National Geographic News
The 1793 painting ''The Death of Marat'' shows a dead man in a bathtub with a sublime smile.

New research shows that the brain pulses after death (pictured: "The Death of Marat," 1793).

Painting by Jacque-Louis David via DEA Picture Library/Getty Images

Diane Cole

for National Geographic

Published August 14, 2013

Can a new study lay the basis for the scientific understanding of mystical-sounding near-death recollections, filled with vivid light and vibrant meetings with deceased loved ones?

When researchers recorded and analyzed electroencephalograms (EEGs) of the brain activity of rats during cardiac arrest, they discovered that in the seconds after the heart stopped beating, there was a final burst of brain activity characteristic of conscious perception.

The finding indicates that the source of the electrical activity in the immediate aftermath of clinical death was the brain itself, not an outside or supernatural source.

National Geographic spoke with lead study author Jimo Borjigin, Ph.D., associate professor of physiology and neurology at the University of Michigan Medical School.

What questions were you trying to answer with your study?

We were testing the assumption: At the moment of cardiac arrest, is the brain really dead? At the moment the heart stops, does the brain go silent right away? The assumption is that the brain has no activity at the point after the heart stops—and therefore any vivid visual experiences, such as bright lights or seeing deceased relatives, has to be supernatural in origin or something we just don't understand.

And what did you find?

Our study found the opposite of that assumption: that even after the heart stops, the brain not only still functions but is hyperactive, exceeding levels found during the conscious waking state. The final burst of brain activity lasted about 30 seconds.

What makes this finding significant?

This is the first experiment to show that there may be some scientific, rational reasons to explain what's going on during that critical moment when the heart stops. The ground for the supernatural interpretation of the experience is no longer solid. It is shaken because our study shows that the brain at that moment has elevated activity.

How do study findings and observations in the brains of rats relate to what happens in human brains and human beings?

In people's descriptions of life-after-death experiences, there are light perceptions associated with visual function. If you were to say those experiences came from their brains, their visual cortex had to be activated. So with rats, we'd have to look at their visual cortex as well, which is what we did. Our data shows the visual cortex is highly activated in rats after the heart stops. There are no data about this for humans, but we would now know what to look for in humans because of this study.

People's near- and after-death experiences also often include meetings with dead relatives. Does this study tell us anything about that?

We don't have any data for that. Perhaps a memory is triggered at the moment of crisis. But that's speculation.

Is there a reason for that last burst of brain activity?

In general, the brain is very plastic in recovering and finding solutions to injury or crisis. For example, for the brain to recover from sleep loss, you just have to sleep more later on. The heart stopping is the severest crisis the brain will ever see. I have a hypothesis—there is no proof of this—that perhaps this [final burst of increased brain activity] is a built-in defense against this kind of crisis. I hypothesize the evolutionary reason for that increased activity in the brain is simply the brain trying to rescue itself. It's the last-ditch effort.

Why do you think this study is generating so much interest?

Until now there hasn't been a scientific explanation for these experiences, and survivors are looking for explanations. In fact, I think the incidence of having these experiences is even more frequent than reported.

Why would that be?

I think they don't want to be thought about as being weird. Many scientists are dismissive. They may feel they have nowhere to turn. This study provides an alternative explanation.

Will this study convince people, one way or the other, about the existence of life after death?

It's very hard to change people's minds, to convince people about life after death or not.

Are you planning further experiments to follow up?

Scientific research in this area has not received a lot of funding, but I have lots of ideas. The amount of attention this study is receiving reflects the degree of public interest, and that there are scientific reasons to study this area.

47 comments
Leong San
Leong San

Interesting. I do hope that things don't vanish just like that. Reported cases of past life memories may be are hints that life after death does exist. The above test also can't explain out of body experience.  I'm not sure about animals, but i was thinking that as long as animals have brain to contain consciousness, they would have afterlife. 

