What Happens When We Die?

Spirituality — POSTED BY David Luke on December 27, 2009 at 5:38 pm

near-deathDoes evidence from the reports of near death experiences suggest that the human mind, or soul, is separate from and irreducible to the human body? If the answer is yes, then what consequences does this have for our understanding of reality, science, and religion?

The Human Consciousness Project is an international consortium of multidisciplinary scientists and physicians who have joined forces to research the nature of consciousness and its relationship with the brain, as well as the neuronal processes that mediate and correspond to different facets of consciousness. The Human Consciousness Project will conduct the world’s first large-scale scientific study of what happens when we die and the relationship between mind and brain during clinical death. The diverse expertise of the team ranges from cardiac arrest, near-death experiences, and neuroscience to neuroimaging, critical care, emergency medicine, immunology, molecular biology, mental health, and psychiatry.

The mystery of what happens when we die and the nature of the human mind has fascinated humankind from antiquity to the present day. Although traditionally considered a matter for philosophical debate, advancements in modern science and in particular the science of resuscitation have now enabled an objective, scientific approach to seek answers to these compelling questions, which bear widespread implications not only for science, but also for all of humanity.

while studies of the brain during cardiac arrest have consistently shown that there is no brain activity during this period, these individuals have reported detailed perceptions that appear to indicate the presence of a high-level of consciousness in the absence of measurable brain activity

Since the 1950s and 60s, marked improvements in resuscitation techniques have led to higher survival rates for patients experiencing cardiac arrest. Although many studies have focused on prevention and acute medical treatment of cardiac arrest, relatively few have sought to examine cognitive functioning and the state of the human mind both during and subsequent to cardiac arrest. The in-depth study of such patients, however, could serve as the most intriguing facet of cardiopulmonary resuscitation and may lead to significant progress in improving medical care while effectively addressing the mind-brain problem.

Today, most scientists have adopted a traditionally monist view of the mind-brain problem, arguing that the human mind, consciousness, and self are no more than by-products of electrochemical activity within the brain, notwithstanding the lack of any scientific evidence or even a plausible biological explanation as to how the brain would lead to the development of mind and consciousness.

This has led some prominent researchers, such as the late Nobel-winning neuroscientist Sir John Eccles, to propose a dualist view of the problem, arguing that the human mind and consciousness may in fact constitute a separate, undiscovered entity apart from the brain.

Contrary to popular perception, death is not a specific moment, but a well-defined process. From a biological viewpoint, cardiac arrest is synonymous with clinical death. During a cardiac arrest, all three criteria of clinical death are present: the heart stops beating, the lungs stop working, and the brain ceases functioning. Subsequently, there is a period of time—which may last from a few seconds up to an hour or longer—in which emergency medical efforts may succeed in resuscitating the heart and reversing the dying process. The experiences that individuals undergo during this period of cardiac arrest provide a unique window of understanding into what we are all likely to experience during the dying process.

In recent years, a number of scientific studies conducted by independent researchers have found that as many as 10-20 percent of individuals who undergo cardiac arrest report lucid, well-structured thought processes, reasoning, memories, and sometimes detailed recall of their cardiac arrest. What makes these experiences remarkable is that while studies of the brain during cardiac arrest have consistently shown that there is no brain activity during this period, these individuals have reported detailed perceptions that appear to indicate the presence of a high-level of consciousness in the absence of measurable brain activity. These studies appear to suggest that the human mind and consciousness may in fact function at a time when the clinical criteria of death are fully present and the brain has ceased functioning.

If these smaller studies can be replicated and verified through the definitive, large-scale studies of the Human Consciousness Project, they may not only revolutionize the medical care of critically ill patients and the scientific study of the mind and brain, but may also bear profound universal implications for our social understanding of death and the dying process.

The AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation) study is the first launched by the Human Consciousness Project and is led by Dr. Sam Parnia, a world-renowned expert on the study of the human mind and consciousness during clinical death, together with Dr Peter Fenwick and Professors Stephen Holgate and Robert Peveler of the University of Southampton. The team will be working in collaboration with more than 25 major medical centers throughout Europe, Canada, and the United States. During the AWARE study, physicians will use the latest technologies to study the brain and consciousness during cardiac arrest. At the same time, they will also be testing the validity of out of body experiences and claims of being able to see and hear during cardiac arrest through the use of randomly generated hidden images that are not visible unless viewed from specific vantage points above.

The AWARE study will be complemented by the BRAIN-1 (Brain Resuscitation Advancement International Network – 1) study, in which researchers will conduct a variety of physiological tests in cardiac arrest patients, as well as cerebral monitoring techniques that aim to identify methods to improve the medical and psychological care of patients who undergo cardiac arrest. The studies are being funded by the UK Resuscitation Council, the Horizon Research Foundation, and the Nour Foundation in the United States.

Brainwavers, what do you think of this study and its possible consequences? Can the mind really be separated from the body and thereby undermine the monist foundations of traditional physics – that only thing in existence in the universe is matter in some form or another?

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  • Merrily McCarthy says:

    Our state of awareness may be relative to what we feed into our consious systems…;the more we know and understand…the higher our levels of perception become and the more aware we become…we are limited by our own biological systems…since the external systems of the universe are far more vast than the networks of ones own biological contraints, perhaps when we leave our bodies we merely return to the sea of consciousness..again a part of the system of the universe.

