One of life’s enduring mysteries is the question of what happens when we die. Thanks to a team of researchers led by Dr. Sam Parnia, the director of critical care and resuscitation research at NYU’s Langone School of Medicine, we may be one step closer to finding out.
In the largest study of its kind, Parnia’s team assessed patients who had been declared dead due to cardiac arrest, but were later revived.
The results were shocking. A significant percentage of participants recalled being aware of their surroundings during the time they were technically dead. In fact, 39% of people studied described being aware of their surroundings, with a smaller percentage even describing what was said and done in the time they were dead.
Hospital staff attending to them at the time later corroborated their testimonies.
In an interview with the Independent, Parnia explained that death is usually declared once the brain is dead.
“Technically, that’s how you get the time of death – it’s all based on the moment when the heart stops. Once that happens, blood no longer circulates to the brain, which means brain function halts almost instantaneously. You lose all your brain stem reflexes – your gag reflex, your pupil reflex, all that is gone,” Parnia said.
Evidence suggests, however, that the brain has a burst of electrical activity as you die.
Researchers studying rats experiencing cardiac arrest at the University of Michigan noted a “hyper-alerted state” once the rats experienced clinical death.
Jason Braithwaithe, a professor at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom spoke to the BBC about this phenomenon.
“This is a very neat demonstration of an idea that’s been around for a long time,” Braithwaite said.“That under certain unfamiliar and confusing circumstances — like near-death — the brain becomes overstimulated and hyperexcited. Like ‘fire raging through the brain’, activity can surge through brain areas involved in conscious experience, furnishing all resultant perceptions with realer-than-real feelings and emotions.”
This burst of electrical activity may be the reason behind people’s near death experiences.
In an interview with the BBC, the lead behind the study, Michigan State professor, Dr. Jimo Borjin, explained, “This can give us a framework to begin to explain these [near death experiences]. The fact [that people] see light perhaps indicates the visual cortex in the brain is highly activated – and we have evidence to suggest this might be the case, because we have seen increased gamma in area of the brain that is right on top of the visual cortex.”
So those visions people have during near death experiences may not be false after all.
While all this is exciting, researchers have long known that the body’s cells die off at different rates.
Your muscles, for instance, may spend up to twelve hours dying, and they twitch as they do, leading to muscle spasms which can scare the living daylights out of laypeople. Skin cells may take DAYS dying out, and your hair and nails?
Well, that’s where it gets complicated.
People think your hair and nails grow after death, but in reality, your skin begins losing moisture due to lack of blood flow. As the skin shrinks, more and more of the nail bed and hair follicle are revealed, leading to the misconception that both are still growing.
Don’t you just love science?