Judy Boykin
Judy Boykin

Years ago, my mother experienced a very severe heart attack in her kitchen.  Before she became unconscious, she jiggled the wall phone's cord which prompted an operator - who called for an emergency ambulance.  Then, as my  mother described, as she swooned into unconsciousness, she heard her front door being broken down and lots of people around her, "doing things." Then she said that she died.  During what she said was her first moments as a dead person, she described a bright light that seemed to beckon her, and she said that she felt strong and joyful!  My mother was not particularly religious, so she didn't think Jesus was coming for herl - just that there was nothing to fear...then she woke up - in the ambulance, and people were shouting at her, making her talk and look at them - and that she missed the bright light.

When we, her children heard her relate that amazing story, we all felt more confident of our own eventual deaths...for some reason...

I have read recently that most people who have similar experiences, almost always mention the bright light...I think it is the brain, trying to hold onto life, and the retinas of our eyes, responding...impossible?  

denise fisk
denise fisk

i do believe in life after death (as a result of my spiritual beliefs). i also believe that many people who are immediately dying do see a light at the end of the tunnel. some may call this the "God Light," and some may not. either way, i am more than convinced that a person's spirit does go on to a better afterlife when the body dies. however, i also found this article quite interesting. the author does make some interesting statements.

Ina von Boetticher
Ina von Boetticher

This is exactly what science is doing. Here a box, there a box, everywhere a box... box. Yes, understandably, science wants to have proof to be able to explain all sorts of things. But does that mean that whatever you cannot prove - or as a matter not understand - does not exist? Did a greater Universe never exist before the invention of highly sophisticated telescopes?

NDE's are more complex than just seeing some light (which rat told the scientists that they saw light???). NDE's often include observations which include detailed descriptions of what happened, that no person going through an NDE could just simply have imagined. I dare say so as a dear friend of mine was going through several NDE's and was a very accurate witness of the procedures the doctors performed as well as what relatives said and did in a room adjacent to the room where his body was lying.

This experiment is yet ONLY another proof of some brain activity which occurs after death. To me the explanation that the brain was trying to rescue itself makes much more sense and therefore goes into "high gear" and exercises a last full blast (does the light come from that?) attempt to restore business as usual.

N. Quazi
N. Quazi

How interesting! It just goes to show how the brain never fails to surprise. :)

Roscislaw Kaczarowski
Roscislaw Kaczarowski

My heart stopped beating at least three times. Every once I lost consciousness instantaneously. I do not remember anything, neither light nor darkness. Nothing. Fortunately, after at least several(?) seconds my heart took action again or I was rescued, so I can tell you this story. Therefore I do not believe in the "after-death" stories.

Hannah Lloyd
Hannah Lloyd

You are the eyes of the world.....Longchenpa.

Sameer Sam
Sameer Sam

i think people see there dead relative at that point of last minute coz maybe in there life time some where they have though about there dead and that memory has been trigged at the last moment .in short must be they momery thats recall which we keep in our minds during our life time

Mimí Blue
Mimí Blue

I guess  It´s incredible, but I like thinking that god y a real entity..

Remi Dallaire
Remi Dallaire

And that's why we need to legalize POT hehehee

Peter Jones
Peter Jones

For crying out loud people, this was a study on rats, not people!!! 

Trying to compare a rat's NDE with a human's NDE is patently absurd. 

The study merely proves that rat brain activity continues after clinical "death" has occurred.


Leila Russell
Leila Russell

I have years a go, a after life experience too. Was in the Surgery room in one very serious surgery. I saw the light and the tunnel, and I have out body experience too, and I saw a lot people , and felt the tunnel suction that try to suction me,  and I saw all the medical team work in me.

Although  I decide don't go true the tunnel because I don't want to live this world yet I have things to do, and then I want to  get back to my body, it was such as impossible, because I can't go in it.   Until final I  have conversation and one agreement  with one authority figure who as there and then I went back to my body just exactly in the end of the surgery and the Dr. said to me don't worry everything will be fine , you survive the surgical operation. 

