Research Confirms Long-Held Belief That Life Does Flash Before Our Eyes Upon Death

Scientists captured a man's brain activity after his death.
Man getting a scan before life flashes

According to new research, the possibility of humans experiencing memories after the heart stops beating might be true. For close relatives of a the deceased, this new finding can bring closure. However, it makes us wonder when a human is really dead? And how should a death certificate state the time of death after brain activity ceases or when the heart stops?

The original research article, published in frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, reports the case of an 87-year-old man with epilepsy who was put in the ICU after a collapse, which left him in a coma. Although a heart attack was recorded as the final cause of death, we’re left with the mind-boggling question; when does life really end?

The electroencephalogram (EEG) images show data never captured in neurology before. His brain activity showed indications associated with memories dreams 30 seconds before and after his death. “Just before and after the heart stopped working, we saw changes in a specific band of neural oscillations,” said senior researcher Dr. Ajmal Zemmar, a neurosurgeon at the University of Toronto in Canada. He then explained the types of oscillations, calling them gamma waves.

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How this research started

sick man in hospital
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The research refers to dates extending to 2016 when the 87-year-old man with epilepsy came into a Canadian hospital when he injured his head after a fall. Dr. Ajmal Zemmar and colleagues successfully removed the blood clot. However, three days later, his case took a turn for the worse when he started having seizures.

Following standard protocol, he was monitored by an EEG to investigate the reason behind his seizures. Unfortunately, he died before the doctors could determine an exact cause of his condition. 

Curved sensor net used to record electrical signals of the b Wellcome L0060188
EEG machine sensors by Wellcome Collection gallery under CC BY 4.0

While he suffered from an unexpected heart attack, the medical team made an accidental discovery; it turns out they recorded a dying brain. “This is why it’s so rare because you can’t plan this. No healthy human is going to go and have an EEG before they die, and in no sick patient are we going to know when they’re going to die to record these signals,” Dr. Ajmal Zemmar commented.

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What goes on in the brain after death?

The EEG captured a total of 900 seconds after the man’s death. According to the medical team, the brain showed signs of continued activity up to 30 seconds after the heart stopped beating. The patient experienced high-frequency brainwaves called gamma oscillations. 

This gamma oscillation is what’s usually experienced in the brain of humans while they’re dreaming, meditating, or recalling a memory. “And surprisingly, after the heart stops pumping blood into the brain, these oscillations keep going, so that was extremely surprising for us to see.” Dr. Zemmar commented in an interview with Insider.

Making this research available for public scrutiny

Dr. Ajmal Zemmar and the medical team involved held this research report for almost six years. The unprecedented discovery needed some level repeatability, so the team waited to see if a similar case would emerge. However, the closest they could find was a study on rats that involved inducing a cardiac arrest to study their brain activity.

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Dr. Zemmar says, “It is very hard to make claims with one case, especially when the case has bleeding, seizures, and swelling, or other complications that could account for the findings.” He then went on to add that “But what we can claim is that we have signals just before death and just after the heart stops like those that happen in the healthy human when they dream or memorize or meditate.”

However, results from the research conform to investigations into near-death experiences, which bolsters the report’s authenticity. “When someone almost dies, the brain may still trigger those responses so that these patients perceive the near-death-experience (NDE) with the replay and everything, but then come back.” Dr. Zemmar said.

Consensus with previous studies

Series of studies published in the book “What Happens when we Die” by Dr. Sam Parnia clearly explains what patients experience while they’re clinically dead. In the book, he writes about the paradoxical lucidity, alongside heightened consciousness, describing how patients review the most important memories of their lives in flashes.

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Dr. Sam Parnia’s studies, an associate professor at NYU Langone Health, seem to confirm the possibility of brain activity during and after death. Dr. Parnia wrote, “It may be that as multiple parts of the brain are shutting down with death, this leads to disinhibition of other areas that help humans gain insights into other dimensions of reality, that are otherwise less accessible.”

So, when do we actually die?

Clinically, at least for now, a person is declared dead as soon as the heart stops beating. However, with the emergence of this new report, we have to start questioning those standards. Also, it calls for more worry because, after death, the body can be prepped for organ donation. Nobody wants the organs of their loved ones to be extracted while they’re technically still alive.

Dr. Zemmar commented on the issue, saying, “A matter of 15 seconds may not sound all that much, but in medicine, it’s not that little. So if we declare the patient dead when the heart stops and perform organ donation, then do we do it 15 seconds after to let them replay memories? I don’t know. This is a question that our study has opened up.”

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Although this new study gives the relatives of a deceased extra comfort, we can’t in any way know the type of memories they’re experiencing (at least for now).