For millennia, humanity has pondered what happens after we die. Before any notions of an afterlife come into play, though, there’s the question of what we experience at the very point of death. And according to one scientist, we may actually be fully aware that we’re no longer alive. The theory goes that our brains don’t shut off once we’re dead – or, at least, not immediately.
If the scientist’s theory rings true, then it raises all sorts of potential implications and questions. Is it just your brain that’s working? Or can you still see and hear things – even if you don’t have motor control? But even if you can’t, the very prospect of being aware of your death sounds quite distressing.
And if you do still have hold of your senses, it might be even more stressful. For instance, you could hear a doctor pronounce you dead if you’re in hospital. It’s hard to imagine the thoughts that might race around your mind in that moment, knowing there’s literally nothing you can do to change your circumstances.
Before you get too distraught about the thought, though, remember that it’s just a theory. And while nobody really knows for sure, people have all sorts of ideas about what happens after we die. Many religions have presented various schools of thought to which their followers subscribe, for example. However, these differ not just on where we go, but also on which part of us leaves.
Indeed, some religions posit that only part of an individual’s consciousness carries on beyond death. Others, meanwhile, suggest it’s their entire soul or “spirit.” Generally, though, most theistic views of the afterlife split into two camps: the journey of the consciousness into a spiritual plane or reincarnation into the physical world.
Abrahamic religions such as Christianity or Islam, for instance, teach the concept of heaven and hell. Generally, followers of these religions believe that the soul will live on for eternity in one of these places after death. Just where you end up, however, is tied directly to how you’ve lived your life on Earth.
In fact, that system is a common thread between most modern religions. Major Indian religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism believe in reincarnation, for example, where the soul lives on in a new biological form. But the precise nature of this form is thought to hinge on the concept of karma, again taking into account your actions in your life.
In this way, many religious teachings on life after death involve some kind of reward or punishment. Atheists, on the other hand, believe that there is literally nothing after death. For example, the late physicist Stephen Hawking told The Guardian in 2011, “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers.”
Outside of religion and other beliefs, there are the anecdotal stories of those who’ve “died” – or been pronounced clinically dead – and regained consciousness. In a 2017 Reddit thread, several users who’d endured that experience described seeing curious phenomena, such as lights and stars. Others, however, wrote that they saw and felt absolutely nothing in those moments where their hearts stopped.
Another, meanwhile, described an altogether different experience. “What appeared to be a single light resolved into first one, then several, then millions upon millions of stars,” wrote Reddit user mysterious_baker. “As I approached the centre, it seemed like I was joining a universal consciousness – a being made up of the thoughts, emotions and experience of everyone and everything that had ever lived.”
Now, though, one scientist has come up with another theory. Dr. Sam Parnia is an assistant professor of medicine at New York City’s highest ranking public medical school, the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University. And he suggests that people in the earliest stages of death might, in fact, still experience some form of consciousness.
Parnia hails from the U.K., where he graduated from London’s Guys and St. Thomas’ Medical School in 1995. He then earned his PhD in cell biology in 2007 at the University of Southampton, where he still holds the title of honorary research fellow. Most of his focus since has been on cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and near-death episodes.
In 2010 Parnia finished up training in pulmonary and critical care medicine, which he’d undertaken between New York City’s Weill Cornell Medical College and the University of London. He is also a trustee on the Horizon Research Foundation – an organization that was set up in 1987 to finance research into near-death experiences.
Much of Parnia’s research, then, has been in these arenas of critical care – in particular, cardiac arrest resuscitation. For instance, he advocates for the use of automated resuscitation methods, including by machines. And he claims that people who die from a loss of blood or heart attacks can actually be revived as long as a day after death.
The primary focus of Parnia’s work, however, has been in brain injuries that stem from cardiac arrests. Through his work, he hopes to reduce the number of long-term injuries and patients being left in vegetative conditions. And Parnia’s research is concerned with – among other things – the methods that are used to get oxygen to the brain during cardiac arrests.
Nevertheless, that is far from the only area in which Parnia is interested. The scientist has also looked into the notion of consciousness in patients who are experiencing cardiac arrest. And it’s this avenue that has led him to his theory that the brain may actually keep working after a person dies.
Parnia has conducted several studies over his career that examine the consciousness of cardiac arrest sufferers. For example, in 2001 he published a study that had spent a year looking into the claims of survivors of cardiac arrests. Of the 63 interviewees, seven could remember being unconscious and four fit the bill for near-death experiences.
Then, in 2013 Parnia put out a book titled Reversing Death. In the book, he posited the question of what happens to the “soul” – a person’s self, character and memories – in the time between death and resuscitation. He also argued that the methods he employs for CPR might be capable of saving as many as 40,000 lives every year in the United States.
Meanwhile, Parnia highlighted the need to keep blood oxygen levels high during a cardiac arrest. This is already happening in Japan, where a technique called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) is used to stop oxygen levels dropping below 45 percent. At this point, you see, there is zero chance of the heart starting again, according to Parnia’s studies.
In fact, there have apparently been cases where people have been resuscitated hours after dying. In Parnia’s book, he references the case of a particular female from Japan. “She had been dead for more than three hours,” he told The Guardian in 2013. “And she was resuscitated for six hours. Afterwards, she returned to life perfectly fine and has, I have been told, recently had a baby.”
Parnia’s methods are apparently backed up by his results. After all, patients reportedly had a 33 percent chance of being revived from death at the Stony Brook University Hospital in 2012, where Parnia was head of intensive care. That’s a roughly 17 percent higher chance than the average American hospital, according to figures published in The Guardian in 2013.
