For many, life’s greatest mystery is what happens after death – what, if anything, awaits after we take our final breath? Others, however, are more concerned with the more immediate practicalities.
What does the dying process feel like? Is there any consciousness that remains in the moments between this world and whatever comes next? Is it like the experience of falling asleep, a slow drift into nothingness, or are we aware of shuffling off this mortal coil?
“Dying is an experience unique to the individual and their loved ones,” explains Dr Patrick Steele, palliative care specialist at Victoria’s Palliative Care South East.
“There is much more than the physiological changes that contribute to the dying experience.
For example, a person’s personality, their burden of disease, the support of family and friends, the length of time with a terminal illness and their spirituality.”
There are, however, certain physiological changes that happen across the board.
“Regular breathing patterns can change,” he continues, “sometimes it can be faster than normal, and other times slower. In the final days there can be periods where there are long gaps between breaths. Breathing can become noisy at the end of life. This a build up of the body/s waste products/secretions. It often is more distressing to those listening than the individual who is dying.”
A study published earlier this year in Frontiers in ageing Neuroscience found the brain may remain active during and perhaps even after the moment of death.
Doctors were conducting continuous electroencephalography (EEG) on a patient who had developed epilepsy, when the patient had a heart attack and died during the process.
It allowed them to chart the activity of a human brain during death, and they discovered rhythms of activity similar to memory retrieval, dreaming, meditation and conscious perception.
This, hypothesised the study’s organiser Dr Ajmal Zemmar, a neurosurgeon at the University of Louisville, could mean that the idea that our lives ‘flash before our eyes’ as we die, holds merit.
“As a neurosurgeon, I deal with loss at times. It is indescribably difficult to deliver the news of death to distraught family members,” he told the Frontier News blog.
“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.”
Originally published as Our brains may ‘relive happy memories’ as we die