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What happens to us when we die? For this question, science has few answers.
Death only exists for those who are alive and can consciously observe it.
Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark
Just as perplexing as the question of how inanimate molecules once joined together to form early life on Earth is understanding how something that is alive can suddenly cease to be.
But if science has taught us anything on the subject, it’s that the transition from life to death is perhaps not as sudden or definitive as it might seem.
Rather, the more we learn, it appears that death is a process that unfolds gradually over time.
Traditional definitions of death from a medical perspective focus on two criteria: (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain. The word irreversible here is an important one and implies that there’s a threshold that’s passed from which there’s no return.
But work is being done that pushes the boundary of what was once considered ‘irreversible.’ And we’re also learning that there can still be substantial traces of life even after one has crossed over into an irreversible state of death.
As Dr. Alan Shewmon, an expert on brain death, explained in an editorial in the Journal of Child Neurology, “The picture that seems to be emerging is that in at least some cases, perhaps many, the vicious cycle [leading to death] does not follow a…homogenous course, but rather occurs in a patch-work fashion.”
And recent studies provide some of the strongest evidence yet that life can still persist after the threshold of death has already been traversed. In 2017, Dr. Peter Noble and his team published a article in Open Biology demonstrating that more than a thousand genes remain active in mice and zebrafish after death has already occurred.
In fact, some genes didn’t peak until 24 to 48 hours afterward. “We didn’t anticipate that,” Noble told Newsweek in a recent interview. “Can you imagine, 24 hours after [the time of death] you take a sample and the transcripts of the genes are actually increasing in abundance? That was a surprise.”
Because many of the genes that remained active had to do with stress, immunity, or inflammation, Noble and his team surmised that “these pathways have evolved to favour healing or ‘resuscitation’ after severe injury, which would be a possible adaptive advantage.”
Of course, many questions still remain, perhaps the biggest being: Does any part of us remain conscious after death?
A recent study of brain activity in four terminally ill patients after the removal of life support offers some tantalizing clues that could one day help to solve this mystery.
In this study, three of the patients showed no brain activity once their hearts had stopped functioning, as was expected. But astonishingly, one patient showed bursts of brain activity—similar to what might be observed during deep sleep—that lasted for more than 10 minutes after death was pronounced.
Taken together, these studies underscore the blurriness of the boundary between life and death. To our human eyes, it appears clear-cut and final. But we must remember that our vantage point is a very specific and narrow one.
Death only exists for those who are alive and can consciously observe it. Albert Einstein was keenly aware of this predicament. And in a condolence letter to the widow of his longtime friend and colleague, Michele Besso, he wrote: “Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
So, could death as we know it be a ‘stubbornly persistent illusion’? Tell us what you think in the comments below.
Norton, L., Gibson, R. M., Gofton, T., Benson, C., Dhanani, S., Shemie, S. D., … & Young, G. B. (2017). Electroencephalographic recordings during withdrawal of life-sustaining therapy until 30 minutes after declaration of death. Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences, 44(2), 139-145.