 I was Atheist and after that I continue to be. And I think all this experience was based in my memories of my childhood, because I was race in Catholic School and all this ideas and information are in my subconscious that it was bring back in this near dead experience .

Adrian sommerville
Adrian sommerville

I have experience a "near death experience", rather I explain it as I actually died. The study is absolutely correct, although I wasn't seeing a bright light, I was hovering over myself and watching the paramedics work on my revival. It was an exceptionally peaceful moment, particularly after being trapped in a car and in pain for over an hour, and for the next 15 hrs, I refused all pain killers, in the hope that I would return to that peaceful place. For the record, I am an Athiest and that experience 25 years ago did not change my view, and I still remember the event like it was yesterday.

Duke Deltree
Duke Deltree

No... you say!   Dying cause the brain to hallucinate you might experience confusion, really and delusion no you say... not illusions also... and might start someone to believe in the ridiculous. Wow! wowie zowie!

Sonny Fellers
Sonny Fellers

"Near death experiences may create hyperactive brain." See what I did there? 

John C.
John C.

The study is based on a common logical fallacy. Coincidence does not equal causality; brain activity coinciding with spiritual experience does not necessarily equal spiritual experience. 

A human being is more than just a complex 75 year biochemical reaction.

Jolanta Şahin
Jolanta Şahin

For those who comment about it: Supernatural does not exist. Everything is natural, have reasons behind it and is explainable. All you have to do is seek. And those who seek always find.

Now "Then I was surrounded by the most beautiful, calming, soothing light. I was enveloped by such deep profound unconditionally love, compassion, understanding and healing." - Maybe the brain is trying to make a stressful experience more pleasant. It is handing you a soft pillow for your fall.

Stephanie McGill
Stephanie McGill

LIke the three moths that debated their thoughts on the lit candle. One circled at a safe distance and came back to report that it was a light. Another went and ventured even closer and came back to report that it was also heat. The last one ventured even further to experience and understand the total essence of the flame by trying to go through it. Did he have an experience? Yes. However, the other two moths will never know his experience and will continue to debate on what they have experienced and tested personally.

LaVerne Keller
LaVerne Keller

IMHO this study may for these 'scientists' explain some part of the Near Death Experience(NDE) but I see one big problem with this theory. That being that in the majority of NDE stories the person talks about rising from their physical body towards the ceiling of the room, and looking down on their body and any EMTs or Paramedics/Drs working to save them. Then they report the journey down the dark tunnel passing scenes from their life and entering a brilliant light and sensing if not totally seeing a divine personage and feeling welcomed with love and joy, but being told that it's not yet their time before traveling back to their body. What I'd like to know is how do these 'scientists' explain the spirit floating over their body, and reporting things that conciously they should have no knowledge of at all such as the names of the people who worked to save them, nor other things that a person who's supposedly not concious should have any knowledge of. So Nat Geo how about it how do you explain that part of the NDE? 

JoAnn Smerage
JoAnn Smerage

I am sorry, but I have had many near death experiences. They lasted longer than 30 seconds and I saw no dead relatives. At first I would see myself and the room absolutely clearly and hear everyone. Then I would drift out of the room. Then I saw a face I did not know so full of concern telling me I was safe, it was ok. Never seen a human face here so clearly with so much concern I knew something really bad had happened again. Then I was surrounded by the most beautiful, calming, soothing light. I was enveloped by such deep profound unconditionally love, compassion, understanding and healing. No recollection of any human experience comes close. Visual and auditory elements high def on steroids. I did not want to leave. But each time I was told it wasn't my time yet. I was still needed here for a greater and higher purpose than I would ever understand here. I wish I could download one of them to share with others. You have to experience one to truly understand what is real and of true value here. I am a scientist, a civil engineer, but there are some things science will never be able to explain.

Andrew Riley
Andrew Riley

Let's make sure that we thoroughly seperate the physical and spiritual, Put everything in nice clean little boxes. That's how the world works after all.


Marissa Biebert
Marissa Biebert

Another article about how science MUST disprove faith; another article about how it's the one thing that frightens scientists the most.

