Consciousness after death

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By Corey Samuel
@CoreyCorals
Mar 21, 2015,  1:01 AM

Does the human brain retain some sort of consciousness after the body has died and the brain has shut down? The AWARE study done by researchers from the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom says yes.

Studies have shown that it might be possible for the brain to retain some sort of consciousness for a short amount of time after the body and the brain has been proven clinically dead. Sam Parnia, a doctor at Stony Brook University Hospital and leader of the Human Conscious Project’s AWARE study, said “The evidence we have so far is that human consciousness does not become annihilated [after death]…. It continues for a few hours after death, albeit in a hibernated state we cannot see from the outside.”

AWARE studied 2060 people from 25 various hospitals across the United Kingdom, United States, and Austria, who had undergone cardiac arrest to test their hypothesis. Cardiac arrest patients were used as an area of study as cardiac arrest, or the stopping of the heart, is considered “synonymous with death.” Out of these 2060 people, 46% felt some level of awareness in the time after they were pronounced clinically dead. Detailed interviews were conducted with 330 of the patients who had memories of the event, 9% of whom explained a scenario which resembles a near death experience event, and 2% of patients recalled an out of body experience.

A near death experience (NDE) can occur when a person is in a life-threatening medical situation; theymay perceive vivid illusions or hallucinations, and strong emotions. These visions can be about past events, or a sense of what is occurring around their persons at that point in time. It is described by Olaf Blanke and Sebastian Dieguezin Leaving Body and Life Behind: Out-of-Body and Near-Death Experience as “…any conscious perceptual experience which takes place during… an event in which a person could very easily die or be killed […] but nonetheless survives….”

An out of body experience (OBE), is described by Blanke and Dieguez as when a person’s perception lies outside of their physical body. It is often reported that they see their body from an elevated extracorporeal position. It is believed that consciousness after death is an extension of near death experiences and out of body experiences.

There is plenty of scepticism around the subject of consciousness after death. There has to be sufficient evidence to back up the patient’s recall of events. As with any good scientific research, the more evidence you have support your theory, the more plausible it is. The results of the AWARE studyhave not only shown that is possible for people to have some level of consciousness after their body has died. It has also shown that the brain can stay alive and function to some degree for longer than what was previously believed.

Conditions of Consciousness

Due to the nature of the evidence inNDE and OBE research, it is hard to pinpoint the exact reason or cause of these conscious events. Clinical death is defined as when a person’s heart and/or lungs have stopped working, a process once believed to be irreversible. But through the advancements of medical science, we now know this is not the case. Death is defined as the end of a living thing’s life or the permanent ending of a body’s vital processes in its cell or tissue. For a person to be legally dead there has to be zero activity in the brain. To determine whether or not a person is still conscious after death depends on your definition of death.

Most clinical deaths are still based on the lack of a heartbeat or the lungs not functioning, although the use of an electroencephalogram (EEG), which measures brain activity, is becoming more and more used in the health industry. This is done as a legal requirement in some countries, and also because it gives doctors a better indication of the patient’s status. As a research standpoint for consciousness after death, the use of an EEG serves as an indicator of what the brain is going through at the time of cardiac arrest, since it is hard to tell what is happening to the brain at that time. We do know that there is a spike in brain activity during a heart attack. This could be due to the body sending a “distress signal” to the brain, or due to drugs that are administered to patients during resuscitation.

It is possible that the brain is still functioning on lower levels that the EEG cannot detect. The poor spatial resolution of an EEG means that it is only proficient at detecting superficial electronic pulses in the brain. Other, more internal, brainwaves could be hard or impossible for current EEG technology to detect.

Augmentation of Consciousness

There are different possibilities behind why people have near death or out of body experiences, and if a person’s brain can still remain some sort of consciousness after it has died. The AWARE study found that consciousness remains in a “hibernated state” after the brain has died. How the brain does this without any impulses or any ability to store memories is not yet known, and scientists cannot find an explanation for it. However some scientists believe that there might be an explanation not all people having near death or out of body experiences.

Sam Parnia thinks, “A higher proportion of people may have vivid death experiences, but do not recall them due to the effects of brain injury or sedative drugs on memory circuits.” Consequently it is for the same reason some believe that the experiences are a memory the brain implants on itself. This could either be a stimulation in the brain or a coping mechanism that the brain goes uses to deal with the stress of almost dying.

Cardiac arrest patients are given multiple drugs when they are administered to a hospital. Drugs that act assedatives orstimulants, which can affect the brain. This is combined with high levels of adrenaline, the lack of oxygen the brain is receiving, and the general stress of a heart attack. This can affect what a person experiences and what they can remember about the time of cardiac arrest. It is also possible that these drugs keep the brain alive in a lower state that would be hard to detect.

Due to a lack of neurological data around the time of death, it is hard to tell if the brain really was dead. If loss of consciousness was not diagnosed independently of a neurological examination, which is understandably difficult and not a priority, you cannot definitively say that the brain is dead. Gaultiero Piccinini and Sonya Bahar, from the Department of Physics and Astronomy and Centre for Neurodynamics at the University of Missouri stated “If mental functions take place within neural structures, mental functions cannot survive brain death.”

 

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It is possible that the brain retains some level of consciousness after the body has died, but how the brain could do this is not yet known. From patient accounts we know that some people do have near death or out of body experiences. However these conditions could be altered or induced by the condition of the brain, what the brain is going through at the time of cardiac arrest, or by drugs that are given to the patient. This all depends on whether or not the brain is physiologicallydead. Neurologists argue that once the brain has died it loses all functionality. But with our current knowledge of the brain it is hard to definitively state exactly when brain death occurs.

It is possible that there are some lower level brain functions that maintain some degree of consciousness after death. With our advancements in technology and ability to heal, we are bound to discover things we couldn’t see or understand before. Even what we considered to be death 50 years ago has changed from the heart and lungs not functioning to the addition of zero brain activity. In the future it is possible that our definition of what is it to be dead will change again. Since we can now restart the heart and the lungs with more success then we could in the past, maybe in the future we will be able to restart the brain as well.

Public Release Date: 
2015
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