Quite by chance, last September the world witnessed the launch of two intriguing scientific studies that, while worlds apart in their respective approaches, are united by the potential to answer two of the most fundamental questions that have baffled humankind since the beginning of time. Those questions are: what is the origin of life as we know it today, and what happens when we die?
Both the Hadron collider launched by the European Organization for Nuclear Research, and the AWARE study launched by the University of Southampton are novel and audacious scientific endeavors that may fundamentally alter the way we understand and think of ourselves. While the former aims to study what happened during the first few moments after existence began, the latter explores what happens after existence and human life as we have come to know ceases.
Although traditionally perceived as a subject for philosophical or theological debate, recent advances in medicine have enabled a scientific approach to answering the age-old question of what happens when we die.
Contrary to popular perception, biologically speaking, there is no ‘moment’ that defines ‘death’. In fact, death is a process that begins when the heart stops beating, the lungs stop, and as a consequence within a few seconds the brain ceases functioning and enters into a ‘flatline’ state. From this point on, oxygen deprivation leads brain cells into a ‘panic’ state before they incur substantial damage and ultimately die over a period of minutes to hours.
While scientific studies have explored the minute by minute biological and cellular changes that take place after the heart stops and humans enter the biological state of death (also known as a cardiac arrest), very few studies have explored what happens to the human mind and consciousness after death begins.
A fascinating scientific question that arises is: at what point during this process of clinical death does the human mind and consciousness cease its activity? Does activity of the mind and consciousness cease at the moment the heart stops beating, or is it a few seconds, minutes, or even hours after the process of death has initially begun? Furthermore, what is the relationship between the mind and the brain during the state of clinical death?
Undoubtedly, this is a question that while remaining unanswered by science today, has universal appeal for all of humanity, irrespective of race, colour or creed. Furthermore, it is also a question that interestingly many people believe they may have an answer to, whether from religious beliefs, philosophical teachings or simply from personal conclusions derived from life experiences. Whatever the source of these opinions, for many this subject is highly emotive. Others consider this a subject that cannot or should not be explored by science.
Last September these and other fascinating issues were addressed at a symposium held at the United Nations titled: “Beyond the Mind- Body Problem: New Paradigms in the Science of Consciousness.” Sponsored by the United Nations Department of Social and Economic Affairs, the Nour Foundation, a US public charitable and nongovernmental organization with special consultative status to the United Nations, and the University of Montreal, the symposium also served as the backdrop for the launch of the AWARE study, the world’s largest ever scientific study of what happens when we die.
This study which is being conducted through a multidisciplinary collaboration of leading physicians across 25 major European and U.S medical centers uses a combination of sophisticated brain-monitoring techniques, (the INVOS System) to study the brain while also employing an innovative method to study the mind and consciousness during clinical death.
Although many independent studies have shown that the brain reaches a ‘flatline’ state during clinical death, it has consistently been shown that paradoxically 10-20% of people who are revived back to life report some activity of the mind and consciousness in the form of lucid, well-structured thought processes with reasoning and memory formation as well as the ability to ‘see’ and ‘hear’ actual events, These observations have raised the intriguing yet controversial possibility that the mind and consciousness may continue functioning after we have reached the point of death and the brain has shut down.
During AWARE, investigators will place images strategically in hospital bays, such that they will only be visible by looking down from the ceiling and nowhere else. If after 36 months, hundreds of patients report being “out of body” yet no one can report seeing the images, then we must consider these reports to be nothing more than illusions. If on the other hand there are hundreds of positive reports, then we will have to redefine our understanding of the mind and brain during clinical death.
For now though, only time will tell what the Hadron collider and the AWARE study will possibly reveal about our beginnings and our inevitable end.
About the author:
Dr Sam Parnia MD, PhD – One of the world’s leading experts on the scientific study of death, the state of the human mind- brain, and near-death experiences, Dr. Parnia currently divides his time between hospitals in the United Kingdom and Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York, where he is a Fellow in Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine. He is the founder and director of the Human Consciousness ProjectSM at the University of Southampton through which he leads the AWARE study. Dr Parnia is also the author of numerous scientific articles as well as the popular science book What Happens When We Die.