Activity in Dying Brains Hints at Moments of Consciousness

Surges of electricity raise intriguing questions about near-death experiences
By Steve Huff,  Newser Staff
Posted May 6, 2023 9:30 AM CDT
Activity in Dying Brains Hints at Moments of Consciousness
   (Getty Images / metamorworks)

Activity in dying brains may provide insight into the possibility of brief conscious experiences in the last moments of life, according to research reported by Live Science. The study, published in the journal PNAS, observed electrical activity in the brains of dying patients and found that some individuals exhibited organized-looking electrical surges that resembled patterns seen during both waking and dreamlike states. These surges could correspond to the seemingly "otherworldly" visions sometimes reported by people who have had near-death experiences—observing their body from an external perspective, traveling down a tunnel with white light, or reliving life's big moments, per Live Science.

Led by the University of Michigan Medical School's Dr. Jimo Borjigin, a team of researchers monitored the brains of dying patients in intensive care units. The study involved four comatose patients who had heart attacks. Shortly after patients' ventilators were removed, two of the monitored brains showed surges in gamma waves associated with organized activity patterns in different parts of the brain. In the temporoparietal junction, a region already known to be active in out-of-body experiences and dreams, the gamma wave activity was particularly intense. Unfortunately, since all the patients in the study ultimately died, it's still not clear whether the surges represented truly conscious experience.

This study highlights the potential for organized electrical activity in the dying brain, raising intriguing questions about the nature of consciousness and the subjective experiences that may occur during the transition from life to death. It complements previous studies such as this one from 2013, cited by Medical News Today. Researchers found similar gamma waves occurred in rats in the last 30 seconds after cardiac arrest, which hinted at a correlation with memory recall. Near-death experiences and brain activity, however, are complex and individualized phenomena, and more research will be necessary to truly understand the connections between dying brains and consciousness. (More discoveries stories.)

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