Monday, 29 April 2013

After-Death Consciousness...Dualism Revived?

Ever wonder what happens to consciousness when we die? Until the advent of modern cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) the answer seemed clear; the heart stopped beating, the lungs stopped working and blood could not reach the brain so it shut down. Consciousness shut down along with it.  But researchers are taking another look at consciousness during the time of clinical death. The website describes the initiative as “The Human Consciousness Project will conduct the world’s first large-scale scientific study of what happens when we die and the relationship between mind and brain during clinical death. The diverse expertise of the team ranges from cardiac arrest, near-death experiences, and neuroscience to neuroimaging, critical care, emergency medicine, immunology, molecular biology, mental health, and psychiatry.”

It seems clear that when the heart stops, so too does blood flow to the brain and if CPR is not performed, death will occur. When a patient is in cardiac arrest blood flow to the brain stops after approximately 10 seconds. However, Dr. Sam Parnia who is leading the AWARE Study as part of the Human Consciousness Project says that death is a process rather than a moment. Even after the heart has stopped,  brain cells do not appear to shut down for some time. This gives medical staff time to carry out CPR to keep the heart beating and blood flowing to vital organs including the brain. While brain activity has stopped, it appears that there may still be something going on in the minds of some patients.

Many people are brought back from the brink of death every day across the world and of those, depending on different studies, between 10 and 20% subsequently report experiences of hearing voices around them, of seeing and feeling things which seem incompatible with their physical state of being clinically dead. Stories of coming back from the dead have been fodder for magazines for years, indeed, when you type the word “near” into a Google search, near-death experiences comes up as the first suggestion. I would count myself as among the most skeptical of readers when I come across these accounts.

But these are precisely the moments under study by Dr. Parnia and his colleagues as he tries to redefine what we think of as the time of death and instead asks us to consider that consciousness may in fact continue for some time after a doctor has declared someone dead. If the electrochemical processes in the brain stop due to cardiac arrest, what explains the rich conscious experiences reported by so many patients who have been treated with CPR? What part of the brain, if any, is responsible? Nearly four hundred years after Descartes’ explanation of the mind body question, will this research bring us back to dualism? I’ll be watching with interest.

An interview with Dr. Parnia in Wired Magazine can be read here


  1. Great topic Karen! I agree with you that NDE's do indeed bring out the skeptic in me also but nevertheless they are fascinating to read about. Interestingly, it is being suggested now that because many of the publications on NDEs in survivors of cardiac arrest have strikingly similar results and conclusions - the phenomenon can no longer be scientifically ignored! Some argue that there are good reasons to assume that our consciousness does not always coincide with the functioning of our brain (enhanced or non-local consciousness can sometimes be experienced separately from the body) - I find it hard to get my head around this non-local consciousness!! mmmmm!

    I came across a study that showed that NDE memories contained more characteristics than real event memories and coma memories thus suggesting that they cannot be considered as imagined event memories.

    Here is the link to this study:

    As you said yourself, we will wait with great interest to see what future NDE studies and of course what the AWARE study may tell us about consciousness!

  2. I have also read that cardiac arrest might be a cause of blood cloth which blocks blood going through your heart and to the entire body according to what I have read from a doctors article on l-arginine. There is also a direct connection between nitric oxide and how it could promote blood to flow smoothly in our heart and the body too.