Over the summer, I read a fascinating book by Sam Parnia entitled Erasing Death: The Science That Is Rewriting the Boundaries between Life and Death. Parnia specializes in resuscitation medicine, the focus of which is treating patients who have suffered cardiac arrest—in other words, bringing people who have “died” (clinically speaking) back to life. Parnia noticed, as have others before him, that a striking number of people who “die” and are successfully resuscitated have extraordinary experiences while in that nether region between life and death. Indeed, almost a fifth of all patients who suffer cardiac arrest and are clinically dead and then resuscitated experience lucid visions—the bright light, the tunnel, the shadowing figure beckoning from afar. And people who die and then come back report strikingly similar visions, suggesting that they aren’t just making things up to be dramatic. These reports are taken, by some, as proof of heaven. But as a scientist, Parnia was interested in going beyond religious explanations and trying to understand what was going on inside the brain during these Near Death Experiences. The question he explores is this: What happens to human consciousness during and after death? What physiological changes are occurring in the brain that give rise to the kinds of experiences so many people report?
As I was reading Parnia’s book, I couldn’t help but wonder about non-human animals: what happens to the consciousness of a dog during and after death? Might dogs and cats and other creatures experience lucid visions and hallucinations during the process of dying?
Of course we really don’t know. And it may be some time before scientists take seriously the idea that nonhuman animals might have near death experiences. But I suspect that the science, as it emerges, will surprise us. And as researchers focus more attention on human experience, we are bound to learn some interesting things about other animals along the way because, after all, we still use animals as the bedrock for scientific research.
A recent animal study sheds some interesting light on the NDE question. Jimo Borjigin, professor of physiology at the University of Michigan, and her team induced cardiac arrest in a group of rats and monitored their brain activity with an electroencephalograph. During the 30 seconds after death, the rats’ brains showed a surge of neuronal activity—higher even than when the rats were alive and awake. They summarize the results:
“High-frequency neurophysiological activity in the near-death state exceeded levels found during the conscious waking state. These data demonstrate that the mammalian brain can, albeit paradoxically, generate neural correlates of heightened conscious processing at near-death.”
This finding contradicts the long-held belief that brain activity slows or even stops during death. It also suggests, quite explicitly, that we’re not talking just about humans, but about “the mammalian brain.”
[The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science. You can find the abstract here. It was reported on by the BBC (read some of the fascinating comments on the BBC site), the New York Times and other news outlets.]
Why does this research matter? Well, for one thing, it is just plain interesting. But are there practical implications for nonhuman animals? Perhaps. There might be implications for animal welfare, within the context of animal research. As we learn more about what happens within the animal brain during death, we may need, for example, to reexamine the list of acceptable methods of euthanasia. And there may be implications for compassionate care of our companion animals, too. There are many questions to ask, such as “What happens to the consciousness of an animal during euthanasia?” Parnia’s book, and the research out of Michigan, both remind us that we understand very little about the mysteries of death, and what happens to the (human or nonhuman) “person” (consciousness, the soul, whatever you want to call it) during the dying process and after death.