What Happens To Our Consciousness After We Die?

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

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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

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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 Survive

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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?

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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. 

And What Is The Medical Definition Of Death?

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Medically, expiration occurs when the heart stops circulating blood. When the heart stops pumping blood to the rest of the body, the brain ceases to function. The lack of blood circulation causes the body’s temperature to drop and also causes breathing to cease. Without the blood flow of oxygen to the brain, the organ begins the process of dying along with the rest of the body.

If the brain is the control center for life, the heart is the core component that feeds the brain to keep it operating. When the heart stops pumping blood and breathing stops, clinical death has occurred.

The New Evidence That Proves Consciousness After Passing

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Dr. Sam Parnia, director of critical care and resuscitation research at NYU Langone School of Medicine in New York City, and his team recently advanced the concept that we know we’re gone after we’ve passed. Dr. Parnia’s team explains that they agree with the traditional notion that death occurs when the brain stops receiving blood from the heart. So, the team of doctors and researchers reviewed cardiac arrest patients. The results of their research revealed that the brain expires slower than the heart.

Even after we’re clinically gone, we’re aware of our surroundings – and of our recent demise.

Patients Describe Watching Doctors And Nurses Attempt To Resuscitate Them

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Dr. Parnia and his team discovered that there is a burst of energy to the brain after we pass. His team found that cardiac arrest patients who were revived were able to recall specific conversations about their resuscitation, as well as their surroundings after the heart stopped functioning. While this is similar to near-death experiences, it’s not the same.

Dr. Parnia’s team examined clinical passings and considered the energy output of the brain. The stories that accompany the research only serve to bolster their findings, but it’s the imaging and scientific research that monitors brain activity post-mortem that has everyone so interested, and, well, concerned.

How Is Continued Consciousness Possible?

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After passing, the brain’s functions stop working because it lacks the needed blood and oxygen. This causes the brain’s cerebral cortex, or “thinking part” of the brain, to slow and then flatline. When a brain flatlines, there are no brainwaves visible on an electronic monitor within 2 to 20 seconds.

However, expiring in a medical sense doesn’t mean that the consciousness part of the brains ceases to function immediately. Instead, it only suggests that brain waves aren’t registering. Other studies, like the one carried out by Dr. Parnia and his team, have suggested that consciousness after death is similar to the consciousness experienced while sleeping.

Did The Patients Actually Pass, Or Is The Study Being Too Technical?

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Dr. Parnia and his team aren’t suggesting anything about the after-life. In fact, he admits that much more research is needed. Instead, the research is significant only in that when the heart stops, people usually can’t get resuscitated, so continued brain function after this experience tells us more about the process and the brain’s almost independent demise from the rest of the body. The study tells us more about our societal concept of passing when compared to the medical community’s definition.

In the simplest of terms, our brains are still alive after the rest of our body has expired. While it’s not exactly what people want to glean from Dr. Parnia’s research, it’s still considered an interesting look at the process because researchers don’t know how long the phenomenon lasts.

What Are The Scientific Implications Of Continued Consciousness? 

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The implication of Dr. Parnia’s study comes down to the idea that if you know you’re gone, you’re not really gone. We like to associate life with an interactive exchange between ourselves and our environments. However, if we continue to be aware, even though we can’t interact, that means we haven’t fully passed.

The idea of living after the medical definition of passing is more significant for Dr. Parnia’s team of researchers at the critical care and resuscitation center at NYU. While we lose reflexes after the traditional expiratory stamp, the continued function of consciousness could be medically significant to Dr. Parnia’s efforts to understand and improve resuscitation.

What Can This Tell Us About The Meaning Of Consciousness?

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When scientists, neuroscientists, and philosophers attempt to define consciousness, a precise definition seems so unattainable. However, Dr. Parnia’s study reveals something very physical – and less metaphysical – about consciousness. In a number of cases, patients can recall specific conversations that occurred even after medical professionals couldn’t electronically track brain function. This suggests that consciousness results from brain function that’s almost independent of the traditional brain activity medical professionals can track:

Conscious awareness appears to have continued for up to three minutes into the period when the heart wasn’t beating, even though the brain typically shuts down within 20-30 seconds after the heart has stopped.

The idea that consciousness arrives physically, but seems independent from other brain functions, could leave scientific and philosophical communities chewing on the implications and arguing about its significance more than ever.

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