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What happens to us when we die? This is a question that has exercised humanity’s finest minds since the first people reported having had a near-death experience — and is recently the subject of a number of groundbreaking scientific studies.
Now a Reddit thread has posed the question specifically to those who have been clinically dead and then revived, and literally hundreds of responses have been received. Though the veracity of the answers has to be taken with a small pinch of salt, the responses to what essentially amounts to a large survey on the subject can be broken down into three categories.
There are those who felt nothing at all; those who had an experience of light and some interaction with another person/being; and those who felt they could watch what was happening while they “weredead” without being able to do anything.
The first group corresponds closely with the answers of a single Redditor who officially died twice and recently invited questions on the topic from other users, The latter group, meanwhile, appears to agree with the work of Dr Sam Parnia, who sought out cardiac arrest patients and found that almost 40 per cent of them described having had some form of “awareness” at a time when they were clinically dead. In 2008, a largescale study involving 2,060 patients from 15 hospitals in the UK, USA and Austria was launched.
The Awareness during Resuscitation study, sponsored by the University of Southampton in the UK, examined the broad range of mental experiences in relation to death. Researchers also tested the validity of conscious experiences using objective markers for the first time in a large study to determine whether claims of awareness compatible with out-of-body experiences correspond with real or hallucinatory events.
The results of the study were published in the journal Resuscitation. The study concluded that:
The themes relating to the experience of death appear far broader than what has been understood so far, or what has been described as so called near-death experiences.
In some cases of cardiac arrest, memories of visual awareness compatible with so-called out-of-body experiences may correspond with actual events.
A higher proportion of people may have vivid death experiences, but do not recall them due to the effects of brain injury or sedative drugs on memory circuits.
Widely used yet scientifically imprecise terms such as near-death and out-of-body experiences may not be sufficient to describe the actual experience of death. Future studies should focus on cardiac arrest, which is biologically synonymous with death, rather than ill-defined medical states sometimes referred to as“near-death”.
The recalled experience surrounding death merits a genuine investigation without prejudice.
Dr Parnia, an assistant professor of critical care medicine and director of resuscitation research at the University of New York at Stony Brook, USA, and the study&’s lead author, explained, “Contrary to perception, death is not a specific moment but a potentially reversible process that occurs after any severe illness or accident causes the heart, lungs and brain to cease functioning. If attempts are made to reverse this process, it is referred to as ‘cardiac arrest’; however, if these attempts do not succeed it is called ‘death’. In this study we wanted to go beyond the emotionally charged yet poorly defined term of near-death experiences to explore objectively what happens when we die.”
Nearly 40 per cent of patients who survived cardiac arrest and were able to undergo structured interviews described a perception of awareness, but interestingly did not have any explicit recall of events.“This suggests more people may have mental activity initially but then lose their memories after recovery, either due to the effects of brain injury or sedative drugs on memory recall,” explained Dr Parnia, who was an honorary research fellow at the University of Southampton when he started the Aware study.
Among those who reported a perception of awareness and completed further interviews, 46 per cent experienced a broad range of mental recollections in relation to death that were not compatible with the commonly used term of near-death experiences. These included fearful and persecutory experiences. Only nine per cent had experiences compatible with near-death and two per cent exhibited full awareness compatible with out-of-body experiences with explicit recall of“seeing” and“hearing” events.
One case was validated and timed using auditory stimuli during cardiac arrest. Dr Parnia concluded,“This is significant, since it has often been assumed that experiences in relation to death are likely hallucinations or illusions, occurring either before the heart stops or after the heart has been successfully restarted, but not an experience corresponding with ‘real’ events when the heart isn’t beating. In this case, consciousness and awareness appeared to occur during a three-minute period when there was no heartbeat. This is paradoxical, since the brain typically ceases functioning within 20-30 seconds of the heart stopping and doesn’t resume again until the heart has been restarted. Furthermore, the detailed recollections of visual awareness in this case were consistent with verified events.
“Thus, while it was not possible to absolutely prove the reality or meaning of patients’ experiences and claims of awareness, (due to the very low incidence — two per cent — of explicit recall of visual awareness or so called out-of-body experiences), it was impossible to disclaim them either and more work is needed in this area. Clearly, the recalled experience surrounding death now merits further genuine investigation without prejudice.”
Further studies are also needed to explore whether awareness (explicit or implicit) may lead to long-term adverse psychological outcomes, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
Dr Jerry Nolan, editor-in-chief of Resuscitation, stated,“The Aware study researchers are to be congratulated on the completion of a fascinating study that will open the door to more extensive research into what happens when we die.”
Here is a taster of some of the Reddit users’ responses – which don’t seem to have produced a consensus on the topic just yet:
“I was getting an angiogram done, wide awake watching the screen and talking to the doctor. Alarms started to go off and everyone panicked. My world became soft and foggy and everything faded to black. The next thing I remember was opening my eyes and hearing a Dr say ‘we got him back’. It was really a peaceful feeling more than anything.”
“I collapsed during a class presentation one day. All breathing and blood circulation stopped. I felt as if I was plummeting down an endless hole while my peers cried for help. I was revived and still have no memory of the little bit of time before and after my death.”
“Overdosed on heroin, EMTs said my heart stopped. Didn’t see anything, just like sleeping with no dreams.”
“I collapsed at a work meeting in February 2014 and had no pulse or cardiac rhythm for about five minutes. My last memory was from about an hour prior to the incident, and my next memory was from two days later, when I emerged from a medically-induced coma.”
“I flatlined for around 40 seconds. It was like falling asleep without dreaming, no sense of self.”
“I do remember a little bit of the ambulance ride, but not from my own body. It was seriously the strangest thing I have ever experienced. It could have been a dream, but I saw my own unconscious body, completely flatlined, in the ambulance. I remember the EMT who was in the ambulance with me (whom I did not see before I passed out) had mint green hair and I couldn’t remember his name, but I asked for him when I regained consciousness about three days later.”
“I was standing in front of a giant wall of light. It stretched up, down, left and right as far as I could see. Kind of like putting your eyes six inches from a fluorescent lightbulb. The next memory I have is waking up in the hospital.”
“I was standing somewhere. There was a fog all around me, and I saw my best friend (who at the time I’d been fighting with and he’d stopped talking to me) come out of the mist. He told me that I couldn’t go yet, that I have to keep trying, and if I promised not to give up, he’d see me back on earth. I wordlessly agreed, and I was instantly pushed (into?) my body.”
“I see a vivid ‘flashback’ of myself in the ambulance being taken to the hospital and I stood in the ambulance looking down on myself /others in the ambulance.”
“When I coded, I don’t remember a sensation of floating, but I was able to recall things in detail that happened while I was ‘dead” on the other side of the room. No white lights, no dead relatives, nobody telling me to go back, but I was definitely able to see things that were in no way visible from where my body was. I remember speaking and being angry because nobody would answer me. My mother told me ‘you didn’t say anything, you were dead’.”
“I saw nothingness. Black, long, empty, but I had a feeling like everything was great and nothing was wrong at all. Imagine how pre-existence felt, much the same as post-existence.”