There's a shocking story in the Mail Online. Apparently, before you die, you're alive!
That's not quite how they put it, of course. They say:
"Scientists have discovered," says the story, "that a person's consciousness continues to work after the body has stopped showing signs of life."
The story is lifted from a science news site called LiveScience, and the idea is that people whose hearts have stopped sometimes still experience things.
The LiveScience piece is based on an interview with a doctor called Sam Parnia, director of critical care and resuscitation research at a New York University hospital. He's previously done research into what happens during death, and according to LiveScience is carrying out more research at the moment, although the piece does not appear to be based on any specific new published study but is rather a tie-in to the release of the Flatliners remake.
According to Parnia's previous research, the AWARE study, a six-year investigation published in 2014, found that people who have had a cardiac arrest occasionally report still being able to see and hear things.
That's surprising, according to Parnia, because "the brain typically ceases functioning within 20–30 seconds of the heart stopping and doesn’t resume again until the heart has been restarted".
The study wasn't able to confirm that these experiences were real, but it wasn't able to discredit them either. "More work is needed in this area," according to Parnia. If they're real, then presumably it means that our understanding of how the brain functions is even more incomplete than we currently think it is.
What it absolutely is NOT is evidence of "life after death", at least in any interesting sense. It's just that the medical definition of death doesn't match what most of us would call death.
Most of the time, doctors call "time of death" when the heart stops, because usually people whose hearts stop can't be resuscitated. But sometimes, with CPR and defibrillators and so on, they can. That's not what most of us would think of as "dying".
Wherever you draw the line between "definitely alive" and "definitely dead" is going to be arbitrary, like saying that children become adults on their 18th birthdays.
Think of it this way: If you told your friend "you can have my laptop when I die", and then you had a cardiac arrest but were resuscitated and came home, you'd probably be quite annoyed if your friend said they were taking your laptop anyway.
So all that's going on is that it might be that your brain carries on functioning, in some sense, for a bit longer than we thought after it is starved of blood flow.
Or, to put it another way: Before you die, you are alive.
The frustrating thing is that this sort of story gets reported all the time, and they're always based on interviews with people who, notably, are alive.
"I died, and then I came back to life!" Great, can I have your laptop? "No."
Tom Chivers is a science writer for BuzzFeed and is based in London.
Contact Tom Chivers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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