Death is a fascinating topic. Nothing can so thrill and terrify me at the same time quite like the questions that surround death. The big question is… what really happens when we die? There are two camps: either you have zero imagination and believe you will completely cease to exist upon your own physical death, or you believe—as I do—that physical death can’t possibly be the end of the story.
In what has been labeled as “the biggest ever scientific study published” on the topic of consciousness after death, researchers at Southampton University in the UK made an incredible discovery. So convinced by their findings, the team concluded that consciousness may live on… even after our physical body gives out.
In case you misplaced your copy of the Official Journal of European Resuscitation Council from December, 2014, let me remind you just what an instant classic it was. Dr. Sam Parnia and his team from Southampton revealed the findings from their AWARE study (AWAreness during REsuscitation). As the name implies, Dr. Parnia’s team approached the question of life after death from the viewpoint of heart attack survivors who were, for a measurable period of time, pronounced clinically dead before being successfully resuscitated.
The study included 2,060 cardiac arrest patients (both men and women) from 15 hospitals in the UK, US, and Austria. Just why this study matters was perfectly summed up in a July, 2015, article published by the Bioethics Research Library at Georgetown University: “This is the largest study of its kind to date, using rigorous methodology, in order to exclude all those cases that could be based on individual impressions that are worthy, but which hold no scientific interest.”
Life May Live On…
Dr. Parnia’s team walked away with several intriguing findings, most notably that 40 percent of the study participants were verifiably consciously aware during the time they were presumed dead. That’s more than intriguing—that’s absolutely stunning, considering the “rigorous methodology” used to arrive at such a conclusion.
According to Dr. Parnia, we may have to rethink the definition of death, as it appears there may not, in fact, be a singular moment of death. Here he explains his team’s findings:
The evidence thus far suggests that in the first few minutes after death, consciousness is not annihilated. Whether it fades away afterwards, we do not know, but right after death, consciousness is not lost. We know the brain can’t function when the heart has stopped beating. But in this case conscious awareness appears to have continued for up to three minutes into the period when the heart wasn’t beating, even though the brain typically shuts down within 20-30 seconds after the heart has stopped.
This is significant, since it has often been assumed that experiences in relation to death are likely hallucinations or illusions, occurring either before the heart stops or after the heart has been successfully restarted, but not an experience corresponding with ‘real’ events when the heart isn’t beating. Furthermore, the detailed recollections of visual awareness in this case were consistent with verified events.
You might be wondering Okay, so what, exactly, these dead people experience? Did they see angels? Did they leave their bodies? What were the actual reports? While only two percent reported a classic, verifiable out-of-body experience, many more claimed to see, hear, and feel things that would indicate their consciousness did not stop with the beating of their hearts.
- A total of 2060 cardiac arrest patients were studied—of that number, 330 survived and 140 said that they had been partly aware at the time of resuscitation.
- Thirty-nine percent of those 140 described a perception of awareness, but did not have any explicit memory of events.
- One in five said they had felt an unusual sense of peacefulness.
- About 30 percent reported a feeling that time had either slowed down or sped up.
- Some recalled seeing a bright light, a golden flash, or the sun shining.
- Some reported more frightening events, including feelings of fear or drowning or being dragged through deep water.
- Thirteen percent said they felt separated from their bodies.
- Another 13 percent reported heightened senses.
Evidence Impossible to Ignore
“We wanted to go beyond the emotionally charged yet poorly defined term of ‘near death experiences’ to explore objectively what happens when we die,” Dr. Parnia said. “While it was not possible to absolutely prove the reality or meaning of patients’ experiences and claims of awareness… it was impossible to disclaim them either.”
Related: Was Your Brain Built To Talk To God?
I love seeing studies like these get published and hearing scientists like Dr. Parnia set aside any ego or preconceived notions in order to freely admit that we may not understand death quite as well as we think we do. However, in the end, as mesmerizing as the AWARE study findings are, they don’t mean all that much to me. Why? Because my belief in the unceasing energy that is consciousness is equally persistent. I firmly believe death is not the end. Just don’t ask me what comes next… I’m still working on that.