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Okay, so what actually happens to our minds after we die?

A recent research project concluded that the human brain is conscious of death after it’s happened – we delve into what we know and don’t know about the other side

What do the brains of the dying tell us about death? Quite a lot, as it turns out. The mystery of death – or, more specifically, what lies beyond it – remains uncertain, but a series of recent studies shed light on consciousness after we kick it, indicating that we might know we’re dead after we die.

Over a period of four years, Dr Sam Parnia, an expert on cardiopulmonary resuscitation and near-death experiences, has led a study of 2,060 cardiac arrests across 15 hospitals worldwide. Published in Resuscitation Journal, the AWARE study reveals common threads between their subjects’ near-death experiences. The largest study of its kind ever conducted, it reveals that 39 per cent of the patients who survived cardiac arrest described a feeling of awareness of the event. This suggests that far more people maintain mental activity during near-death experiences (NDEs) than previously thought, though they frequently lose memories afterwards due to brain injury, use of sedatives and PTSD. 46 per cent recalled feelings unlike conventionally described NDEs, including sensations of fear, violence or persecution, or of being near animals and plants.

In likely the study’s most unsettling detail, a further 2 per cent reported that they were fully aware during their own resuscitation, which took place after they were declared clinically dead. Their accounts were verified by medical professionals present when they were brought back from death, and found to be accurate.

It’s worth clarifying here how medical professionals talk about death. ‘Clinical death’ occurs when your heart, circulation and breathing stop. ‘Biological death’ occurs four to six minutes later, when your brain cells die and you can no longer be resuscitated. Death is a process, not a single moment where it all goes dark. Even before clinical death there is the drawn-out phase known as ‘active dying’ when the brain starts to shut the body down, preparing for the end.

Parnia discussed his study in an interview with RT America last week, explaining that the brain might even take several hours to shut down completely and that, in the period after breathing and the heartbeat ceased, scientists were able to detect ‘bursts’ of activity in the brain, suggesting an awareness of one’s own death as it happens. ‘Conscious’ patients did not experience physical pain; rather, they reported a sense of detachment from their bodies. Parnia said “What it seems to say is that the human consciousness, that thing that makes us who we are – our self – does not become annihilated when we’ve gone beyond the biological threshold of death.”

Parnia’s work is geared toward perfecting methods of resuscitation, limiting brain damage to those who come back from the edge. But the more mystical implications of his work have led other scientists to question it, placing him “on the brink of pseudoscience”. However, his findings correspond with previous studies: the surge of electricity found in the brains of rats after their hearts have stopped, along with increased activity of the visual cortex (a 2013 study at the University of Michigan), or the identification of common ‘near-death phenomena’ including a feeling of peacefulness, the presence of the spirits of the dead and the appearance of a bright light (a study by the University of Liege, Belgium, published earlier this year).

‘NDE’ research is rarely without controversy, stemming perhaps from how it is difficult to survey those who have lived through them in the first place. Those who survive NDEs usually suffer PTSD, which impacts upon memory, alongside the effects of sedative drugs. One would expect the scientists studying NDEs, meanwhile, to lean toward skepticism, but this isn’t always the case. The term ‘near-death experience’ itself is a relatively young one, coined in 1975 by Raymond Moody in his book Life after Life. While he is a qualified MD with a PhD in psychology, Moody himself advocates a range of unconventional methods for interrogating mortality, including past-life regression therapy and communication with the spirit world using the Dr John Dee Theatre of the Mind, a ‘psychomanteum’ built in homage to ancient Greek theatres of necromancy.

In more recent times, the NDE has become a canvas for interpretation and practise both sacred and profane. In the west, Jesus sometimes features in near-death experiences, while in India it’s Yamaraj, Hindu god of death and ‘ruler of the departed’ (this has led researchers to explore the question of whether NDEs are culturally conditioned). There are others who map their near-death experiences clearly onto religious beliefs, or for whom the experience becomes a religious conversion. There are those unfortunate cases of people who say they went to hell.

Branching into new age and psychedelic spirituality, there are others still who study the similarities between near-death experiences and hallucinations on DMT, including encounters with supernatural beings and the sensation of being outside one’s body. Research also suggest that the closer we draw towards death, the more at peace with it we become.

Psychologist Kenneth Ring, meanwhile, studied common traits displayed by those who experience near-death experiences and discovered effects akin to those in the Kiefer Sutherland and Julia Roberts-starring film Flatliners (albeit, several years before the 1990 film was released). Concluding that the after-effects of a brush with death were largely positive, he noted an increase in altruism, a lack of materialism, a selflessness and a love of being alive: “Death vanishes for them. There's only life… They're profoundly appreciative of being alive. They've got a greater sense of self-worth and care more deeply for others and are able to give love more freely”.

Today research into NDEs continues apace. The original AWARE project ran between 2008 and 2012 and was expanded to a second study which finished earlier this year, but Parnia has announced that it will now continue till 2020.

Flatliners seems to warn, as all horror films do, against knowing too much about the world beyond the living. Like the teenagers who play with a Ouija board, or the couple to break into a haunted house, the young scientists in the film are cast as hubristic for wanting to cheat death, to understand it better. “Philosophy failed. Religion failed,” they shout. “Now it's up to the physical sciences.”

But to interrogate life after death, even with the most meticulous methods, remains inherently philosophical as a mission. For all the adherence to formal academic practise, those studying it tiptoe around that most unscientific of things: the possibility of the soul.