Last year, a bizarre experiment showed that human brains can be restored to a life-like electrochemical state after death, raising questions about what exactly constitutes life, consciousness, and whether or not there is a ‘soul’. Now, a recent publication by a team of Canadian doctors has shown that significant brain activity can continue long after patients are declared “dead,” adding mystery to the search for the exact moment consciousness ends during death.
According to their published study, doctors in a Canadian intensive care unit observed cardiac and brain function in four terminally ill patients in the moments just before and after clinical death was declared. All four patients showed vastly different electroencephalographic (EEG) activity, or brain waves, in the moments before and after death, indicating that death might be experienced differently by each individual.
To add mystery to these findings, the researchers found that in one patient, delta brain wave bursts were observed for up to ten minutes after clinical death. These are the same type of brain waves produced by the brain while dreaming in deep sleep. According to their published data, the researchers are at a loss to explain the physiological source of these waves:
In one patient, single delta wave bursts persisted following the cessation of both the cardiac rhythm and arterial blood pressure (ABP). It is difficult to posit a physiological basis for this EEG activity given that it occurs after a prolonged loss of circulation.
The researchers are careful to note that this study has a very small sample size and many variables such as the types of medications each patient was taking could affect their data; thus, it’s too early to draw conclusions about consciousness after death. Nevertheless, this study represents headway in a relatively new and little-understood field of study known as necroneuroscience, or the study of the brain during and after death.
This area of research is gaining traction in both medical fields and popular culture, as demonstrated by one of the plotlines of the recent Netflix sensation The OA. As scientists learn more about our brains and what makes us tick, death has become one of the final frontiers of neuroscience. It’s still quite a mystery just what happens to our consciousnesses just before, after, and during death.