    If electrical transmissions travel through the brain as thoughts and images, then overflow externally so that other humans recieve the transmissions…”and this does occur”…these light and sound waves carry our social communications and our human information…if we stand on the apex of a mountain top and communicate with the cosmos, pulling into our sensory input…the electrical waves we recieve at the moment…then we are connecting to a cosmic consicousness…that is also generated by all in the universe…human as well as from nature…humans are part of the nature. All of this has to be a cycle. Conciousness has to be part of the cycle, not stopping with one individual human, but a flow of continuious reproducing energy, that moves from or through matter to matter and to the unseen and the seen. Conciousness ebbs and flows throughout the entire universe in a ceaseless never ending cycle. Humans try to define it by referrring to it as Death, in the manner that we identify with our bodies to the point where our development connects to an ego that refuses to acknowledge our own lack of self importance on the social level. This sense of self importance keeps us grounded and helps to protect our living bodies..however it does not necessarily help us to fully realize our spiritual potential and the potential of our constant birthing universe.

  • David Luke says:

    For those of you in/near London, Dr Sam Parnia will be a giving a free public lecture at Goldsmiths College on Tuesday 23rd March, 2010

    Speaker: Dr Sam Parnia
    Title: Near Death Experiences During Cardiac Arrest

    6.10pm in Room 256, Richard Hoggart Building, Goldsmiths, University of London, New Cross, London SE14 6NW – FREE!

    One of the subjects that has both captivated and eluded humankind throughout time is the mystery of what happens when we die. Although traditionally a subject for philosophical or theological debate, scientific progress has begun to shed light on both the physiological as well as cognitive processes such as near death experiences that take place during clinical death. Dr. Sam Parnia, author of What Happens When We Die, chronicles the history and development of the study of cardiac arrest as well as near death experiences. At the same time, he will introduce the novel method he and his colleagues have devised to study the phenomenon of consciousness and the human mind at the end of life, which they hope will finally enable science to resolve the mystery of near death experiences.

    One of the world’s leading experts on the scientific study of death, the state of the human mind-brain, and near-death experiences, Dr. Sam Parnia spends his time between hospitals in the United Kingdom and Cornell University in New York, where he is a Fellow in Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine. Founder of the Human Consciousness Project and Horizon Research Foundation, he has published extensively and presented his work at scientific institutions across the country. His groundbreaking research has been featured on the Discovery Channel documentary, The Day I Died.

  • pauljdoyle says:

    I hope the scientists maintain an objective view on this research and put equal effort into finding all neuro/chemical actions in the brain that explain the full gamut of human experiences, including a near death experience.

  • shankari says:

    Addendum to my previous post: Since my experience was so amazing and undeniable, the ability of one to sustain consciousness without the body is, for me, a NO BRAINER. he he

  • shankari says:

    One does not need to die or almost die to have a ND experience. I had one in high school in 1964 before I ever used any psychedelics or marijuana. (I only tried those things briefly in college but preferred to meditate instead so I stopped any drug involvement)

    I was lying on my back on the kitchen floor talking with my mother who was behind me at the kitchen table and I described to her my preoccupation with not being able to see myself – my whole body – except in a mirror.

    Suddenly it was as if my eyeballs, or my point of vision, moved backward through my head and came out the back of my head. I could see my physical body from behind (I would have had to be UNDER the floor to do that) for a brief moment.
    But then, almost instantly, my consciousness expanded outward in all directions and I had an experience of “omniscience”. I “KNEW’ everything there was to know in the universe. At least that’s what it seemed like.

    I got a little scared and was instantly returned to inside my physical body. It was an amazing experience that I will never forget which has made me unafraid to die and in fact, I am looking forward to the inevitable transition with curiosity.
    Thank you.

    Cory Herter – creator of Sacred G(eometry) has much information about his numerous OOB experiences which he refers to as NDEs. coryherter.com

  • shrimp says:

    Thankfully I’ve never had a near-death experience myself, but I applaud both of the commentators above for making public their experiences, and would love to hear more if they were inclined…

    I am also very interested in the idea that DMT, or some relative, is released in the brain during the death experience. Surely this is significant in our understanding of this most spiritual of experiences? The light in the tunnel, which so many people testify to, certainly corresponds with many accounts of intentionally induced DMT experiences.

    Related to this idea is the article by Mike Jay – http://www.brainwaving.com/2009/12/15/enter-the-jaguar/ – which records how DMT has been found to have been a major part of the culture discovered in the ancient Chavin Ruins – perhaps their understanding of death and consciousness surpassed ours today?

  • alchemistoxford says:

    Applause for David Luke for writing this status report on cutting edge scientific research into the properties of consciousness via investigations into the death experience. Clearly, this research is crucial – and long overdue. On numerous occasions during bioassay of several different types of psychedelic drugs, I experienced the death sequence vividly described in many ancient sources from Egyptian funerary texts to the present day. In my estimation, there is no scientific research as important or as valid as the investigation of the phenomena of consciousness and mind – and the death sequence lies at the crux of this vital exploration. One important project is to provide context for the new research by compiling an analytical anthology of death experience literature – a massive archive that could require volumes or terabytes.

  • Roy says:

    As someone who has had a full blown death experience, I feel the study would indeed benefit all of humanity. There has to be a reason so many ancient cultures focused on the death and resurrection phenomena.

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