As an unintended consequence of developing lifesaving measures, science has expanded its knowledge of death. In order to save people’s lives and brains, scientists have had to study the processes that occur in the brain after death. Today, many millions of people of all ages and cultures, ranging from atheists to devout believers, have gone beyond the traditional threshold of death and come back to recount their experiences. They describe feeling immense peace, seeing visions of a bright warm welcoming light and deceased relatives, entering a beautiful place, and comprehending conversations and events that had been taking place in the room in which their body lay dead. Most are positively transformed by their experiences; they become more altruistic and no longer fear death.
Although for decades these experiences were attributed to some sort of hallucination brought about by a dying brain, modern studies have rendered this view at best a gross over-simplification and at worst erroneous. Central to this problem is the expectation that the identification of a neural mechanism in relation to the human experience of death will automatically determine whether the experience is hallucinatory, illusory, or real. Love, arguably the most universal and fundamental human experience of all, is associated with a consistent and reproducible series of neurological changes. Every time a person experiences love, there is an associated alteration in brain prolactin, dopamine, and other neuromodulators. Yet, these changes cannot define love as a hallucinatory, illusory, or real experience. Why should death be any different?
Sociologists have long told us that the reality of human experience is determined socially rather than neurologically. Now almost 60 years after the discovery of resuscitation science, what we have come to understand is that these experiences may provide us with an indication of what we are all likely to experience when we go through death. At the very least, natural death is nothing to be afraid of. But rather than approaching this from a religious or philosophical point of view, we can now approach it from a scientific perspective.
For millennia, religious and philosophical traditions dating back as far as the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Greeks have introduced humanity to different views regarding what happens after death. The early Egyptians and the Chinese believed in a form of existence separate to bodily life, as did the early Hebrews. Evidence of belief in a soul extends back to early Shaman practices in Siberia during the Neolithic period (4000-2400 BC). At the time of the Archaic Period in Greece, belief in the dual concept of a “free soul” and a “body soul” was prevalent. Many of our ancestors’ beliefs have gone on to shape world religious and philosophical traditions, up to the present day. So whether one considers death as an absolute end or adheres to the notion of some form of continuation of life, the roots of those beliefs are likely to be found in ancient traditions. Interestingly, the increasing number of reports from millions of survivors of cardiac arrest to date has started to paint a unique picture of the experience of death—a picture that, while sharing some features with prior descriptions from the humanities, appears increasingly separated from prevalent social and historical concepts of death.
After personally studying hundreds of these cases and having directed the world’s largest scientific study of what happens when we die—the AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation) study, a five-year study across 15 major hospitals in the U.S., U.K., and Austria which was published in the scientific journal Resuscitation last October—I have come to learn that contrary to the culturally diverse and vague notions of what happens after death, descriptions of the experience of death provided by survivors, irrespective of age, culture, and tradition are quite detailed and universal. Specifically, many survivors have described a perception that at the time of death, the “self” or “consciousness”—the part that makes us who we are—is distinguished and separate from the body. As Mary, a married mother of two once described, “My consciousness left my body.”
The body is perceived to be connected to the “self” through a “cord” which in turn is perceived to shed away much like a “piece of clothing” or “molting skin.” Jack, a 64-year-old mechanic explained: “I remember thinking, ‘So this is dying.’ I never thought it would be so easy. It was like taking off your coat.” Heather, a 60-year-old hospital secretary with two grown children, explained: “I could see I was attached to a thin line, a sort of lifeline.” Interestingly these features have also been described by many children, some too young to have any concept of death or an afterlife. Sam, a little Belgian boy who survived a cardiac arrest at the age of three, explained to his family: “When you die you see a bright lamp and … are connected by a cord.”
During the experience, the self’s awareness becomes sharpened and heightened. Death is described like an awakening from a deep sleep. Marie, an elegant and well-dressed 65-year-old French lawyer recounted: “I had the incredible feeling of being awakened. By contrast, coming back was like falling back into the world of sleep… Down here our consciousness is like a dim and diffuse light. There, our consciousness is like a highly condensed laser beam.”
Despite a sense of heightened awareness, a sudden alteration in understanding is not usually described. People don’t suddenly become “all-knowing.” Instead, the same thought patterns that characterized the person when alive seem to stay intact. An atheist may maintain the same worldview during his experience, while a Christian, Muslim, or Hindu will also likely maintain his own worldview. A Christian may describe seeing “Christ,” a Hindu “Krishna,” and a Muslim “Mohammed.” On closer questioning, they all describe the perception of having encountered a “luminous being,” which they had recognized and defined according to their own preconceived notions. Consequently, each will interpret his experience according to his own specific background and belief system. A nurse who was a proclaimed atheist once explained in a rather bemused fashion: “I was quite surprised to have what appeared to be a sort of mystical experience, because I don’t believe in… spiritual experiences at all.” Another Christian woman explained: “When I reached the end, Jesus stood there with his arms open wide and stopped me, then said, ‘Not this time, I have more work for you to do; you must go back.’”
There is also a perception of being welcomed by deceased relatives. One man disclosed: “Suddenly my brother appeared with his usual smile and I called to him, ‘Hi, Monty.’ He had died six months earlier of a heart attack.”
