What happens to the body after death? We’ve all heard the stories about how some animals – namely snakes – can still bite after they’ve been decapitated because their brains require less oxygen and thus stay active longer, but what about humans? According to a new study, it may actually take hours for our brains to fully shut down after our hearts stop pumping, which means we are technically dead but may be somewhat aware of what is happening around us.
In studying patients with cardiac arrest both in the United States and Europe, scientists at Stony Brook University of Medicine in New York found that a small percentage of those who were successfully resuscitated after their hearts stopped beating were aware of the room and could remember conversations that the medical teams had around them. Those patients (around 2 percent of the 140 interviewed) shared, in detail, what they remembered even though they were clinically dead. The idea of being trapped in your own dead body for minutes or hours sounds kind of terrifying, but lead researcher Dr. Sam Parnia and his team believe that their study is useful for cardiac arrest research and the prevention of brain damage during resuscitation. “At the same time, we also study the human mind and consciousness in the context of death,” said Parnia, “to understand whether consciousness becomes annihilated or whether it continues after you’ve died for some period of time – and how that relates to what’s happening inside the brain in real time.”
“If you manage to restart the heart, which is what CPR attempts to do, you’ll gradually start to get the brain functioning again,” Parnia explained, adding that even though the cerebral cortex slows and eventually stops, the cells are still living and active. “The longer you’re doing CPR, those brain cell death pathways are still happening – they’re just happening at a slightly slower rate.” Parnia also noted that the experience of dying and being brought back to life changes people, but not the kind of changes you often see in zombie movies or other popular culture. “What tends to happen is that people who’ve had these very profound experiences may come back positively transformed. They become more altruistic, more engaged with helping others. They find a new meaning to life having had an encounter with death.”