Recent scientific studies reveal that we might know we're dead after we die. Our consciousness and awareness linger on after our heart stops pumping blood to our brains. The implications of such a finding are not only shocking but re-define consciousness in a philosophical way - and death in a medical and scientific sense. The findings come on the heels of scientific studies that followed patients who were resuscitated after their hearts stopped pumping and were considered clinically deceased. The patients were able to recall the specific actions of doctors and nurses bringing them back to life.
The idea that we are aware of our own passing after it happens can be unsettling for many. It's like being trapped in a coffin while you're still alive. Our other functions stop, and our brains can no longer voluntarily control our actions. Nonetheless, perhaps one of the most defining characteristics of being alive still lingers - and that's our ability to perceive our being. Only, we actually perceive the onset of our non-being because the brain still works after our bodies have gone. It's a lot to think about, isn't it?
The Great Debate Around Near-Death Experiences
The experience of being close to passing but being brought back to life has caused much debate in recent science. Many people who have experienced such a moment have described not only a transcendental sensation of floating and a reunion with deceased family but also a degree of cognitive awareness. Science has traditionally explained this near-death phenomenon as a physical experience that coincides with a brain that's fading. It's the neurochemical response to a brain deprived of blood and oxygen.
Nonetheless, science has continued to dig for better answers, as countless numbers of these experiences seem remarkably similar.
Our Bodies Shut Down Gradually, Not All At Once
Speaking to Newsweek, Dr. Sam Parnia went into detail about what transpires at a cellular level. He stated that the cells in our bodies don't automatically shut down following our passing, but rather they gradually move towards a "death" of their own:
I’m not saying the brain still works, or any part of you still works once you've died. But the cells don't instantly switch from alive to dead. Actually, the cells are much more resilient to the heart stopping - to the person dying - than we used to understand.
And as it turns out, our cells are not only gradually shutting down, it's possible they're multiplying, according to Peter Noble, a microbiology professor at the University of Washington. When conducting research on both mice and zebrafish, he found that cells were actually growing in number following the subjects' passing:
We didn't anticipate that [...] Can you imagine, 24 hours after [time of death] you take a sample and the transcripts of the genes are actually increasing in abundance? That was a surprise.
This gradual shutdown could certainly help to validate the claim that we're somewhat conscious following our own demise.
Scientists Suggest That Consciousness Might SurvivePhoto: William Simpson/One of the wards in the hospital at Scutari / via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0
Researchers in New York recently moved closer to answering the question of what happens after we die - at least, in the immediate sense. The team of researchers found that while the heart stops, the brain continues to function slightly. Specifically, the part of the brain that keeps functioning post-mortem is the part which is responsible for consciousness.
This finding is significant in that we get to experience our final moments objectively, even though we can't interact or function otherwise.
But What Is Consciousness?Photo: Socrates in Thomas Stanley History of Philosophy (circa 1655) / via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Consciousness, in the simplest definition, is awareness. However, the neuroscience behind awareness is not well understood - at least not as well understood as neuroscientists would like. The human brain has billions of interacting neurons that process information.
The heart pumps blood to the rest of the body, including the brain, so that it can function. When our human brain absorbs and computes information that we take in, some scientists believe this is the phenomenon of consciousness.