The new science of death: ‘There’s something happening in the brain that makes no sense’

The new science of death: ‘There’s something happening in the brain that makes no sense’

Alex Blasdel writes:

At the time [Jimo] Borjigin [a professor of neurology at the University of Michigan] began her research into Patient One, the scientific understanding of death had reached an impasse. Since the 1960s, advances in resuscitation had helped to revive thousands of people who might otherwise have died. About 10% or 20% of those people brought with them stories of near-death experiences in which they felt their souls or selves departing from their bodies. A handful of those patients even claimed to witness, from above, doctors’ attempts to resuscitate them. According to several international surveys and studies, one in 10 people claims to have had a near-death experience involving cardiac arrest, or a similar experience in circumstances where they may have come close to death. That’s roughly 800 million souls worldwide who may have dipped a toe in the afterlife.

As remarkable as these near-death experiences sounded, they were consistent enough that some scientists began to believe there was truth to them: maybe people really did have minds or souls that existed separately from their living bodies. In the 1970s, a small network of cardiologists, psychiatrists, medical sociologists and social psychologists in North America and Europe began investigating whether near-death experiences proved that dying is not the end of being, and that consciousness can exist independently of the brain. The field of near-death studies was born.

Over the next 30 years, researchers collected thousands of case reports of people who had had near-death experiences. Meanwhile, new technologies and techniques were helping doctors revive more and more people who, in earlier periods of history, would have almost certainly been permanently deceased. “We are now at the point where we have both the tools and the means to scientifically answer the age-old question: What happens when we die?” wrote Sam Parnia, an accomplished resuscitation specialist and one of the world’s leading experts on near-death experiences, in 2006. Parnia himself was devising an international study to test whether patients could have conscious awareness even after they were found clinically dead.

But by 2015, experiments such as Parnia’s had yielded ambiguous results, and the field of near-death studies was not much closer to understanding death than it had been when it was founded four decades earlier. That’s when Borjigin, together with several colleagues, took the first close look at the record of electrical activity in the brain of Patient One after she was taken off life support. What they discovered – in results reported for the first time last year – was almost entirely unexpected, and has the potential to rewrite our understanding of death.

“I believe what we found is only the tip of a vast iceberg,” Borjigin told me. “What’s still beneath the surface is a full account of how dying actually takes place. Because there’s something happening in there, in the brain, that makes no sense.” [Continue reading…]

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