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Can Science Discover What Happens When We Die?

Although the question of what happens to the human mind and consciousness during death, as well as the relationship between the human mind and brain has traditionally been considered a matter for philosophical debate, in recent years these subjects have entered the realms of scientific study- a field of research that could potentially scientifically answer one of the oldest questions facing humankind - what happens when we die.

 Currently, the main method available for an objective and scientific study is to understand what happens to the human brain, mind and consciousness during 'clinical' death. Specifically, this means to study the human mind and brain during cardiac arrest - a clinical state in which all the clinical criteria of death are met - a person stops breathing, has no heartbeat and the brain stops functioning. This condition is an ideal and effective clinical state for the study of death. This is because from a biological standpoint cardiac arrest is the same as clinical death. It is the final step that everyone goes through during death. Whenever someone dies, irrespective of what has caused them to die, such as a heart attack, a severe infection, a fatal road traffic accident, cancer etc., their heart stops beating, they stop breathing, and the brain stops functioning. This is what happens during cardiac arrest, which is simply a medical term for clinical death and is used whenever doctors and hospital staff try to reverse the process of death by attempting to restart the heart. If the heart can be restarted then the process of clinical death may be reversed. 

Due to the successes in modern medical science and technology, doctors can now revive approximately 10-15% of those who clinically die and are resuscitated. The reversal of death may take just a few seconds (in some cases) but in most cases can take tens of minutes or even over an hour. So in effect what people experience during those minutes or hour provides a unique window of understanding into what happens to the human mind and consciousness during death. Currently some scientists are interested in understanding whether the human mind and consciousness may continue to function and exist or is it terminated?

 Since more and more people are being revived and brought back from a state of clinical death, there have been very interesting and unusual experiences recalled by many of them. In fact it is well known that for many years cardiac arrest survivors have reported experiencing certain unusual features during their cardiac arrest, which includes feeling peaceful, seeing a bright light, a tunnel and a state of heightened consciousness and awareness, as well as the ability to recall events from their period of cardiac arrest.

Although the cause and significance of these experiences is not yet fully understood, at least five recent independent scientific studies carried out respectively in the UK, Holland and the USA, have confirmed these reports. These studies have indicated that approximately 10-20% of cardiac arrest survivors report continuation of consciousness, as demonstrated by lucid, well structured, thought processes together with reasoning and memory formation, as well as claims of veridical perception (being able to 'see' and recall specific details from their cardiac arrest, which have also sometimes been confirmed by resuscitation staff). The features of the recalled experiences are compatible with the previously described 'near death experience'.

  The occurrence of heightened consciousness and awareness during cardiac arrest (activity of the mind) has significant implications, and has also raised the possibility that the mind and consciousness may continue functioning during clinical death. This is a highly significant yet paradoxical observation as numerous studies in humans and animals have shown that during a cardiac arrest and resuscitation by hospital staff brain function ceases.

 In view of these findings, the occurrence of such experiences raises the possibility that mind or consciousness may continue to function during clinical death even though the brain has stopped functioning. This phenomenon has yet to be investigated extensively however if proven through large scale studies will have significant implications for all of humankind.

 So far, there have been a number of small studies published on this subject in different highly respected scientific journals, including Resuscitation and The Lancet, but today we have the means and the technology to conduct the largest and most comprehensive study of this subject to date. Find information in The Research Zone.


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