Written by Jacob Terranova
What happens when we die remains a question humans have long tried to answer.
But as science continues to explore death, our understanding of it is growing little by little.
Stages of death
Death is another part of the life cycle and comes in stages. The first stage is clinical death, when a person’s breathing stops and blood and oxygen are no longer sent to vital organs. In turn this leads to biological death, where the brain no longer gets oxygen.
Biological death occurs about 4-6 minutes after the initial clinical death. At that point, the cells in the body will eventually start to break down and die.
But we already know that because these stages of death have actually been long documented and understood by scientists. Curiosity doesn’t stop there, though. Humans continue to search for understanding when it comes to death. They’ve started to explore both the physical and mental aspects.
To understand the physical nature of death better, researchers have turned to ‘body farming.’ Body farming originated because of the need for law enforcement to better understand the decomposition of the human body.
Human cadavers donated to the medical community are used to help research and document the stages of decomposition. As it turns out, a corpse is actually a harbor for life—even in the earliest minutes of decomposition, microbes begin to flourish. Through the stages of self-digestion, putrefaction, colonization, and purging, our body is eventually returned to the earth.
The study of physical death, though unsettling for some, has led to important discoveries for the medical and criminal justice communities. It’s also led to a better understanding of the human body’s role in the natural ecosystem of life.
Our physical understanding of death has increased, but what about the understanding of our mental state? It’s a question that’s eluded many, but scientists have started to turn to the closest source they can get—those who have near-death experiences.
What are near-death experiences? These experiences reportedly occur when the body undergoes great physical or psychological stress and are described as “out-of-body experiences.” Many report having these experiences after being resuscitated.
Reports of near-death experiences, or NDEs, have existed throughout human history. A 1975 book titled Life After Life by an American psychiatrist Raymond Moody brought the NDE movement into mainstream public attention. Researchers began studying NDEs more closely, and their studies found some interesting things.
People who reported having an NDE had overall similar descriptions—things like floating, vision that extends 360 degrees, a sense of tranquility and peace, traveling through physical objects, and having immensely clear and rapid thoughts. Researchers also found NDEs occur all over the world, among all cultures, genders, education, religion, and socioeconomic status.
Science has looked for neurological explanations within the brain itself to explain these feelings. For example, the idea of moving through a tunnel toward a light is similar to what happens when the level of oxygen in the brain decreases, creating ‘tunnel vision.’ Lack of oxygen can also cause auditory and visual hallucinations.
When the brain begins to shut down, endorphins and other neurotransmitters are released in large amounts. Researchers believe that’s what causes the feelings of peacefulness. It could also explain the ‘life flashing before your eyes’ as the locus coeruleus—a part of the brain connected to regions that hold memories—releases a flood of hormones, which creates the ‘flashing’ of our memories. Those who claimed to have had a near-death experience argue it can’t all be chalked up to neurology, however.
Whatever the cause behind it, it remains a fascinating topic of study. The more we study the processes of death, the more we can understand and better cope with it.