That ominous specter of death. The one certainty in life that we are all careening towards. But how much do we really understand about death? Medically death is defined as the moment the heart stops beating and cuts off blood to the brain. Within seconds after heart failure the brain’s cerebral cortex — the “thinking part” of the brain — slows down instantly and flatlines (meaning no brainwaves are visible on an electric monitor). This initiates a chain reaction of cellular processes that eventually results in the death of brain cells; as a result the brain’s functions also stop and can no longer keep the body alive. The big question is after the heart stops beating, and both heart and brain activity flatlines, how quickly does cognition or awareness fade? A relatively recent study suggests that consciousness continues even after death.
In 2014 a multidisciplinary team conducted a study which included more than 2,000 persons who suffered cardiac arrest and were successfully resuscitated, in 15 hospitals in the United Kingdom, United States and Austria. The results revealed that 40% of those who survived were aware during the time that they were clinically dead and before their hearts were restarted. Many participants described details from conversations between doctors and nurses working around them that were subsequently verified by medical staff who were present at the time. This evidence suggests that in the first few minutes after death consciousness is not annihilated, as originally thought.
I’ll admit, this is freaky and adds another layer of weird complexity to the black-box that is death. Death is already going to suck, but results from this study suggest that your last thoughts might be an awareness that your saga is over and you’ve actually died! I can’t think of a worse set of final thoughts. But I suppose it does lend you the final opportunity to compose the most amazing monologue about the end of your life… not that you’ll ever be able to share it. 😉
But seriously, these findings are a big step forward in human understanding of death, and the possibilities for cognition after death. Moving forward it’s important to develop more accurate methods of monitoring the brain during clinical death, assessing how resuscitation efforts slow the death of brain cell pathways, and resolving what this could mean for people who are eventually resuscitated. These results have wide-spread importance as death, and perhaps sustained consciousness immediately after death, is something we all may experience.
To read more about this story you can find the published study in the journal Resuscitation, or read more on this topic with the popular book Erasing Death: The Science That Is Rewriting the Boundaries Between Life and Death.