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Your Brain on Death

Art by Reese Green

By Anna Rees

Consciousness is a challenging thing to define, and its edges become especially fuzzy when we take a look at extraordinary events like near death experiences. A near death experience (NDE) is considered experienced awareness during unresponsive conditions, what scientists call “disconnected consciousness”, and it is associated with a dramatic spike in brain activity during an unresponsive period in a life-threatening situation like a coma or cardiac arrest. Near death experiences lead to some fascinating phenomena that bring death’s black box into more light. Since medicine and our ability to resuscitate people have improved dramatically in recent history, reports of near death experiences are increasingly common. Researchers set out to understand the intricacies of human consciousness, and what people may be experiencing during the most mysterious yet universal occurrences of all life: death.

Consciousness has 3 facets that help us understand the uniqueness of NDEs: internal awareness, or mental imagery that is independent of environmental input; wakefulness; and connectedness, or a person's awareness of their surroundings. A NDE is very high internal awareness with no wakefulness or connectedness: think of it as the most realistic feeling, vivid dream you could possibly imagine during the deepest sleep of your life.When faced with a highly traumatic experience, the brain attempts to protect you from facing the brunt of this trauma. In classical NDEs, the brain may accomplish this by focusing on internally generated experience as a “psychological protection mechanism so as to cope with acute stress or trauma experiences.” When in a state of altered consciousness, there are limited external stimuli that can help your brain to piece together what is happening to you. Since many NDEs happen in similar settings (i.e a hospital room), repeated phenomena across NDEs, such as someone “seeing the light” or a feeling of overwhelming peacefulness may be the experiences trying to piece together a story with the ambiguous features of critical circumstances.

While NDEs may not explain much about the afterlife, they do help us to understand what may be going on in people’s minds during the moments before death. Evaluating these phenomena brings insight into the brain’s defense mechanisms in moments of acute stress, and to what lengths the brain may go to in order to try to puzzle together what is happening when little sensory input is available. One day, we will all cross the proverbial veil and finally have the age-old question answered;, for now, understanding what happens in our minds during those moments before death brings us one step closer to having the answer in life.


Martial, C., Cassol, H., Laureys, S., & Gosseries, O. (2020). Near-Death Experience as a Probe to Explore (Disconnected) Consciousness. Trends in cognitive sciences, 24(3), 173–183.


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