Sooner or later you will die. We will all die. Everything that has a beginning has an end. This is an inevitable consequence of entropy, the second law of thermodynamics. Still, few people like to think about this alarming fact. The thought of your own death is hidden in the shadow of the unconscious, but you cannot get rid of it completely. But if death cannot be avoided, is it possible to find out what it really will be? Is it true that life dies before death and that when the brain dies, there is a strong release of endorphins and other chemicals that give the dying a feeling of euphoria?
The abstract knowledge of the inevitability of your own death in a beautiful moment can turn into a perceived reality – I will die! It is not known when and how, but in the end it will happen. Evolution has provided us with powerful defense mechanisms to fight the anticipation of our own doom – especially psychological oppression and religion. The first prevents us from consciously knowing or thinking about such an unpleasant truth, and the second reassures us by promising an endless life in heaven, an eternal cycle of rebirth or the loading of the spirit into the cloud – just like in that Black Mirror series.
In addition, death has no such dominance over other animals. At the very least, there is no reliable evidence that monkeys, dogs, crows, and bees have sufficient self-confidence to disrupt the understanding that one day they will be gone. Therefore, these protective mechanisms should have appeared in the recent development of hominids in less than 10 million years.
Anyone who tries to understand death will soon realize that death is not well defined, both scientifically and medically. In addition, throughout human history, everyone knew what death was. If someone stopped breathing and his heart was beating, it meant that the person was dead. Death was a well-defined point in time. However, with the development of medicine and technology, everything has changed. Modern high-tech intensive care has separated the heart and lungs from the brain, which is responsible for the mind, thoughts and actions.
In response to these technological developments in 1968, the famous report from the Harvard Medical School Special Committee presented the concept of death as an irreversible coma – loss of brain function. This adjustment was officially adopted in 1981. The document defines death as an irreversible disruption of circulatory and respiratory functions or an irreversible disruption of brain function. It's simple – you are dead when your brain stops working. This definition is used in most countries in the world today. The vast majority of deaths occur after cardiopulmonary activity stops and then after brain function. Neurological death – caused by irreversible coma, poor responses, or breathing – is rare outside the intensive care unit, where patients typically have head injuries or after an opioid overdose. Brain death may be a critical factor, but it does not simplify clinical diagnosis – biological processes can persist after brain death.
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1 Why is biological death inevitable?
2 What happens to the human body after death?
3 What is it like to die?
4 Is there an endorphin release before death?
Why is biological death inevitable?
Death creates space for new things. This statement also applies to the human body, which consists of billions of cells that divide every day and thus ensure growth. Living organisms have a very effective method of destroying excess or potentially dangerous cells such as viruses or cancer cells: programmed cell death – when old cells are replaced by new, identical cells. But over time, cell division slows down and stops. The telomeres – the end portions of the chromosomes – are probably responsible for this: when telomeres are shortened by cell division, the cells eventually stop dividing, which prevents old cells from dying. Today, scientists know that the shorter the telomeres, the faster the body ages. This even happens despite the existence of telomerase, an enzyme that can ensure continued cell division. The fact is that telomerase can also accelerate the development of cancer, which is why the enzyme is only active in a few cells.
It turns out that the process of physical aging ends with the failure of several organs: the cardiovascular system, the lungs and the brain do not work. From a medical point of view, there are different types of deaths: "clinical death", in which the cardiovascular system fails, the pulse and breathing stop, the organs are no longer supplied with oxygen and nutrients. In the event of clinical death, cardiopulmonary resuscitation is still possible and often successful. However, resuscitation is not possible in the event of brain death.
What happens to a person's body after death?
From the moment doctors diagnose death, organs can survive without oxygen and nutrients for some time. Gradually the cell division stops completely and then the cells die. If too many cells die, the organs can no longer regenerate. The fastest reaction takes place in the brain, where the cells die in three to five minutes. The heart can keep pounding for half an hour. As soon as the blood stops circulating, it sinks and forms "death spots". You can give the doctor information about the cause and location of death.
