There have been a number of theories – some based on religious principles, some on philosophical ones – about what happens to our “souls” when we die.
Many people of various religious faiths, for example, believe there is a “heaven” or another pleasant afterlife for those who have led good, virtuous and moral lives on Earth.
But scientists have largely rejected such claims, mostly because science relies principally on documentable and replicable proof. Now, when it comes to human consciousness after the body dies, that’s a different thing altogether.
With that in mind, a group of researchers at Southampton University in the United Kingdom recently conducted the largest-ever study about what happens to consciousness after death. The team has concluded that, while it is not known why or how, there nonetheless appears to be some consciousness and awareness for some time after physical death has occurred. That suggests consciousness and the body are intertwined in some fashion, but they may travel down a separate non-physiological path after what humans describe as death.
The research was lead by Dr. Sam Parnia, and the study has been published in the medical journal Resuscitation. The study involved more than 2,000 people who had suffered a cardiac arrest in the UK, United States and Austria.
‘The evidence suggests consciousness is not annihilated’
The largest study of its kind to date, researchers applied rigorous methodology in order to weed out all cases that could have been based on individual impressions that might have been worthy but that nonetheless held no scientific interest.
The results found that 40 percent of persons who survived a cardiac arrest were aware during the time they were clinically dead and before their hearts started beating once more.
“The evidence thus far suggests that in the first few minutes after death, consciousness is not annihilated. Whether it fades away afterwards, we do not know, but right after death, consciousness is not lost,” Parnia said.
“We know the brain can’t function when the heart has stopped beating,” he continued. “But in this case conscious awareness appears to have continued for up to three minutes into the period when the heart wasn’t beating, even though the brain typically shuts down within 20-30 seconds after the heart has stopped.
“This is significant, since it has often been assumed that experiences in relation to death are likely hallucinations or illusions, occurring either before the heart stops or after the heart has been successfully restarted,” Parnia further noted. “But not an experience corresponding with ‘real’ events when the heart isn’t beating. Furthermore, the detailed recollections of visual awareness in this case were consistent with verified events.”
“Potentially reversible process”
Parnia said that, in all, a total of 2,060 cardiac arrest patients were studied. Out of those patients, 330 survived, and of that number, 140 said they had been partly aware during their time of resuscitation.
“[T]hirty-nine per cent… described a perception of awareness, but did not have any explicit memory of events,” he said, suggesting that “more people may have mental activity initially but then lose their memories, either due to the effects of brain injury or sedative drugs on memory recall.”
“One in five said they had felt an unusual sense of peacefulness while nearly one third said time had slowed down or speeded [sic] up,” the researcher continued, as quoted by Bioethics.Georgetown.edu. “Some recalled seeing a bright light; a golden flash or the sun shining. Others recounted feelings of fear or drowning or being dragged through deep water. 13 per cent said they had felt separated from their bodies and the same number said their sense[s] had been heightened.”
In the end, Parnia said he believes that, “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.”