“What happens to us after we die?” This question has bewildered mankind since the dawn of human civilization. In attempting to find an answer, mythological traditions and major religions have arisen.
In 2008, everything changed with the launch of the AWAreness during REsuscitation (AWARE) study. This study has produced more information about what may happen after we pass away.
The AWARE study — which involved 2,060 cardiac arrest patients at 15 different hospitals in the United States, United Kingdom and Austria —had two goals:
The first was to assess awareness during resuscitation and examine the wide range of death-related mental experiences. The second goal was to use objective markers to devise a novel scientific procedure for determining the validity of reports of perception and awareness during cardiac arrest.
The study was published in Resuscitation on Oct. 6 and was sponsored by the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom.
It took four years to complete, and it found that death is a unique experience that extends far beyond what are often referred to as “near-death experiences” (NDEs) and “out-of-body experiences” (OBEs). Due to the lack of scientific backing, these death-related recollections are generally considered hallucinatory or illusory. The AWARE study aims to objectively assess whether claims of NDEs or OBEs during resuscitation from cardiac arrest correspond with real or hallucinatory events.
Dr. Sam Parnia, the study leader and a professor at SUNY Stony Brook, suggested that death may possibly be a reversible process that occurs after the heart, lungs and brain cease function. Parnia added that attempts to reverse the aforementioned process are referred to as cardiac arrest; however, failed attempts at reversal result in death.
In other words, the process of dying is comparable to travelling down a hill. One has to continue taking steps down the hill in order to reach the bottom, but given the correct circumstances, one can turn around and walk back up the hill as well. Parnia’s fresh view on death contrasts with the conventional view of death as a single moment that separates being alive from being dead.
In order to perform the study, researchers at each of the 15 hospitals conducted structured interviews with eligible cardiac arrest patients to assess their perceptions of awareness and memory of specific events during resuscitation. Of the 2,040 patients under consideration, 140 patients survived cardiac arrest and were able to undergo the interviews.
The researchers found that out of these 140 patients who were eligible to participate in the study, 39 percent described a perception of awareness but were unable to explicitly recall any specific events.
Parnia suggests that this may be because patients initially have mental activity during resuscitation but later lose those memories after recovery, due to the effects of either brain injury or sedative drugs on memory recall.
Among patients who reported perception of awareness and completed further interviews, 46 percent experienced a broad range of death-related mental recollections that were not compatible with NDEs, including fear and persecution. Only nine percent of patients reported experiences that were compatible with NDEs.
A mere two percent of patients reported full awareness compatible with OBEs including explicit recollection of “seeing” and “hearing” events. Parnia suggests that in some cases OBE-compatible memories of visual awareness could possibly correspond with actual events.
The complete range of recalled mental and cognitive experiences included feelings of fear, experiences with animals and plants, a bright light, feelings of violence and persecution, deja-vu, experiences with family and the ability to recall events after recovery from cardiac arrest.
Based on the results of the study, the researchers concluded that commonly used terms such as “near-death experience” and “out-of-body experience” are scientifically vague and may not be sufficient to accurately portray the actual experience of death. The researchers believe that rather than focusing on ambiguously defined medical states, future studies should instead focus on cardiac arrest events, which are biologically synonymous with death. Additionally, Parnia suggests that exploring the state of the human mind during the process of dying is very complex. Further investigation is required to gain a deeper understanding of the events that occur during death.
The researchers concluded that further studies are needed to determine whether awareness during resuscitation may have long-term adverse psychological effects on cardiac arrest survivors, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
As long as the wheel of life continues to turn, humans will continue to ponder the question “What happens to us after we die?” The results and implications of the AWARE study allow mankind to take one step closer to finding an answer.