everyday sciencepopular science

yes, but, what’s really going on in your brain when you die?

From folktales to pop culture to science — we’ve heard that when a person dies, their lives flash before their eyes, their most memorable memories replay and even out-of-body experience happens — just like Frank had in Shameless finale — sensing they’re looking at themselves from elsewhere in the room.

This is my Roman Empire — what happens with our consciousness and brain when the heart stops beating? The binary concept of life and death is ancient and outdated — your life doesn’t really end with your heart calling it quits.

Death has historically been medically defined as the moment when the heart irreversibly stops beating, recent studies have suggested brain activity in many animals and humans can continue for seconds, minutes, and even hours.

A few months ago, a study mapping the brain activity of four people while they were dying, showed a burst of electric activity in their brains after their hearts stopped.

All of the four people were in comas and on life support with almost zero chance of survival.

The authors say the finding, published in March 2023 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, may explain how a person’s brain could replay conscious memories — like lucid dreaming — minutes to hours after the heart has stopped.

The electroencephalography caps placed on patients’ heads continually monitored the electrical signals moving across the surface of each patient’s brain: before and after physicians removed their ventilators, during each patient’s last measurable heartbeat, and up until all brain activity had ceased.

Seconds after their ventilators were removed, two of the patients’ brains suddenly lit up with a burst of neuronal activity in high-frequency patterns called gamma waves that continued as the heart stopped beating.

Other studies have found the same pattern when a healthy person is actively recalling a memory, learning, or dreaming, and some neuroscientists have linked these oscillations with consciousness.

Also, increased electrical activity in a brain region called the temporal-parietal-occipital junction could be connected with the altered state of consciousness, religion, orgasms, seizures, and out-of-body hallucinations.

Jimo Borjigin, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Molecular & Integrative Physiology and the Department of Neurology at the University of Michigan, who led the study, thinks the burst of brain activity is part of a survival mode that the brain is known to enter once it is deprived of oxygen.

Studies of animals undergoing brain death have found that the organ begins to release numerous signaling molecules and creates unusual brainwave patterns to try to resuscitate itself, even as it shuts down external signs of consciousness. “It shuts the door to the outside world and takes care of internal business because the house is on fire,” she says.

So, I guess, live the life worth replaying in the end or some other cliché yet truthful bullshit we say.

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