After two hours, posthumous rigidity sets in because the body no longer produces a vital source of energy for the cells. Adenosine triphosphate. Without it, the muscles become stiff. After a few days, this posthumous stiffness weakens again. The activity of the gastrointestinal tract stops completely after two to three days, and the bacteria contained in it accelerate the decomposition of the body. However, pathogens remain dangerous for a long time. For example, hepatitis pathogens live for several days and tuberculosis bacteria for years. It takes about 30 years to break down the human body.
What is it like to die
The results of a study published in PNAS by Jimo Borjigin and his colleagues at the University of Michigan can help explain what happens in the brain shortly before death. During the study, scientists caused cardiac arrest in rats while measuring electrical activity in the brain using electroencephalography (EEG). What they discovered was astonishing: before death, brain activity doubled at a certain frequency, known as the gamma range, more than in the animals' lifetime. For many years, gamma waves have been a sign of the consciousness of the human brain. Activity waves in the gamma region are believed to occur when we recall memories and are aware of what is going on around us. But could rats be in such a conscious state shortly before death?
Unfortunately, there is no exact answer to this question today. The fact is that correlation is not the same thing as causality. No matter how tempting it is to connect these bursts of neuronal activity and consciousness, there are at least two problems. First, we don't know whether rats perceive consciousness as we do. We also don't know what kind of brain activity it is. Second, even when the rats are conscious, we cannot conclude that these activity outbreaks reflect consciousness and are only from brain activity.
But why does the brain arrange such a show just before death? Does this reflect an attempt to understand unusual internal signals, or is it just a mechanism to overcome stress? The researchers tried to rule out pain as an explanation for the results. During the study, they found the same activity spurts when death occurred painlessly with carbon dioxide instead of artificial cardiac arrest. However, in order to get accurate answers, similar human studies will likely need to be performed. One such approach is to record the EEG in patients at the time of death.
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Another approach may be to cause similar gamma activity outbreaks in people at the time of vigilance and to check the level of awareness. According to Dave McGonagle, The Guardian's Cardiff University neurophysiologist, checking whether near-death experiences can be triggered by neurostimulation – through experiments that increase gamma synchronization in humans – can be a mix-up between correlation and causality.
Are Endorphins Released Before Death?
The actual moment of death is difficult to understand. However, according to the results of a recently published study, the amount of hormones and chemicals associated with stress in the body increases immediately before death. The same chemicals are present in the body of sick people and cause inflammation. Given such a change in the chemicals in the body, it can be assumed that a strong release of endorphins – chemicals that are responsible for pleasure and happiness – can occur immediately before death. The results of a study conducted in 2011 showed that serotonin levels, another chemical thought to also contribute to a feeling of happiness, tripled in the brain of six rats at the time of their death. It cannot therefore be ruled out that something like this can happen to people.
But apart from endorphins or other neurotransmitters, what can cause euphoric experiences during death? When the body stops working, brain activity stops. It is possible that the way this happens affects what we experience at the time of death. In her speech to TED, American neuroanatomist Jill Bolt-Taylor described the feeling of euphoria that she experienced during her near-death experience as a result of a left brain injury. It is also interesting that although the Bolt-Taylor injury was on the left side of the brain, the injury on the right side of the brain can also improve the feeling of closeness and participation in a higher force.
The process of dying is sacred to representatives of various religions, including Buddhists, who believe that the moment of death has great potential for the mind. They see the transition from life to death as the most important event in life – the moment when a person transfers karma from this life to other lives. However, this does not mean that religious people have happier experiences at the time of death. Ultimately, every death is unique and we cannot predict who will leave this world and under what circumstances.
Yet the results of another study published in Psychological Science show that negative thoughts and fear are replaced by happy thoughts immediately before death. Let's hope it is.