One of the wonders of being alive in the modern world is that your personal mental model of the world around you is constantly being challenged as new insights & information emerges. This long read in The Guardian tells us that the line between life and death is not as binary as we thought it was. What Alex Blasdel’s thought-provoking essay helped us understand is captured by the following excerpt from his piece:

“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. In 2011, Japanese doctors reported the case of a young woman who was found in a forest one morning after an overdose stopped her heart the previous night; using advanced technology to circulate blood and oxygen through her body, the doctors were able to revive her more than six hours later, and she was able to walk out of the hospital after three weeks of care. In 2019, a British woman named Audrey Schoeman who was caught in a snowstorm spent six hours in cardiac arrest before doctors brought her back to life with no evident brain damage.”

So, if death is a process what happens in the world where the heart has stopped pumping blood, the pulse is gone but the brain is still functioning? Answering this question is central to nailing down one of the great puzzles of science, namely, what exactly is consciousness. Studies of people with near-death experiences (i.e. their heart stopped but their brain didn’t and then hours or days later their heart started functioning again) has shed light on one of the greatest mysteries in science: “In January 2021, as the Covid-19 pandemic was surging toward what would become its deadliest week on record, Netflix released a documentary series called Surviving Death. In the first episode, some of near-death studies’ most prominent parapsychologists presented the core of their arguments for why they believe near-death experiences show that consciousness exists independently of the brain. “When the heart stops, within 20 seconds or so, you get flatlining, which means no brain activity,” Bruce Greyson, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia and one of the founding members of the International Association for Near-Death Studies, says in the documentary. “And yet,” he goes on to claim, “people have near-death experiences when they’ve been (quote) ‘flatlined’ for longer than that.”

That is a key tenet of the parapsychologists’ arguments: if there is consciousness without brain activity, then consciousness must dwell somewhere beyond the brain. Some of the parapsychologists speculate that it is a “non-local” force that pervades the universe, like electromagnetism. This force is received by the brain, but is not generated by it, the way a television receives a broadcast.

In order for this argument to hold, something else has to be true: near-death experiences have to happen during death, after the brain shuts down. To prove this, parapsychologists point to a number of rare but astounding cases known as “veridical” near-death experiences, in which patients seem to report details from the operating room that they might have known only if they had conscious awareness during the time that they were clinically dead. Dozens of such reports exist. One of the most famous is about a woman who apparently travelled so far outside her body that she was able to spot a shoe on a window ledge in another part of the hospital where she went into cardiac arrest; the shoe was later reportedly found by a nurse.”

Read Mr Blasdel’s mindblowing piece (no pun intended) to understand how scientists are closing in on the mystery of consciousness. As you read it you might be reminded of how Indian philosophers hit upon the concept of ‘atma’ (distinct from the being) 10K years ago.

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