Researchers hope to better understand consciousness after death
Terminally ill patients are participating in the research
Survivors report lucid thinking and being accompanied by a being or an entity
USA scientists are undertaking pioneering research into the recalled experiences of death – particularly cardiac arrest survivors, who had biologically crossed over the death threshold before being resuscitated.
Among findings so far, many survivors reported lucid and well-structured thought processes. They described seeing deceased relatives and reviewing their actions and intentions toward others throughout their lives. Afterward, many recalled details of their resuscitation.
The compelling research – led by Dr. Sam Parnia, an associate professor from New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine – caught the eye of the National Institutes of Health, which has recognised a similar but poorly understood phenomenon among patients with advanced dementia called paradoxical lucidity.
Caregivers have routinely reported that such patients begin to have unexpected periods of cognitive clarity and verbal communication, particularly near the end of life.
“The common unresolved question for both of these areas of research is: how do you have lucidity at a time when the brain is assumed to not be functioning?” Dr. Parnia said.
“A major subgroup of people who go through this have had advanced end-stage dementia and maybe have had no lucidity for years.”
Dr Parnia said practical benefits from the research include finding new ways to treat disorders of consciousness – including dementia – as well as a better understanding of the cognitive experience of what it’s like to approach death.
The research involves monitoring 500 terminally ill patients who have dementia and a life expectancy of one week or less.
They are connected to an in-home video electroencephalography (EEG) device, which measures electrical activity in the brain and simultaneously records video and audio of the patient.
“We’re going to be monitoring these people, so if we see a sign that looks like paradoxical or terminal lucidity, we can capture what it’s like visually and auditorily, and also in terms of the underlying brain biomarkers that no one has ever understood,” Dr. Parnia said.
Cassandra Scott was dead for 15 minutes at Sydney’s Coogee Beach. Her heart had stopped. She had no pulse but was resuscitated by a lifesaver and an emergency doctor who happened to be there at the time.
"It is like being consciously unconscious. That's what it felt like. There was no light. It wasn't hot. And it was like a greyness – that's what I felt," she told ABC Radio National's Sunday Extra.
Researchers report that sometimes when people return from the brink of death, they recall sensations like déjà vu or seeing a light.
But how can anyone retain awareness when they are technically dead or, as Dr. Parnia describes it, at the brink of death? And what is the medical explanation for these experiences?
"People have described a sensation that their self – the part that makes them who they are – separates from their body and they're able to have external visual awareness," he added.
"They can see everything; they can understand what's happening.
"They're looking at their body … or [at] people who are really worried about them or the doctor trying to save them."
He said some people have also reported feeling as if they're traveling at a very fast speed into a different dimension, while others start to review their life.
"It's a purposeful, meaningful review of all their interactions. They judge themselves. They appraise themselves with respect to their humanity," he said.
Dr. Parnia said sometimes, people will also describe experiencing a sort of ‘presence’ in their encounter with death.
"Many of them describe that, at this time, they felt that they were accompanied by a being or an entity that is compassionate and benevolent, who guides them and helps them through it," he said.
"Then there's a decision made where they have to come back."