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What goes on inside a dying mind?

by | Oct 13, 2016 | For Families

person in bed

It’s a question that’s been asked through the ages. What happens when a person dies?

As humans, we’ve tried to answer the question in a multitude of ways. But the question still remains.

Despite the amount research on the human body and its functions, the aspect of death remains a mystery. But some researchers are making an effort to understand what happens inside the final moments of a person’s mind.

The process of dying

Because of technology, death comes slower than it has in the past. This has allowed for the topic to be studied more, and how scientists and healthcare professionals have found that dying is a process. The final days of a person’s life are known as “active dying” and it occurs in stages.

It starts with the loss of things like appetite and thirst until we eventually lose sight, touch, and speech. During the process of active dying, areas of the brain shut down too and chemicals begin to flood our receptors.

Neuroscientists claim these chemicals are what cause the classic “bright light at the end of a tunnel,” or “life flashed before my eyes” phenomena that are consistent with people who have had a near-death experience.

Final thoughts

Brain activity floods our neural connections as depicted in this neural brain map from Brown University. Credit: Radu Jianu/Brown University

In 2013, the University of Michigan conducted a study that showed a brain can emit high levels of electrical activity even after clinical death.

The study found that the brain waves slowed down and stopped at the time of death. It was the moments after death that the brain waves started to pick back up — and at surprisingly high levels.

The study, published in a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, found that “High-frequency neurophysiological activity in the near-death state exceeded levels found during the conscious waking state.” The authors of the study think that in the moments preceding death, a brief heightened state of awareness is achieved. After that initial spike though, all brain activity ceases permanently.

The study, however, wasn’t recorded in a human brain, but in the brains of rats. Studies on the human brain are just beginning, but so far the research is too young to prove anything. The early studies that’ve been conducted on humans do show similar findings, though. Doctors at George Washington University Medical Center scanned the brain functions of seven critically ill patients after life support was removed, and an article about the study published in Scientific American said that the brain scan showed “jolts lasted 30 to 180 seconds and displayed properties that are normally associated with consciousness.”

These jolts of high-level energy could trigger areas in our brain that give us a sense of euphoria, as well as our memory centers — allowing us to relive past memories one final time.

While the research isn’t conclusive, it does offer some insight about what happens at the time of death. What are your thoughts? Share with us in the comments below!

1 Comment

  1. Joyce A Garland

    I am a hospice nurse. I had an unusual circumstance regarding a dying patient.She was 100 yrs old and had diagnosis of ES dementia. When I was caring for her the aide and I repositioned her which took two people because her extremities were stiff and her arms and hands were contracted. She was unconsious.We turned her on her back . She suddenly opened her eyes, looked up at the ceiling and let out a blood curdling scream saying ‘no,no’.She opened her hans and put them to either side of her neck.As suddenly as she screamed she stopped and ‘sunk into the mattress. Everything appeared to stop which I had expected, /for a while I just watched her. She was not breathing. After about 5 minutes I said to the aide,, the time of her demise is 2:40. The aide looked at me and said, “No shes’ breathing (again). Sure enough there was slight rise of her chest which became stronger. She’ lived’ 4 more days after that experience. I have been a hospice nurse for 30 years and have never seen anything like this before. Have you heard or seen anything likes this before. Any ideas?


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