Wellness

Ugh. When you die your brain KNOWS you're dead.

Studying the wakeful death experience.

Studying the wakeful death experience.

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

In a face-melting bit of science, a massive study has confirmed that we retain consciousness in death for an unspecified amount of time. How conscious will your brain be? Enough that you'll likely hear medical staff "call it" should you expire in hospital. Actually. Go ahead and add bone-chilling to face-melting then have a good shudder. I'll wait.

The study, simply called AWARE (short for AWAreness during REsuscitation), is the largest of its kind. It looked at 2060 survivors of cardiac arrest, closely examining those who were pronounced dead by all medical measures only to be brought back to life.   

Dr. Sam Parnia, director of research in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and assistant professor at the Stony Brook University School of Medicine, lead his team to interview 140 fatal flatliners (after they got their hearts pumping again). The data collected was, scientifically speaking, creepy.

Even after all signs of bodily life as we recognize them had stopped, the brain stayed "aware". Of the subjects interviewed, some recounted exactly what was going on around them after being pronounced dead: medical professionals on staff at the time of death gave full corroboration of post mortem goings on in the room. Science hasn't unpacked precisely how this happens but reanimated patients "described awareness with explicit recall of 'seeing' and 'hearing' actual events related to their resuscitation."

Unsurprisingly, heart patients who have suffered serious cardiac events or even flatlined only to be resuscitated often come back with PTSD. Largely because they remember things like defibrillator zaps and staff scurrying about to bring them back from the brink, or beyond it.   

Parnia's ongoing research centers around both critical cardiac care and NDEs (near death experiences). He's also the director of the Human Consciousness Project at the University of Southampton and wrote a book called What Happens When We Die. I'll save you a chapter: one of the things that happens is we know we're dead.   

Some solace (though precious little) can be taken in the low numbers who reported the wakeful death experience: only 2% exhibit full awareness. But an impressive 46% shared post-resuscitation memories that touched on seven recurring themes: "fear; animals/plants; bright light; violence/persecution; deja-vu; family; and recalling events post-CA." But at least 9% described textbook NDEs. The most common description? Floating above one's body towards a bright light while remaining softly tethered by a fragile, spectral string. Fun fact: Parnia has been known to hide images around ER trauma rooms that can only be seen from the ceiling.

For Parnia, cardiac patients serve his ongoing research because "technically, that's how you get the time of death – it's all based on the moment when the heart stops". He says, "once that happens, blood no longer circulates to the brain, which means brain function halts almost instantaneously. You lose all your brain stem reflexes – your gag reflex, your pupil reflex, all that is gone." Except, it seems, for awareness. Parnia is clear that his research "supports other recent studies that have indicated consciousness may be present despite clinically undetectable consciousness."  

By default, the scientific search for evidence of a soul also gets wrapped up in Parnia's data. Although, if post-mortem brain activity provides irrefutable proof of our spiritual essence, rodents may have souls too. A study of neurological bustling in dead rats could suggest they all go to heaven. I'll take it.

Still, Parnia says something documentable is going on, in dead humans at least, that we just don't grasp yet. "What tends to happen is that people who've had these very profound experiences may come back positively transformed — they become more altruistic, more engaged with helping others. They find a new meaning to life having had an encounter with death."

Ultimately, Parnia and his team are "trying to understand the exact features that people experience when they go through death, because we understand that this is going to reflect the universal experience we're all going to have when we die." The field may lead to concrete data that would allow us all to meet our quietus in peace. Go science.

As Parnia puts it, "consciousness is not annihilated" in death. Okay. So, it's marginally less creepy that you have the presence of mind to acknowledge your own demise if you cling to the nice floaty stuff.  Unless, of course, you're one of the 46% who experience "violence" and "fear" when your ticker ticks its last.