Sachin Dalal
Sachin Dalal

Can the researcher first explain what 'life' is precisely before trying to explain 'life after death'? To me answering the latter is harder without answering the former.

If he says that 'life' is mere bodily existence (which would mean that even boulders are living), then of course 'life' doesn't exist after body ceases to exist or at least not in that form.

If he says that 'life' is some force/energy then it is easier to explain how that energy transforms after its matter-form ceases to exist.

To me the best way to understand what 'life' means is to answer what makes a group of non-living atoms (in classical sense) manifest as a living cell.

Luca Filipe
Luca Filipe

"The ground for the supernatural interpretation of the experience is no longer solid." 

-So there was something solid about supernatural interpretations? 

"Is there a reason for that alst burst of brain activity?" 

-Well the brain just noticed that there is no oxygen incoming, we are survival machines, all cells will fight untill the end. I can't even imagine why people would think that the remaining living cells would just give up.

Kathleen Egan Vallée
Kathleen Egan Vallée

My brother-in-law was in palliative car for a week before he died of cancer. He told the nurse that he had been on the other side, that it was beautiful and that many friends and relatives were waiting for him. She asked  'Are you leaving today?' and he answered 'Oh no! I'm leaving in 3 days.' Three days later, he left. I'm not a religious person, but this experience makes me believe in an after-life.

Ross Beake
Ross Beake

Could this be the beginning of science understanding what happens after death? Fascinating

Azura Jalil
Azura Jalil

If the flash of brain activity only lasts 30 seconds, why do people who have been clinically dead for minutes or even hours report experiences lasting much longer than 30 seconds? 

Derek Atkins
Derek Atkins

Just because there is a rational, physical explanation for the brain's activity after death doesn't rule out the possibility that supernatural factors are also involved.  It's very possible that Near-Death Experiences have both physical and spiritual components.

Steve Runfeldt
Steve Runfeldt

If you shine a flashlight in someone's eyes the same areas of the brain will light up.   Does that disprove the existence of the flashlight?  

All this study shows is that the brain shows a similar pattern at the time of death to external stimulation at other times.   Maybe the brain is responding to a supernatural experience.  

The brain has to respond in order for us to have memory of the experience.  Whether the experience is a response to external stimuli, internally generated or a response to something metaphysical cannot be determined at the neurobiological level. 

Leong San
Leong San

@Sameer Sam It is hard then to explain why those NDE only see their deceased family members and not tho alive family members..

ramon Gomez
ramon Gomez

@Mimí Blue Mimi this apply only to mouses no Moses; If mouse have after life experience then something is wrong with religions!

This is fun!!!

Poornima Ravishankar
Poornima Ravishankar

@Adrian sommerville what do you mean when you say hovering over yourself? As in were you looking at yourself, or were you in the same position that your body was and you were aware of your body underneath you? 

Peter Jones
Peter Jones

@John C. 

Neuroscience recognizes that  human consciousness is far more complex than and cannot be defined by simple biochemical reactions. But that being said, it also recognizes that consciousness is an artifact of neurological activity.

Without a brain there is no self and no consciousness. This is fairly indisputable and has yet to be proven otherwise. 

If you have any question about the brain's role in creating awareness, go spend some time with dementia and Alzheimer patients.  

Lastly, recognizing that we cease to exist beyond death is not in-congruent with belief in a divine creator - that is, unless you're a Christian who wants to go to heaven, in which case, you have my sympathies.... 

santiago amavisca
santiago amavisca

@Jolanta Şahin Really the creation of the world and your supposed "singularity" is explainable? Humor me and explain it then smart guy.

John C.
John C.

@Jolanta Şahin 

Why bother? What evolutionary advantage would that confer to an individual or the species as a whole?

