Life after death? Science may be getting closer to an answer

Where do we go when we die? When our hearts stop, our lungs cease to process oxygen and the electricity buzzing through our neurons fizzles out, do we cease to exist?

Thousands of people report having near death experiences during medical procedures. When their hearts stopped beating, patients claim they left their bodies and floated above the operating table. Many say they could hear the doctors trying to save them, but were pulled upward toward a white light.

Upon resuscitation, patients who had near death experiences shocked doctors by repeating conversations the physician had while describing complex medical equipment not visible from the operating table.

Was this a side-effect of chemical processes in a dying brain or something else? Could near death experiences offer a glimpse into a world beyond our physical existence?

-- Research --

A scientific study in hospitals around the world is exploring the question. The AWARE study is a long-term project that aims to study the relationship between mind consciousness and the brain in patients who undergo cardiac arrest. Research is currently being conducted at 25 major medical centers in Europe and the United States.

-- Methods --

Researchers monitor the brain activity and blood oxygen levels of patients in an effort to determine their level of consciousness when, during the course of medical treatment, their hearts stop.  Perhaps most interestingly, scientists are using hidden objects that cannot be viewed from a patient’s position on the gurney. These are typically images that face upward toward the ceiling.  The objects serve as “independent objective markers” that can only be visible to someone floating above the room. If a patient has a near death experience, they may be able to describe the hidden object to researchers.

Data from the study are being processed and an update is expected by the end of this year. Results will be peer reviewed and eventually published.

-- Philosophy meets physics --

Some scientists have developed theories on what happens when we die. While many of their peers balk at the idea of a “soul” or “spirit” that is separate from our physical bodies, these theories assume the presence of a “soul” or at least consciousness that is separate from autonomic brain activity.

1. Quantum Immortality:  The newest theory, quantum immortality suggests that your consciousness can be found inside microtubules. These tiny structures are located inside brain cells. When you die the information inside the microtubules -- your soul -- doesn’t disappear. Instead, it is absorbed into the universe.

2. Thermodynamics: If you paid attention in your college physics class you may recall the law of thermodynamics. It states that energy cannot be created nor destroyed. It goes on to say that energy can only be converted.

This theory takes quite a leap in assuming that your “soul” is a form of energy that we don’t quite understand. But since it is -- according to the theory -- energy, even in death it cannot be destroyed. It is instead converted into something else.

Science may never be able to answer the question that has intrigued humans since the beginning of time. However, studies like AWARE aim to tread further in a realm which will ultimately be experienced by every one of us.