The new science of death: ‘There’s something happening in the brain that makes no sense’ (Alex Blasdel, 2 Apr 2024, The Guardian)

Today, there is a widespread sense throughout the community of near-death researchers that we are on the verge of great discoveries. Charlotte Martial, a neuroscientist at the University of Liège in Belgium who has done some of the best physicalist work on near-death experiences, hopes we will soon develop a new understanding of the relationship between the internal experience of consciousness and its outward manifestations, for example in coma patients. “We really are in a crucial moment where we have to disentangle consciousness from responsiveness, and maybe question every state that we consider unconscious,” she told me. Parnia, the resuscitation specialist, who studies the physical processes of dying but is also sympathetic to a parapsychological theory of consciousness, has a radically different take on what we are poised to find out. “I think in 50 or 100 years time we will have discovered the entity that is consciousness,” he told me. “It will be taken for granted that it wasn’t produced by the brain, and it doesn’t die when you die.”

If the field of near-death studies is at the threshold of new discoveries about consciousness and death, it is in large part because of a revolution in our ability to resuscitate people who have suffered cardiac arrest. Lance Becker has been a leader in resuscitation science for more than 30 years. As a young doctor attempting to revive people through CPR in the mid-1980s, senior physicians would often step in to declare patients dead. “At a certain point, they would just say, ‘OK, that’s enough. Let’s stop. This is unsuccessful. Time of death: 1.37pm,’” he recalled recently. “And that would be the last thing. And one of the things running through my head as a young doctor was, ‘Well, what really happened at 1.37?’”

In a medical setting, “clinical death” is said to occur at the moment the heart stops pumping blood, and the pulse stops. This is widely known as cardiac arrest. (It is different from a heart attack, in which there is a blockage in a heart that’s still pumping.) Loss of oxygen to the brain and other organs generally follows within seconds or minutes, although the complete cessation of activity in the heart and brain – which is often called “flatlining” or, in the case of the latter, “brain death” – may not occur for many minutes or even hours.

For almost all people at all times in history, cardiac arrest was basically the end of the line. That began to change in 1960, when the combination of mouth-to-mouth ventilation, chest compressions and external defibrillation known as cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR, was formalised. Shortly thereafter, a massive campaign was launched to educate clinicians and the public on CPR’s basic techniques, and soon people were being revived in previously unthinkable, if still modest, numbers.

As more and more people were resuscitated, scientists learned that, even in its acute final stages, death is not a point, but a process. After cardiac arrest, blood and oxygen stop circulating through the body, cells begin to break down, and normal electrical activity in the brain gets disrupted. But the organs don’t fail irreversibly right away, and the brain doesn’t necessarily cease functioning altogether. There is often still the possibility of a return to life. In some cases, cell death can be stopped or significantly slowed, the heart can be restarted, and brain function can be restored. In other words, the process of death can be reversed.

It is no longer unheard of for people to be revived even six hours after being declared clinically dead.