Jordan Pasek
Jordan Pasek

@LaVerne Keller As someone who has done psychedelics, I can attest that it is perfectly within the scope of your brain to have an out of body experience where you literally perceive yourself as floating detached from your body. The as for clinically dead people knowing details about surgery, the article clearly states that the brain does not immediately stop working after the heart does. It is possible that the brain is still processing external information, possibly even more acutely since it is in overdrive. It is ridiculous for you to demand explanations for all aspects of NDE's from one study alone. Perhaps more studies will reveal further the details of these hallucinations, until then we ought to stick to hard evidence, not speculate on the supernatural. Remember that supernatural explanations are outside the scope of science. I find it interesting that so many people like you have such a problem with researchers trying to look at NDE from a purely physical perspective. Do you believe this research is trying to devalidate your religion? Do you feel that science is crossing a sacred boundary? I'd truly like to know your and others problem with such studies.

kevin le pape
kevin le pape

@LaVerne KellerYes, and this persons can describe what the paramedic team done 'on him'... And the argument like of course our brain isn't dead, but with eyes close it's difficult...

This is just some theory of professor, why not interviewed surgeons, it will not be the same speech.

Casey Monahan
Casey Monahan

@Sachin Dalal Check out Dr. Gilbert Ling.  He is a scientist who is trying to answer that question right now.

John C.
John C.

@Peter Jones @John C. 

Why would Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists or any of he other innumerable faiths throughout history that believe in an after life require your sympathy?

In many documented cases of NDE's patients later reported visual details about the medical staff, emergency procedures and treatment room that proved to be accurate although they were completely unconscious at the time. This is not an artifact of neurological activity since there was no visual activity. The details were so specific that they could only have been made by direct visual observation, not hallucination or vaguely conjured from imagination as the patient groggily recovered post operatively.

There are many documented cases of terminal lucidity where Alzheimer's and other severely neurologically compromised patients suddenly regain full consciousness and normal cognitive function for a brief period of hours before death, confounding any medical explanation.

These cases suggest that consciousness, while normally intimately operating in congruence with the nervous system, could exist and operate separately and apart from the nervous system  when it is severely compromised.

John C.
John C.

@Peter Jones @John C. 

Why would Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists or any of he other innumerable faiths throughout history that believe in an after life require your sympathy?

In many documented cases of NDE's patients later reported visual details about the medical staff, emergency procedures and treatment room that proved to be accurate although they were completely unconscious at the time. This is not an artifact of neurological activity since there was no visual activity. The details were so specific that they could only have been made by direct visual observation, not hallucination or vaguely conjured from imagination as the patient groggily recovered post operatively.

There are many documented cases of terminal lucidity where Alzheimer's and other severely neurologically compromised patients suddenly regained full consciousness and normal cognitive function for a brief period of hours before death, confounding any medical explanation.

These cases suggest that consciousness, while normally intimately operating in congruence with the nervous system, could exist and operate separately and apart from the nervous system  when it is severely compromised.

Yutapun L.Suwaratana
Yutapun L.Suwaratana

@Jordan Pasek @LaVerne Keller 

Well, with that very logic, you really can't say "Remember that supernatural explanations are outside the scope of science" can you? We couldn't say that until we've disproved all supernatural experiences which is awfully vague and impossible.

I still think, scientifically, we can't disprove a theory that states we are intelligent computers created by extra terrestrial or extra dimensional beings for whatever purpose they would have. There are systems and patterns and there's math and stuff, who's to say it's not all an incredible and mind-blowing biological computer programmed in the language of DNA?

In that sense, we could still acknowledge a higher power or creator without admitting to an afterlife. We create robots that kind-of think don't we? They can think of robot heaven all they want, but just because we created them doesn't mean we're going to welcome them into our arms after they kick the blue-screen bucket on us. 

Robot heaven is child laborers picking their circuit boards clean of copper.

Azura Jalil
Azura Jalil

@Ross Beake @Azura Jalil  If you can perceive such things indefinitely, then your consciousness hasn't died, and the experience would be "supernatural" or "spiritual". DMT also plays a role. Most people who were dead had little perception of time, not knowing whether they were gone for minutes or hours. Seems like time is something more tangible for us in conscious life. 

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