Most profound of all is the experience of seeing a luminous “being of light,” a kind and compassionate personality with characteristics such as humor and understanding. One woman, while finding it difficult to convey the feelings of deep compassion, love, and kindness that had emanated from the being of light, said:
I suddenly found myself standing beside myself looking at a cord which connected me to my body and thinking how thin and wispy it was. Someone was beside me. I was made to feel secure and encouraged to trust my companion, who suggested that the cord was insignificant and that I should not concern myself with its fragility.
I was guided towards the light… I found myself just content to move on and reach the end.
Reaching the light, I was met by other beings of light and very gently encouraged to move on towards a life review. In this experience, my actions were not judged by others; I judged myself. My presence could see into my mind and there was no way I could hide any thoughts.
Gently I was encouraged to understand how my mistakes hurt others by experiencing what others had felt as a result of my actions…. The word “death” was never mentioned, yet somehow I came to understand that I was in that place of spirit where the newly dead move on to. Many questions sprang to mind like how, why?
As illustrated by this example, many experience a gradual realization of entering a new domain with a different value system, one in which altruistic and selfless acts rather than self-centered ones carry the greatest value. One man explained: “It’s the succession of small acts; acts carried out for the benefit of others that counts.” Another added: “I felt I had a chance now to change things so that next time I get back to the life review it wouldn’t be the same, or at least they would say he tried.”
Communication is typically perceived as being non-verbal and instead occurs through thoughts. One person described it much like dreams in which “communication occurs without mouthing of words.”
There is also a general sense that warmth and benevolence permeate everywhere. Overall, the experience is perceived as being educational. Each person judges his own actions and intentions, which are reviewed from early childhood onwards. Judgment occurs through experiencing the exact same feelings and/or pain that one’s actions or intentions may have caused others.
While some aspects of the experience of death may reflect certain historical, philosophical, and theological traditions, what is most intriguing is that aside from the interpretation, the actual experience itself does not necessarily reflect mainstream religious or cultural traditions. Perhaps, in death, we appreciate that which unites us far more than what divides us. If these experiences are anything to go by, we may also come to appreciate that it is deeds rather than purely mental beliefs that matter.
Certain descriptions of the experience of death put forward by philosophical and theological traditions throughout the ages are quite intriguing, some of which may partially reflect what has come to be described by survivors today. Many have proposed that after death, human thought accompanies each person as it had been formed and that the self may continue and enter an intermediate domain described as being like a mirror. Each person may thus see his own image and describe it in his own way, through his own mental book: a Jew a certain way, a Christian in another, and an atheist in another. According to some, irrespective of a person’s own beliefs, entering this domain is felt as a sense of freedom and great joy. This joy has been proposed to stem from breathing an air of benevolence. Other ancient traditions have proposed that each person may appear in the form of a “corporeal image,” that is, an image reflecting the appearance the person had in his lifetime.
Descriptions of seeing others as a “transient light” may also be traced to the humanities. Whether or not these reflect modern recollections of “beings of light” will perhaps never be known. Most intriguing is Hieronymous Bosch’s painting entitled Ascent to Empyreon, in which there is a clear depiction of people going through a tunnel toward a bright light accompanied by what appear to be “beings of light.” Amazingly, this poignant 15th Century painting accurately shows how people experience death five centuries later.
According to yet others, our virtues and vices will surface and become our defining elements in the hereafter, while our feelings and sensations become more profound, more real, and more concrete than they were in the material world. Each person becomes transparent to others, who can see in us what we have been, what we are, what we think, and what we are really worth.
Judging by these descriptions, it would be premature to abandon all knowledge accrued through the humanities. As powerful as the scientific method is, much human knowledge and wisdom have come from sources that pre-date the scientific revolution.
Today, many questions still remain for science, not least of which is why every person doesn’t recall these experiences and whether or how often people report terrifying near-death experiences. For the former, there is reason to believe that memory loss triggered by critical illness may be to blame.
Like love, death is a universal human experience. Neither belongs to a particular group, culture, or tradition. With the objectivity of science combined with the illumination of the humanities, we will continue our march forward in understanding whether this seemingly final act really is the end.Have something to say?
Death is the one thing in life we can be sure about and that is why religions have beliefs about what it means! Everything else ‘might’ happen to us: we might get married, be rich, be happy, have children, open our own business or travel the world, but the only real certainty is that we will die.
Faith and death
It is not surprising that people have always asked questions about what, if anything, happens after they die.
Although some people claim to have had ‘near-death experiences’ (NDEs), and others claim to be able to talk to the dead, or to have seen ghosts, there is no scientific proof that such experiences actually provide a glimpse into a possible afterlife. It is possible, therefore, that when people die, they simply stop living and that there is nothing beyond this life.
Ideas about what happens after death, and its connection with how life is lived on earth, is a fundamental part of all religions. The details may differ between religions, but belief in an afterlife almost always:
- helps people to make sense of life, particularly when life seems unfair or at times of suffering (their own, and other people’s)
- gives support and comfort at times of loss and bereavement
- provides a purpose to life
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