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Dying brains of some animals and humans show some remarkable brain wave activity. Find out why researchers want to find out if these readings indicate some form of near-death experience or hidden consciousness connected to the end of life.

By David Morton RintoulPublished 4 months ago 5 min read

My mother passed away about three years ago, and we, her children and grandchildren, were at her bedside when she passed away. It was a painful, yet profound experience for everyone including, I like to believe, for my mother herself.

As we experienced the end of her life, we talked about how natural the process seemed; it was oddly similar to giving birth. In particular, the women in our little group agreed that our bodies “know what to do” during these critical moments.

Looking back to around the time one of my grandmothers passed away, I remember reading a bestselling book by Dr. Raymond Moody called Life After Life. The book was the first to bring near-death experiences to a mass audience, selling over thirteen million copies over the past half-century.

Popular Ideas About Near-Death Experiences

It’s the book that introduced the out-of-body experience, the tunnel, the white light and our lives flashing before our eyes into the popular imagination. Of course, all of the people interviewed for the book recovered, so it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions about how life ends from their stories.

That’s the paradox around the end of our lives. It’s one of the only experiences every one of us is absolutely guaranteed to share, yet we have no proven way to know what to expect when it finally happens to us.

We can’t ask anyone who’s passed away what the death experience is like, at least in the conventional sense. That leaves us all wondering why we’re here and what, if anything, our lives mean in the end.

Neurological Basis of Consciousness  

Dr. Jimo Borjigin is an associate professor of molecular and integrative physiology as well as neurology at the University of Michigan. She’s been investigating the neurological basis of consciousness in normal and abnormal brain states in both human and non-human animals for the past three decades.

Professor Borjigin led a study The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science published this month. The findings offer early evidence that there can be a surge of brain activity indicating consciousness during the final moments of patients’ lives.

This research followed up on animal studies conducted by the founder of the Center for Consciousness Studies, Dr. George Mashour, about a decade ago. In both animals and humans, researchers found signature gamma wave activation in the dying brains of both animals and humans after cardiac arrest and the resulting loss of oxygen.

EEGs of Comatose and Unresponsive Hospital Patients

Professor Borjigin and her team studied the electroencephalograms (EEGs) of four comatose and unresponsive University of Michigan Hospital patients. Their families had decided to withdraw life support since they were beyond medical help.

When staff removed ventilator support, the heart rates of two of the patients rose along with a surge in gamma wave activity in their brains. Most neurologists consider gamma waves to be the fastest brain activity, and they’re usually related to consciousness, even though these patients were comatose.

Even more interesting, that neural activity took place in the brain’s “hot zone” of consciousness in between the temporal, parietal and occipital lobes. This region seems to correspond to dreams, hallucinations and altered states of consciousness in related research.

Unusual Pulse and Brain Wave Patterns

Both of the patients whose brains showed this activity had histories of seizures, but not within an hour of their deaths. On the other hand, the other two patients the team studied didn’t show any of these unusual pulse or brain wave patterns.

We can’t read too much into a study of four people, where half of the subjects’ results were unremarkable. Even so, scientists find the consistency between the recent human study and the previous animal study intriguing, though not definitive.

The researchers ran into the age-old enigma that they couldn’t ask the patients what they were sensing or thinking about because they died. “How vivid experience can emerge from a dysfunctional brain during the process of dying is a neuroscientific paradox,” Dr. Mashour explained.

The team’s next step is to conduct wider research involving multiple facilities and incorporating EEG-monitored ICU patients who pulled through after a cardiac arrest. This might help to resolve the inevitable paradox running through this topic.

And Another Thing… 

Every one of us has a brain and a mind, yet humanity has never fully understood either of them. Is our subjective experience of consciousness the same thing as our brain activity, or is our psyche something that transcends our physical body and perhaps even our physical death?

Interviewing surviving patients might help the researchers gain a better grasp of what precisely these mysterious gamma activity bursts are. Having survivors describe what they experienced during these bursts could shed light on whether these odd readings result from near death experiences, some form of hidden consciousness, or some mundane natural or technical cause.

“We are unable to make correlations of the observed neural signatures of consciousness with a corresponding experience in the same patients in this study,” explained Professor Nusha Mihaylova, who partners with Professor Borjigin. She wrapped up the discussion, adding, “However, the observed findings are definitely exciting and provide a new framework for our understanding of covert consciousness in the dying humans.”

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:

Evidence of conscious-like activity in the dying brain

Surge of neurophysiological coupling and connectivity of gamma oscillations in the dying human brain

Brain Scans Enable Scientists to Read Minds

Brain Cells Have Mysterious Self-Organizing Ability

Alcoholism's Brain Pathway Located by MRI Scans

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About the Creator

David Morton Rintoul

I'm a freelance writer and commercial blogger, offering stories for those who find meaning in stories about our Universe, Nature and Humanity. We always have more to learn if we Dare to Know.

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