By Dr. Sam Parnia
updated Sept. 28, 2009
Editor's note: Dr. Sam Parnia is a fellow in pulmonary and critical care medicine at Weill Cornell Medical Center and author of "What Happens When We Die." He is founder of the AWARE (Awareness During Resuscitation) study to discover whether "out-of-body experiences" really happen and, if so, how resuscitation practices can be improved so that more people can be revived after being clinically dead.
Quite by chance, last year witnessed the launch of two intriguing scientific studies that, while worlds apart in their respective approaches, are united by the potential to answer two of the most fundamental questions that have baffled humankind since the beginning of time: What is the origin of life as we know it today, and what happens to us when life comes to an end?
Both the Hadron collider launched by the European Organization for Nuclear Research, and the AWARE project launched by a multidisciplinary group of scientists and physicians on both sides of the Atlantic are novel and audacious scientific endeavors that may fundamentally alter the way we understand and think of ourselves. While the former aims to study what happened during the first few moments after existence began, the latter explores what happens after existence and human life as we know it ceases to be.
For many years colleagues and I have worked to establish a scientific method to study the elusive question of what happens when we die. Although a highly emotive subject that has traditionally been perceived as a subject for philosophical or theological debate, recent advances in medicine have finally enabled a scientific approach to answering this age-old question.
A process, not a moment
Contrary to popular perception, we now understand that biologically speaking, there is no "moment" that defines "death." In fact, death is a process that begins when the heart stops beating and the lungs stop breathing, and as a consequence, within a few seconds the brain ceases functioning and enters into a "flatline" state. From this point on, oxygen deprivation leads brain cells into a "panic" state before they incur substantial damage and ultimately die over a period of minutes to hours.
A fascinating question that arises, then, is this: At what point during this process of cell death do we die? When exactly does the human mind and consciousness cease its activity? Is it at the moment the heart stops beating, or is it a few seconds, minutes, or even hours after the process of death has initially begun? Furthermore, what is the relationship between the mind and the brain during the state of clinical death?
These and fascinating questions relating to the mind and brain were addressed at a symposium at the United Nations titled: "Beyond the Mind-Body Problem: New Paradigms in the Science of Consciousness." Sponsored by the NGO Section of the UN and the Nour Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit organization with consultative status to the UN, the symposium also served as the backdrop for the launch of the AWARE study, the world's largest ever scientific study of what happens when we die.
This study which is being conducted through collaboration of leading physicians across 25 major European and U.S medical centers uses a combination of sophisticated brain-monitoring techniques, (the INVOS System) to study the brain while also employing an innovative method to study the mind and consciousness during clinical death.
Although many independent studies have shown that the brain reaches a "flatline" state during clinical death, it has consistently been shown that 10 to 20 percent of people who are revived back to life report some activity of the mind and consciousness in the form of lucid, well-structured thought processes with reasoning and memory formation as well as the ability to "see" and "hear" actual events (which have in some cases been confirmed by hospital staff), raising the intriguing possibility that the mind and consciousness could continue functioning after we have reached the point of death and the brain has "flatlined."
This intriguing possibility will now be tested using images that are strategically placed in specific areas in the hospitals, such that they are visible only by opening the eyes and looking above, or by looking down from the ceiling.
As well as exploring the fascinating nature of the human mind and consciousness during death, the AWARE study also aims to improve the way physicians resuscitate people who have undergone death by studying the biological factors that lead to better outcomes in survivors.
Only time will tell what the Hadron collider and the AWARE study will possibly reveal about our beginnings and our inevitable end.