Oh life! This thing where you’re born, where you grow up a bit, where you fall in love with a person (or a fish), where you spawn maybe other smaller people, and before you know it, It’s time to move on to the next part: death. The inevitable disappearance of our being.
There is an eclectic range of ways you can die.
Most of the time it is heart disease or cancer, but there are still around 600 annual victims of autoerotic asphyxiation.
Be that as it may, at some point you will experience clinical death, which is a kind of life, but without breathing or blood circulation.
In other words, it is the beginning of the transition from this life to the next.
For most people, death is not completely instant.
So what can modern science tell us about the experience of these last moments?
How does it feel to die?
In the final stage, when death approaches, people are often very sleepy, so we usually imagine the experience to be an unconscious, drowsy swoon from life.
But some experiences tell a very different story.
In 2013, scientists at the University of Michigan measured the brain activity of dying laboratory rats.
And something very interesting happened.
After the rats went into cardiac arrest, with no heartbeat or breathing, their brains showed an increase in overall activity, with low levels of gamma waves that were more synchronized throughout the brain than in the rats’ normal states of arousal. .
And, incredibly, this specific type of brain activity has been linked to people’s conscious perception in previous studies.
In other words, these rats could have experienced something while they were somewhere between clinical death and complete brain death.
The experiment challenged the assumption that the brain is inactive during death.
Rather, it seemed that before lasting unconsciousness there might be a period of heightened awareness, and he asked: what did the rats feel when they died?
Humans have larger and more complex brains than rats, but a very interesting experiment conducted at Imperial College London in 2018 shed some light on what death might look like in humans.
Scientists wanted to study the similarities between two very different phenomena.
On the one hand, near-death experiences, or NDEs, are the hallucinations experienced by approximately 20% of people who have been resuscitated after clinical death.
On the other hand, hallucinations caused by DMT, a psychedelic drug (which reliably generates a wide range of subjective effects on human brain functions, including perception, affect, and cognition).
Study subjects were then given doses of DMT, and when they came back to reality, they were asked to describe their experiences using the checklist commonly used to assess near-death experiences.
And they were surprised to see an incredible amount of common ground.
Both NDE and DMT experiences included sensations such as “transcendence of time and space” and “oneness with nearby objects and people.”
The near-death experience turned out to be strikingly similar to a powerful hallucinogen.
A psychedelic ending?
When we look at death, we see it as a dark process of incorporation. But science asks: what if it was psychedelic?
We asked Dr Chris Timmermann, who led the research at Imperial College London, what this experience might tell us about death.
“I think the main lesson of the research is that we can find death in life and in life experiences,” he said.
“What we know now is that there appears to be an increase in electrical activity.
“These gamma waves appear to be very pronounced and may be responsible for near-death experiences.
“There are also specific regions in the brain, such as what we call the medial temporal lobes, areas that deal with memory, sleep and even learning, that could also be related to these experiences.
“In a way, our brains simulate a form of reality.”
About 20% of people who have been declared clinically dead and are alive report NDEs.
Does everyone experience them and only a few remember them or are these experiences very rare?
“It is very possible that there is a lack of recall for different reasons,” explained Timmermann.
“In our experience with the psychedelic DMT, we have seen that when we give them high doses, there is a part of the experience that is also forgotten.
“What happens, I think, is that the experience is so new, it is ineffable or difficult to put into words.
“When an experience exceeds the ability to describe it with language, we have difficulty remembering it.
“But it may also be that some people don’t experience it.”
What other research could help us understand death?
“It’s very interesting what’s going on these days with brain scans and how we can understand what’s going on in the brain, how that goes back to experience,” he replied.
“There are scans that are done on people where you can read, if they’re watching a movie, what kind of movie they’re watching.
“So it is possible that at some point our brain imaging techniques will be so advanced that we will be able to read people’s minds to better understand what brain mechanisms underlie these very extraordinary and unusual experiences.”
The science of death is a pretty murky picture, but what we already know paints a surprisingly rosy picture.
For example, we know that people who have had near-death experiences often report feelings of calm and serenity and show lasting reductions in stress associated with death.
We also know that NDEs are overwhelmingly described as painless, which means that the heightened awareness we might experience at death is likely to be painless as well…
And maybe a little fun.
Research also shows that people tend to black out in a specific order.
First hunger and thirst, then speech and vision.
Hearing and touch seem to last longer, meaning many people can hear and feel loved ones in their final moments, even when they seem unconscious.
And a recent analysis of the cerveau of a dying epileptic patient mounted an activité liée à la mémoire et aux rêves, which led to the speculation that the pourrait même and avoir une part de verité dans “vous voyez la vie défiler devant his eyes”.
Finally, we know from these experiences that the experience of death could involve heightened, possibly hallucinatory, awareness. One last psychedelic trip before anything else.
“In a society like ours, where we tend to deny death and try to sweep it under the rug, I think that’s one of the great lessons that psychedelic research can teach us: how to integrate it into our lives,” Timmerman concluded.
In the end, we are all going to die. But these experiences showed that the transition between life and death could be much more experiential, emotional and even psychedelic than we thought.
We are programmed like animals to fear our death, but understanding death more deeply helps us relax a bit.
These last moments may not be scary. They are just part of an inevitable journey to an unknown destination, probably painless and potentially psychedelic.
*This rating is based on a BBC Reel video. If you want to see it, click here.