For many, life’s greatest mystery is what happens after death—what, if anything, awaits after we take our last breath? Others, however, are more concerned with more immediate practical matters.
What does the dying process feel like? Is there any consciousness that remains in the moments between this world and the next? Is it like the experience of falling asleep, slowly drifting into nothingness, or are we aware that we are shifting out of this death spiral?
“Death is a unique experience for the person and their loved ones,” explains Dr Patrick Steele, palliative care specialist at Victoria’s Palliative Care South East.
“There is much more than the physiological changes that contribute to the experience of death.
For example, the person’s personality, the severity of the illness, the support of family and friends, the duration of the terminal illness and their spirituality.’
There are, however, some physiological changes that occur across the board.
“The usual pattern of breathing can change,” he continues, “sometimes it can be faster than usual, and sometimes it can be slower.” In the final days, there may be periods when there will be long pauses between breaths. At the end of life, breathing can become noisy. It is the accumulation of waste/excretions in the body. It is often of more concern to those listening than to the person dying.’
A study published earlier this year in the Frontiers in the neuroscience of aging found that the brain can remain active during and possibly even after the moment of death.
Doctors were performing continuous electroencephalography (EEG) on a patient who developed epilepsy when the patient had a heart attack and died during the process.
This allowed them to graph the activity of the human brain at the time of death, and they discovered rhythms of activity similar to memory retrieval, dreams, meditation and conscious perception.
Study organizer Dr. Ajmal Zemmar, a neurosurgeon at the University of Louisville, suggested that this may mean there is merit to the idea that our lives are “flipping before our eyes” when we die.
“As a neurosurgeon, I sometimes face losses. It is indescribably difficult to break the news of the death of distraught family members,” he told the Frontier News blog.
“Something we can learn from this research is that even though our loved ones have closed their eyes and are ready to leave us to rest, their brains can be replaying some of the most enjoyable moments they have experienced in their lives.”
Originally published as Our brains can “relive happy memories” when we die