There’s an old saying that our entire life flashes before our eyes right before we die. The medical community has been looking into what happens to the brain when someone passes away for centuries, but a new brain scan is giving us insight into our final moments of life.
Neuroscientists at the Vancouver General Hospital in British Columbia, Canada inadvertently took brain scans of a dying patient using electroencephalography (EEG) and the results were surprising.
What Happens When We Die?
An 87-year-old man was being treated at the hospital before going into cardiac arrest. The scientists used EEG to detect and treat his seizures, but the scan also showed them what was happening inside his brain during his last moments of life.
During an EEG, small sensors are attached to the scalp to pick up the electrical signals produced when brain cells send messages to each other.
It was the first time ever that scientists had recorded the activity of a dying human brain, according to the team.
The scan revealed rhythmic brain waves similar to those that occur when we relive memories.
This supports the theory of “life recall” which says that we relive our entire lives in the few seconds before we die. This experience has also been described by people that have suffered near-death experiences.
Neurosurgeon Dr. Ajmal Zemmar led the team and said that they were able to scan the patient’s brain while he went into cardiac arrest.
“We measured 900 seconds of brain activity around the time of death and set a specific focus to investigate what happened in the 30 seconds before and after the heart stopped beating,” said Zemmar, now based at the University of Louisville, Kentucky.
“Just before and after the heart stopped working, we saw changes in a specific band of neural oscillations, so-called gamma oscillations, but also in others such as delta, theta, alpha and beta oscillations.”
Different types of brain oscillations, or brain waves, are associated with different types of neurological processes. For example, gamma waves are involved in high-cognitive functions, such as concentrating, dreaming, meditation, memory retrieval, information processing, and conscious perception, similar to those associated with memory flashbacks.
“Through generating oscillations involved in memory retrieval, the brain may be playing a last recall of important life events just before we die, similar to the ones reported in near-death experiences,” Zemmar added. “These findings challenge our understanding of when exactly life ends and generate important subsequent questions, such as those related to the timing of organ donation.”
The results of the study were recently published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.
The scan also suggests that the brain remains active and coordinated throughout the transition to death, and may even “orchestrate the whole ordeal”, according to researchers.
While this was the first time researchers recorded the brain activity of a dying human, similar brain oscillations have been detected in rats kept in controlled environments.
This suggests that the brain organizes and orchestrates a road map for transitioning to death that can be observed across all species.
Zemmar says the findings only complicate our perception of death and that more research is needed.
“As a neurosurgeon, I deal with loss at times. It is indescribably difficult to deliver the news of death to distraught family members,” he said. “Something we may learn from this research is: although our loved ones have their eyes closed and are ready to leave us to rest, their brains may be replaying some of the nicest moments they experienced in their lives.”