Years ago I read a SciFi book called Passages by Connie Willis. In the book a team of doctors investigate brain activity during near death experiences and find that subjects often return to the same hallucinations before they are brought back to consciousness. Their explanation was that as the brain dies it is struggling to make sense of the experience and projects an illusion to try to explain it. This is consistent with modern brain research that shows brain function constantly projecting inferences to make sense of information. If you give it confusing information, it will still project a reality to make sense out of it,sometimes resulting in some dissonant outcomes and perceptions.
That led me to think about the common stories about life after death as experienced by real people having undergone near death experiences, such as the bright light or one’s life flashing before one’s eyes. If the brain is physically in tact at death, such as in a drowning, it would have to try to interpret the experience of dying somehow. We know that in dream states time can be very flexible, so that a moment can expand into a perception of a long time. I came to believe that there was a likelihood that on death we are probably treated to some kind of final dream (or nightmare) that might be experienced as quite prolonged even though it could only be a few minutes. (Certainly, should death be the result of a trauma such as exploding or burning, the dying person would be deprived of this experience.)
This prospect falls entirely within the scope of empirical science. There’s nothing metaphysical about it. It is consistent with everything we know about brain function. If one were to add to this the idea that there is an energy field around the body, such as an aura, which contains some of the consciousness, and if such an energy field were to maintain, then the life after death experiences may continue even for a period after complete brain death. That’s much broader speculation, but is suggested by many spiritual beliefs.
That brings us to the question of what constitutes brain death and the Macleans interview with Dick Teresi. In this disturbing interview and in his book, The Undead, he postulates that brain death is an arbitrary decision, often defined by practical consideration driven by organ donation. When a cadaver has it’s organs harvested, it is often still on life support. Cessation of brain activity constitutes brain death, and then the body is cut open without any regard for what kind of pain the cadaver may be feeling. Often such action is accompanied by spikes in blood pressure or neural activity. Read the article. It’s quite informative and very disturbing.
Totally aside from that fact that my dead body, with critical functions being maintained by life support to facilitate organ donation, may be experiencing the pain of being sliced open, I also can’t help but be concerned with what that may be doing to this brain death experience that I could be going through. Even though the brain stem is dead (which is what constitutes brain death) there may still be cortical activity and I still may be dreaming in one way or another. The Macleans article makes it clear that the current medical or hospital definition of death is the most shallow that history has ever seen. I don’t want to be dreaming about being sliced open. I don’t want my autonomical activity to spike in some semblance of pain as my heart or liver is removed.
But most of all, I don’t want that possible dream state, which may be the closest that any of us get to heaven, to be stunted or traumatized.
I fully recognize that organ donation is an important and noble medical practice. I wouldn’t want to inhibit the procedure or frighten people or make relatives of past donators uneasy. But, given the revelations in the article and in Teresi’s book, this is undoubtedly a question and issue into which there must be more research and consideration. It is too easy to dismiss the dead. They can’t really speak for themselves. If there is any possibility that death is being defined by pragmatic needs for organ donors, a clarification is essential.