What happens when we die? As the moment of death approaches, memories of your life may really flash before you, new research suggests.
This idea of a quick binge of past memories just before dying is not new, as experiences such as these – and other phenomena including out-of-body experiences – have been documented among those who’ve survived near-death experiences.
Researchers have now reported what they say may be the first evidence of such memory recalls in a human brain near death, in the peer-reviewed Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.
The patient treated was an 87-year-old man who came to the Vancouver General Hospital emergency room in 2016 after a fall. Three days after surgery to relieve a buildup of blood between the skull and the brain, the patient began having seizures and the medical team started an electroencephalogram (EEG) test to monitor his brain activity and treat the seizures.
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During this recording, the patient suffered a heart attack. The researchers recorded 900 seconds of brain activity before and around the patient’s death – the first-ever recording of a dying human’s brain, said Dr. Ajmal Zemmar, who treated the patient in Vancouver General Hospital in 2016 and is now a neurosurgeon at the University of Louisville neurosurgeon, where I have pursued the study.
In-depth analysis of the patient’s EEG around the 30 seconds before and after the patient’s heart stopped beating identified brain waves that normally happen in healthy human brains when we undergo memory recall, out-of-body experiences, meditation and similar experiences. These brain waves, also called oscillations, happening around the time of death suggest a potential “last ‘recall of life’ that may take place in the near-death state,” researchers wrote.
The pattern of these waves could be the neurophysiological basis of near-death experiences, Zemmar told USA TODAY.
The researchers expressed caveats, including injury, seizures, swelling and anesthesia that could make the interpretation of the data difficult. But there are similarities to the oscillations in healthy humans undergoing out-of-body experiences and evidence from rats where these brain waves were also seen after cardiac arrest in a 2013 study. “We are seeing for the first time that these same brain waves that in a healthy human are known to be responsible for dreaming, meditation and out-of-body experiences are now observed in the dying human brain,” Zemmar said.
They researchers expressed caveats, including injury, seizures, swelling and anesthesia that could make the interpretation of the data difficult. But there are similarities to the oscillations in healthy humans undergoing out-of-body experiences and evidence from rats where these brain waves were also seen after cardiac arrest in a 2013 study. “We are seeing for the first time that these same brain waves that in a healthy human are known to be responsible for dreaming, meditation and out-of-body experiences are now observed in the dying human brain,” Zemmar said.
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Do we get a ‘last memory flashback’?
In the past 6 years since 2016, Zemmar and the research team have sought to find another example of an EEG recorded at the time of death because scientific data from 1 case is very thin ice to draw conclusions from. But unfortunately no other case was found forcing the team to publish the single existing dataset from a dying human brain.
“Something we may learn from this research is: although our loved ones have their eyes closed and are ready to leave us to rest, their brains may be replaying some of the nicest moments they experienced in their lives.” Zemmar said.
Caregivers could take some solace in the findings, he said. Medical personnel often must tell family members that a loved one “is unfortunately not going to make it. These situations, no matter how long you do the job, they never get easier,” Zemmar said.
“One thing I’m hoping that this could do is that I could tell them, ‘Your loved one is okay. They’re not suffering. They’re not having pain in the last moments of life. They’re replaying memories that they had with you throughout life'” he said. “I think that there would be something comforting in that… extremely difficult situation to lose somebody.”
For the rest of us, perhaps we will rest easier knowing there’s the potential for what the researchers ended a “last memory flashback” before we die.
When about spiritual advice on death, Zemmar said, “As scientists, we focus on interpreting data asked to understand nature and we share our conclusions with society. From here on in, everyone should decide for themselves how they like to imagine the spiritual side around death.”
Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @mikesnider.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism