Can This Brainwave Study Explain What Happens to Consciousness When We Die?
A new study records the brain waves of a dying person in detail for the very first time. Could the findings explain what happens in our transition into death?
While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence from people who have had Near-death Experiences or NDEs, there is little to no hard scientific data on what happens in the brain as people are dying.
Now, researchers who recorded 15 minutes of brain wave activity in a dying man, are speculating that the findings may explain the phenomenon of life recall or review that many near-death experiencers report.
Dr. Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon who, in 2008, experienced an NDE as he lay in a coma caused by a serious case of viral meningitis. After a miraculous recovery, he went on to write about the experience in several best-selling books.
“There’s a tremendous amount of evidence that, at the end of life, our consciousness does not just disappear as one might assume if the brain created consciousness,” Alexander said. “But in fact, our consciousness seems to expand in dramatic ways, and I think this is where a deeper understanding of NDEs is crucial for us to understand the mind-brain relationship and the nature of consciousness itself.”
To Alexander, while the study is a step in the right direction towards understanding what happens when we die, it is fraught with some misunderstandings.
“Now, there are many problems with this study and the main thing I’ll point out here is, first of all, do not confuse correlation with causality,” Alexander said.
“This is a common mistake in neuroscience and it results from the unproven assumption, and in fact, I would say a disproven assumption, that the brain is creating consciousness, and therefore, to find any change in phenomenal consciousness we must look for a neural correlate; some physiologic change in the brain. And modern studies just show that that reasoning is false, there’s more to it than just what’s going on in the brain.”
Some of the strongest evidence for this thinking comes out of recent studies using sophisticated brain imaging of participants on psychedelics.
“They universally show a decrease in brain activity and a dissolution of things like the Default Mode Network that is thought to be so responsible for our sense of self and existence in the moment. If those things dissolve and disappear under the influence of these plant medicines, or entheogens, all other bets about looking at neuronal activity to try to match up to phenomenal experience are really off,” Alexander said.
“The important thing to get is: the brain is not the creator of these phenomenal experiences. It’s a filter, so it influences the experience that we have, but it’s not ultimately the complete explanation for them.”
What can be said about the findings of the recent study that suggest that the pattern of brain activity recorded corresponds to memory recall and may provide a physiological basis for the life review as experienced by near-death experiencers?
“Memories that are encountered during NDEs, such as the life review are not just vague sepia-tinted memories, these are reliving of the events in a detailed powerful fashion,” he said. “Memories are not even stored in the brain, that’s one of the last nails in the coffin of materialist neuroscience.”
Alexander and other proponents of a broader approach to studying dying have high hopes that we are headed in the right direction.
“The message is very clear when you study consciousness in large fashion, including all the evidence for non-local consciousness and the rich reports of near-death and shared-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, telepathy, things like that. Then you get into that rich literature on reincarnation — all this is telling us is we need a much bigger theater of operations to explain all this, than our simple notions of the material and physical world being all there is. This is a pathway forward for a deeper understanding of what happens when we die,” Alexander said.
Parallel Lives in Comas and NDEs: Is This Proof of The Afterlife?
Have you ever awoken from a dream so seemingly real that you regret waking up, or maybe even question reality? One of those reveries that stays with you the rest of the day or for weeks to come? A dream that leaves you in a state of ineffable nostalgia?
But what if that dream was so realistic it put you into a state of depression, questioning whether it was more real than this reality? Such is often the case for people who live another lifetime while in a coma when knocked unconscious, or during a near-death experience (NDE), who come back believing they’ve found proof of an afterlife or another reality beyond.
These NDEs can add a layer of confusion to the existential questions of life – why we’re here, how we got here, and what happens when we die – or in some cases, it can add a layer of clarity.
The topic has become subject matter for massively popular books, movies, and shows, though academics debate the validity of such experiences, writing them off as anesthesia hallucinations or the product of an intense, prolonged dream. But often the subjective and convincing nature of these experiences forces disbelievers to question what they once thought was sacrosanct.
And it is within these stories that we begin to question the foundations of our own conscious reality.
Concussions and Strange Coma Stories
There is a popular story circulated on Reddit of a college student’s experience while knocked unconscious. And while it’s difficult to verify the story’s authenticity, there is a multitude of anecdotes in response from people who have experienced similar phenomena while in an unconscious state.
Often these accounts result in bizarre time distortions for the experiencer, in which years pass when in reality they were unconscious for only a few minutes. This same time dilation can happen under anesthesia, in dreams, and during intense psychedelic trips, leaving the subject confused upon resuscitation, questioning the meaning of reality and time itself.
This phenomenon is usually explained as our mind filling in the narrative of a dream with memories that seem to have been living. But this Reddit user’s experience titled, A Parallel Life / Awoken By A Lamp, recounts his experience living out a decade of another life, including the birth and upbringing of two children.
You can find the full story (here), but for an abridged version read on…
The Reddit user said that during his last semester at college, he was knocked out by a football player three times his weight. While unconscious he met a woman, was happily married, and experienced the birth of two children. Every day he walked into his children’s rooms and spent time with them before leaving for work. He had a great job, a beautiful relationship with his wife, and detailed emotional memories connecting him to this family.
But one day he noticed that a lamp in his house looked strange – it was inverted and just looked off. He spent the following days on the couch, staring at the lamp, trying to figure out why it looked the way it did. He stopped eating, drinking, and even using the bathroom. His wife grew worried and brought someone to the house to talk to him, before taking the kids to her mother’s house because she was so upset. Then he realized the lamp was not real, nor was the house, the wife, or the kids either. All of a sudden, he woke up to voices, screams, and a police officer picking him up and putting him in his car to go to the hospital.
Mere minutes had passed, but in his unconscious state, an entire decade of life ensued. He spent the next several years in a state of depression, trying to cope with the loss of a family he believed to be real, and a reality remarkably less pleasant than the one he believed he had lived.
Watch this episode of Open Minds with Raymond Moody the psychologist who coined the term “Near Death Experience:”