When You Die Do You KNOW You’re Dead?</h4>
As the old adage says, there are only two things that are certain in this life; death and taxes. With taxes, you’re certainly more than aware when they happen due to a sudden and saddening drop in available funds. But, with death, is there any comparable moment of realization?
This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; when you die do you know that you’re dead?
Until such time as immortality is possible, the creeping specter of death haunts us all… but, in the twenty-first century, humankind has grown more and more accustomed to facing it head on. Although for hundreds of years beforehand religion was really the only widespread means through which we might try to understand death, in more recent times science has taken over. Where once we had only Faith, now we have facts, figures, data and studies, as well. And that specter of death has morphed into a whole new beast.
Although definitions vary around the world, the time of death is generally taken as the moment at which your heart stops beating. However, as CPR continually shows, you can be brought back from this particular brink. Brain death is another crucial stage, then, when your cerebral organ essentially gets its power cut off. However, in between heart and brain death, there certainly is a small period of time - from two to twenty, perhaps thirty seconds - during which scientists believe that you might know that you’re dead. It’s usually during this time that near death experiences form, before the person is resuscitated to recount them. But, that said, it’s extremely difficult to know exactly how aware any one person can be, during that particular (and brief) time window. For those who are brought back to life, the near death experience might make some sense in hindsight… but, at the time, when your body is going through the ultimate trauma, it’s not clear how much of it really hits home. It’s not clear if you truly know you’re dead.
Nevertheless, various studies have captured headlines over the years, with them usually billed as haunting or disturbing experiments to show that perhaps life doesn’t end when you die. Or at least, not exactly. Doctor Sam Parnia - a British scientist and senior figure at the NYU Langone School of Medicine in New York City - is one of the most frequently cited expert voices in the field. Throughout the twenty-first century, Parnia has headed numerous studies looking into that mysterious space between life and death. In 2013, following the publication of his book “Erasing Death” - published as “The Lazarus Effect” in the UK - he gained attention after suggesting that we should be able to resuscitate people even up to twenty-four hours after they’ve died. For Parnia, what many would rather term resurrection, is actually possible if only we applied and developed the science properly. Whether or not you go along with his twenty-four-hour theory, though, if it’s even a little correct… then suddenly we could have a lot longer in which to understand that we are dead.
Parnia is also the director of the Human Consciousness Project, based at the University of Southampton in the UK. Among other things, it was responsible for the AWARE Study - taking a deep dive into the near death experiences of cardiac arrest survivors. We took a closer look in another recent video. Following on from his body of work, Parnia has previously campaigned for the term near death experience to be changed to actual death experience, as well, so committed is he to the notion that death is never just one moment. And, finally, Parnia has previously indicated a somewhat radical view on the nature of consciousness, in general, arguing that it might not be produced by the brain, only hosted by it. If true, that would potentially mean that the entire human experience, not just death, could actually be linked to forces outside of our physical bodies.
The stance taken by Sam Parnia, many of his associates, and many other independent researchers, certainly asks us to question what (and when) we really think death is. The vast majority of research seemingly shows that it might (even will) be possible to know that you’re dead for at least around the first twenty seconds post your last heartbeat. But, beyond that, analysis of NDEs has been interpreted to hint at something more. And, if we ever can bring people back to life whole hours after their heart has stopped - as Parnia has suggested we should be able to do - then suddenly we could live in a world where multiple people within it have spent large portions of time, even whole days, technically dead and departed from it.
Naturally, then, talk of death in these terms can take us to questions of the soul. What is it? Where is it? And does it survive when your body is no more? Again, while ideas on the soul have more traditionally been left to theology and philosophy, modern science has become increasingly interested in properly defining it. For centuries, the soul has proven notoriously difficult to pin down. Many have tied it in with ideas on the conscience, on morality, and with a species-wide understanding of what’s right and wrong. Others have attempted to definitively explain it not only through the lens of human life, but through life in general. In the loosest sense, the soul is some kind of seemingly collective essence through which the general experience of reality takes shape. But, that’s all just way too ambiguous to satisfy most scientists… and, as such, one theory argues that the problem might be properly solved via quantum mechanics.
The theory of Orchestrated Objective Reduction (or, Orch OR) was formulated and published in the 1990s, by the British physicist Sir Roger Penrose and the American scientist Stuart Hameroff. The model was then updated in 2014, and has become increasingly prominent ever since. At its heart, Orch OR might reasonably be considered one of the most radical and controversial ideas of our time. It argues that, rather than being the product of neurological connections, consciousness is generated via vibrations in microtubules - tiny protein strands - inside neurons. One of the key takeaways from the Orch OR theory, however, is that it could mean that consciousness continues indefinitely after the physical body fails. Here, what might be called the soul is merely quantum information. Throughout our lives, that information is channeled through our brains and experienced through our bodies… but when our lives end, the information doesn’t disappear. Instead, it’s more like it gets released. The brain no longer hosts it, but it does still exist. Somewhere. What happens next is still a little sketchy, even within the Orch OR framework… but advocates suggest that there could be a link to broader ideas on the soul and afterlife.
In terms of our title question, could this then be a mechanism through which you would know that you’re dead when you are dead. Possibly. But, on the other hand, and as is so often the case with theories surrounding death, we perhaps can’t know for sure until we’ve passed away. When viewed from an Orch OR point of view, it could be that near death experiences are essentially a fluctuation in the vibrating microtubules that we all have inside us. The quantum information they carry very nearly gets released, but ends up retethering to our physical selves just in time… and we survive. Or, at least, we survive in our current form. But, actually, there’s still more to come, and so when we do eventually exit our bodies… we will, in some sense, know about it. Then again, and bringing it all the way back to the more basic, macro-level physicality of life and death, without our brains to interpret that information, could it ever exist as anything like a traditional thought or feeling? Perhaps not.
What do you think about this particular life-and-death problem? Clearly, from a scientific perspective, tracking down the answer is still a work in progress. But, at the same time, we’ve arguably never understood what really happens quite as thoroughly as we do now. For some, contemplating post-death knowledge is comparable to trying to remember our pre-birth understanding; it matters very little if life is simply bookended by nothingness on either side. But, for others, this is an ongoing and major philosophical and physical debate.