That survival rate falls in line with Parnia’s own approach to cardiac arrests. “It is my belief that anyone who dies of a cause that is reversible should not really die any more,” he told The Guardian in 2013. “That is, every heart attack victim should no longer die… If you can manage the process of death properly, then you go in, take out the clot [and] put a stent in, the heart will function in most cases.”
Then, in 2014, Parnia published the results of another study into cardiac arrest cases. In the wake of this four-year global study, he concluded that “near-death experience” is actually far too limiting a term. “Contrary to perception, death is not a specific moment but a potentially reversible process that occurs after any severe illness or accident causes the heart, lungs and brain to cease functioning,” he said in a press release.
At the time, the so-called AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation) study was the largest ever conducted into near-death experiences. Its sample consisted of 2,060 patients across 15 hospitals in Austria, the U.S. and the U.K. And it was also the first instance of researchers had attempted to validate claims of consciousness or out-of-body experiences.
The results of the study were published in a journal called Resuscitation in October 2014. Of the several claims the study made, one was that patients experienced consciousness that may have corresponded with events that really happened. “This is significant, since it has often been assumed that experiences in relation to death are likely hallucinations or illusions,” Parnia said.
In fact, one patient reportedly experienced consciousness up to three minutes after their heart stopped beating. “This is paradoxical, since the brain typically ceases functioning within 20-30 seconds of the heart stopping and doesn’t resume again until the heart has been restarted,” Parnia continued.
Nevertheless, Parnia admitted that such a low incidence rate meant that the claims couldn’t be proven conclusively. But they also couldn’t be disproven. This meant – in Parnia’s eyes – that the phenomenon of near-death experiences merits “further genuine investigation without prejudice,” as he wrote in the study’s report.
According to Parnia, the definition of brain activity after death is tied to the very moment the heart stops. When no blood is circulating to the brain, you see, it stops functioning practically right away. As Parnia told Live Science in 2017, “You lose all your brain stem reflexes – your gag reflex, your pupil reflex – all that is gone.”
Performing CPR resumes the blood flow to the brain, but it’s only a tiny proportion of what’s needed. That’s because, according to Parnia, you’re only sending around 15 percent of the normal amount of blood to the brain. So while CPR is useful for slowing down the rate at which brain cells die, it’s not reversing the effect altogether.
Drawing on his extensive research, Parnia told Live Science that patients have given anecdotal evidence of consciousness after their hearts have stopped. “They’ll describe watching doctors and nurses working,” he said. “They’ll describe having awareness of full conversations [and] of visual things that were going on that would otherwise not be known to them.”
Reportedly, medical staff who were present at the time that those anecdotes were given were able to verify them. And perhaps unsurprisingly, they were shocked to learn that their patients, who’d technically been dead, had been able to recall specific details. It’s those anecdotes that provide the basis for Parnia’s claims.
If your brain does keep working beyond the point of death, though, don’t look to Hollywood for the answers. After all, movies such as Flatliners suggest that resuscitation can enhance normal brain activity. In the original 1990 movie, the characters experience visions while “flatlining.” And in the 2017 remake, the five medical students who pursue near-death experiences have newfound mental capacities.
However, Parnia told Live Science that “there isn’t like a sudden magical enhancement of their memories. That’s just Hollywood jazz.” What a near-death experience often does provide, though, is a new outlook on life, according to Parnia. “What tends to happen is that people who’ve had these very profound experiences may come back positively transformed,” he said.
Other scientists have contended with Parnia’s research. For instance, Mike McRae, who is a science writer at Skeptic magazine, argued in 2014, “While Parnia’s work contributes valuable data to understanding near-death experiences as a cultural phenomenon, his speculations do indeed sit on the brink of pseudoscience.”
Back in 2003, meanwhile, neurologist Michael O’Brien poked holes in another element of Parnia’s research. In a BBC documentary, Parnia claimed that the mind and brain were independent concepts. O’Brien disagreed with this approach, suggesting that there’s more likely to be a physical reason for near-death episodes.
In that same documentary, psychologist Susan Blackmore also voiced her views that physical explanations are more convincing than Parnia’s theories. She claimed, for instance, that near-death experiences are “recollections of what happens as consciousness is lost or as it is regained, but not while unconscious.”
By 2013, of all the people Parnia had spoken to in his intensive care unit, around half claimed to have clear memories of the time when they were dead. “It seems that when consciousness shuts down in death, psyche or soul – by which I don’t mean ghosts [but] your individual self – persists for a least those hours before you are resuscitated,” he concluded to The Guardian.
In the same interview, Parnia also stated that he doesn’t have a religious angle on his studies. However, he argued that almost every avenue of life that used to be explained by religion is now explained through science. “One of the last things to be looked at in this way is the question of what happens when we die,” he said. “This science of resuscitation allows us to look at that for the first time.”
At the moment, Parnia is working on a follow-up to the 2014 study titled “AWARE II.” It’s predicted to conclude in 2020. And much like its predecessor, the research’s aim is to examine hundreds of cardiac arrest sufferers across various locations. This time, though, the tests are using a tablet to show images to patients being revived to understand more closely whether they’re experiencing consciousness.
Despite Parnia’s extensive research, however, it seems that there’s still no way to say for sure what happens when we die. Nevertheless, his theory that the brain continues to function offers another possibility. And it’s one that, when coupled with his other work, Parnia hopes will lead to improved resuscitation rates worldwide.