving similar mental flashbacks and out-of-body experiences. While science can’t explain what’s going on or why, it’s become clear that the brain can remain active longer after the heart stops than previously thought, and death is not quite as final as once assumed.
There’s no agreed-upon scientific definition for near-death experiences, or NDEs. Studying them clinically is rather difficult, as you might imagine, so much of what’s known or presumed is based on people’s recollections of their NDEs — the stories they tell afterward. People often describe seeing bright lights or tunnels and feeling at peace. But in some cases, they recall being scared.
A comprehensive new review of studies on the topic — by 18 physicians, neuroscientists, psychologists and other researchers — does not advance the understanding greatly, but it offers a consensus view of what is known about what happens when we die, and when someone is really dead.
“Death is not an absolute state,” says study team member Sam Parnia, MD, director of critical care and resuscitation research at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. “Rather, it’s a process that could potentially be reversed in some people even after it has started… brain cells do not become irreversibly damaged within minutes of oxygen deprivation when the heart stops. Instead, they ‘die’ over hours of time.”
The typical narrative arc
In the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Parnia and colleagues conclude that near-death experiences are consistently described as following a narrative arc that goes something like this:
Separation from the body with a heightened, vast sense of consciousness and recognition of death
Travel to a destination
Meaningful and purposeful review of life, involving a critical analysis of all actions, intentions and thoughts towards others
Perception of being in a place that…