A woman laying in a bed


Written by Jacob Terranova


It’s a question that’s been asked through the ages. What happens when a person dies?


As humans, we’ve tried to answer the question in a multitude of ways. But the question still remains.


Despite the amount research on the human body and its functions, the aspect of death remains a mystery. But some researchers are making an effort to understand what happens inside the final moments of a person’s mind.


The process of dying

Because of technology, death comes slower than it has in the past. This has allowed for the topic to be studied more, and how scientists and healthcare professionals have found that dying is a process. The final days of a person’s life are known as “active dying” and it occurs in stages.


It starts with the loss of things like appetite and thirst until we eventually lose sight, touch, and speech. During the process of active dying, areas of the brain shut down too and chemicals begin to flood our receptors.


Neuroscientists claim these chemicals are what cause the classic “bright light at the end of a tunnel,” or “life flashed before my eyes” phenomena that are consistent with people who have had a near-death experience.


Final thoughts

Bran Activity

Brain activity floods our neural connections as depicted in this neural brain map from Brown University. Credit: Radu Jianu/Brown University

In 2013, the University of Michigan conducted a study that showed a brain can emit high levels of electrical activity even after clinical death.


The study found that the brain waves slowed down and stopped at the time of death. It was the moments after death that the brain waves started to pick back up — and at surprisingly high levels.


The study, published in a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, found that “High-frequency neurophysiological activity in the near-death state exceeded levels found during the conscious waking state.” The authors of the study think that in the moments preceding death, a brief heightened state of awareness is achieved. After that initial spike though, all brain activity ceases permanently.


The study, however, wasn’t recorded in a human brain, but in the brains of rats. Studies on the human brain are just beginning, but so far the research is too young to prove anything. The early studies that’ve been conducted on humans do show similar findings, though. Doctors at George Washington University Medical Center scanned the brain functions of seven critically ill patients after life support was removed, and an article about the study published in Scientific American said that the brain scan showed “jolts lasted 30 to 180 seconds and displayed properties that are normally associated with consciousness.”


These jolts of high-level energy could trigger areas in our brain that give us a sense of euphoria, as well as our memory centers — allowing us to relive past memories one final time.


While the research isn’t conclusive, it does offer some insight about what happens at the time of death. What are your thoughts? Share with us in the comments below!