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Does your life flash before your eyes at the time of death? We already know the answer!

Does your life ‘flash before your eyes’ when you die? That’s the question that has been posed by numerous media platforms in the wake of the release of a study at the end of February that documented an EEG recording taken (by chance) during a patient’s final moments.

An 87-year-old man had needed surgery after having a fall and experiencing a brain bleed. After the operation, he began to have seizures and so to monitor his brain signals was attached to an electroencephalogram (EEG) – he then had a heart attack and died.

As a result, it was found that in the 30 seconds before and after his heart stopping there was a surge in brain activity – and what’s more, in the gamma wave range, which is associated with consciousness, learning and memory.

It’s worth noting, however, that this study is recounting just a single case – and nobody really knows exactly what the man experienced. Most of the media hype about the study resulted from a throwaway line by one of the authors: “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,” Ajmal Zemmer had told the Daily Mail. Virality ensued, and the news spread around the globe.

That doesn’t mean it’s not worth paying attention to – an excellent article in Vice on the topic mentions that this study somewhat corroborates a few other previous studies, and may have important implications for end-of-life care and organ donation. But it might be a stretch to conclude that the surge of gamma wave activity means that the man was consciously experiencing something during his final moments.

The odd thing about the media hype about this study – given that it referred to a single case and guesswork was needed to assume what the man was experiencing – is that there is already plenty of evidence telling us that this does in fact occur. That evidence can be found in the near-death experience (NDE) research literature.

NDEs entered the public consciousness proper with the publication of Raymond Moody’s 1975 bestseller Life After Life. In his investigation of the experience, Moody found numerous cases of people who died and returned – or in some cases, simply came close to death – reporting that their life did indeed ‘flash before their eyes’. Although that is perhaps a rather superficial description: NDErs reported ‘panoramic’ life recalls of great fidelity and emotional weight in which, sometimes, they somehow were shown their entire lives in every detail, as well as experiencing their actions from the point of view of those they interacted with.

Moody found so many of these reports, in fact, that he made the life recall aspect part of his ‘archetypal’ NDE example. During an NDE, Moody said, an experiencer often…

…glimpses the spirits of relatives and friends who have already died, and a loving warm spirit of a kind he has never encountered before – a being of light – appears before him. This being asks him a question, nonverbally, to make him evaluate his life and helps him along by showing him a panoramic, instantaneous playback of the major events in his life.

We know that this wasn’t just an invention by Moody that has since turned up in later NDEs purely through expectation, as we have historical examples that confirm this element of NDEs. In my essay on pre-Moody experiences, “Death Before Life After Life“, I note the near-death experience recounted by British Navy Admiral Francis Beaufort, which occurred when he almost drowned in 1791:

With the violent but vain attempts to make myself heard I swallowed much water; I was soon exhausted by my struggles, and before any relief reached me sank below the surface – all hope had fled – all exertions ceased – and I felt that I was drowning… …Though the senses were thus deadened, not so the mind; its activity seemed to be invigorated in a ratio which defies all description, for thought rose after thought with a rapidity of succession that is not only indescribable, but probably inconceivable by anyone who has not himself been in a similar situation.

The course of these thoughts I can even now in a great measure trace…traveling backwards, every past incident of my life seemed to glance across my recollection in retrograde succession; not, however, in mere outline, as here stated, but the picture filled up with every minute and collateral feature. In short, the whole period of my existence seemed to be placed before me in a kind of panoramic review…indeed, many trifling events which had been long forgotten then crowded into my imagination, and with the character of recent familiarity… The length of time that was occupied by this deluge of ideas, or rather the shortness of time into which they were condensed, I cannot now state with precision.

Similarly, explorer Admiral Richard Byrd had a near-death experience during his Antarctic expedition in which “I saw my whole life pass in review”, and “realized how wrong my sense of value had been”.

And in 1892, Zurich geology professor Albert Heim presented his findings from 25 years of research into the experiences of people who had survived acute life-threatening situations, in particular mountain climbers. His summation not only touches on the idea of a life recall, but also the recent study’s suggestion that there is a burst of brain activity: “Mental activity became enormous,” Heim noted, “rising to a hundred-fold velocity or intensity. The relationships of events and their probably outcomes were overviewed with objective clarity. No confusion entered at all. Time became greatly expanded… In many cases there followed a sudden review of the individual’s entire past.”

(On a sidenote, as I recount in my essay it is also interesting that supposed deceased individuals, talking through ‘spirit mediums’, also describe this as a phase of their dying experience. “I was unconscious for just a moment. Then my entire life unreeled itself”. “I saw my life unfold before me in a procession of images. One is faced with the effects emotionally of all one’s actions.” Another communicator noted that at death his thoughts “raced over the record of a whole long lifetime.” All of this decades before NDEs became famous through Raymond Moody.)

Furthermore, on the idea of a burst of brain activity after the point of physical death, we have the testimony from ‘veridical NDEs’, where an experiencer relates things that happened while they were unconscious – and sometimes clinically dead – that they should not have been able to perceive. One such case is that of ‘Dentures Man’, which was mentioned in the respected journal The Lancet.

In this case from 1979, a 44-year-old man (‘Mr. B’) was brought into the emergency department at Canisius Hospital in the Netherlands by ambulance, after being discovered comatose, hypothermic and without a pulse in a cold, damp meadow in the middle of the night. Hospital staff, including the senior nurse (‘T.G.’), were beginning resuscitation on the patient when T.G. noticed that Mr. B was wearing dentures, so removed them and placed them on the ‘crash cart’ so that he could put a ventilation mask on the unconscious man.

After Mr. B was successfully ‘brought back’, he was transferred to the Intensive Care Unit, and so T.G. did not see the man again until a week later while doing rounds distributing medication. T.G. was astonished when, as he walked into the room, the patient he had brought back to life suddenly exclaimed ‘‘Oh, that nurse knows where my dentures are!’’. Seeing the look of surprise on T.G.’s face, Mr. B explained himself: since coming back to consciousness, Mr. B. had been looking for his dentures. ‘‘You were there when I was brought into hospital and you took my dentures out of my mouth and put them onto that cart,” he said. “It had all these bottles on it and there was this sliding drawer underneath and there you put my teeth”. T.G. was confused by this, as he remembered that he had done this when the patient was unconscious and undergoing CPR to bring him back to life:

When I asked further, it appeared the man had seen himself lying in bed, that he had perceived from above how nurses and doctors had been busy with CPR. He was also able to describe correctly and in detail the small room in which he had been resuscitated as well as the appearance of those present like myself. At the time that he observed the situation he had been very much afraid that we would stop CPR and that he would die. And it is true that we had been very negative about the patient’s prognosis due to his very poor medical condition when admitted. The patient tells me that he desperately and unsuccessfully tried to make it clear to us that he was still alive and that we should continue CPR. He is deeply impressed by his experience and says he is no longer afraid of death.

Given the abundance of first-hand evidence related to conscious experience, and life recalls, given by those who have approached and sometimes gone beyond the point of death, the media hype over this new study of just one case with an ambiguous EEG signal seems rather odd!

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