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.
How a Near Death Experience Enhanced My Consciousness
There’s no doubt that consciousness is rapidly expanding throughout the human race. My coffee cup is about to start talking to me. A lot of what was once considered ridiculously paranormal has now been empirically-proven and popularly embraced. In fact, the human race is clearly now a race between the realization of how expanded consciousness plays in the creation of our world and the destructive consequences that ignoring it has caused and continues to cause every day.
Consciousness as an Elemental Force
So what does that have to do with near-death experiences (NDEs)? Well, now it seems even science is converging on the ancient—but currently revolutionary—concept that consciousness itself may be an elemental force: a field, like gravity. It might be an eternal quantum field of being, necessary for the formation of material life – rather than the other way around (this idea is nicely, and controversially, proposed by Dr. Robert Lanza, of Wake Forest University). And what are NDEs but further testimonies of the continuation of consciousness beyond physical life?
Co-Creating our Reality
The rapidly growing Near-Death Movement, based on thousands of testimonies of people who have experienced consciousness beyond the limitations of our physical life, is yet another example of humanity’s spiritual potential. It’s additional evidence of our ability to co-create whatever reality we participate in, be it on the earth right here, or in that sweet hereafter.
I’d never given any of it much thought until the power and meaning of my own three NDEs arose and compelled me to write a book that put me into the hub of the hubbub. I’ve since discovered that the community of near-death experiencers ranges somewhere from five to fifteen percent of the general population globally. Now that’s a whole lot of non-ordinary reality!
Consciousness – and Individuals – Are Unique
Naturally, I have less reason than the average Joe to doubt the veracity of all that testimony; but I have found plenty of reason to ask this question: why is it that near-death experiences are all so different? If we’re all governed by eternal, invisible machinery, why do we see such a range of afterlife options, all tailored to the individual participant? Shouldn’t we all go down that identical tunnel into the light and meet Grandpa in the shimmering fields of Elysium?
Some near-death returnees report celestial extravaganzas. Some tell of organizations of elders and angels, structured in an elaborate cosmic framework. For others, it’s a hellish nightmare, complete with every infernal cliché. The reason for all these differences can be simply explained if we consider the way we’re always participating in the field of consciousness, how we are always creating our own individual realities.
The Continuum of Consciousness
My own NDEs were humble by comparison, but they all had one glorious factor in common; that I did not lose consciousness when I lost consciousness. In fact, all three times, I experienced an enhanced consciousness, seamlessly uninterrupted from this life to the next.
Skeptics suggest this sense of continuity is the result of a still-active mind – a mind not yet fully “dead.” And they’re right. Since consciousness is a field we eternally participate in, our minds never do die, they simply join a greater mind. The Hindu Vedas suggested that thousands of years ago. Dear old Dr. Jung described it too, way back in the 20th century. The mind continues working.
“Memory ensures that nature creates individual forms that are copies of the primal universal forms.”
And as for the differences, well, imagine someone dying, and awakening in this world. What would they experience? The war in Syria? A recital by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir? Perhaps a high-powered business lunch, or that visit to Grandpa’s? In this elemental context, we all imagine the life we are living and live it. We all enter into the life we need to experience. This is the mystery of any incarnation, and it will continue to be the mystery from this life to the next (although NDEs do generally suggest that things are better explained over there).
The Unharnessed Power of the Mind
And what if all bets were off when it comes to our greatest potential imaginable – the unharnessed power of mind? What if our imaginations were released from the obvious limitations of this physical form? Almost anything is possible here and now––how about a world where your imagination is set free to manifest reality without material limit?
In “the next world,” as in this one, our imagination is like the clay; consciousness is like the ever-spinning potter’s wheel, and the source of power is like, well, The Source of Power. Welcome to every life (and afterlife) you will ever live – and remember, whatever life you’re living, always look for the love!
Article originally published Oct. 4, 2014