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23rd Feb 2022

Life really does flash before your eyes before death, study finds

Steve Hopkins

The dying brain ‘may be replaying some of the nicest moments they experienced in their lives’

A study of a dying person’s brain may have shed light on why people recall their lives in near-death experiences.

The findings, published in the journal Frontiers in Ageing Neuroscience, reveal patterns around the time of death similar to those during dreaming and memory recall, and challenge beliefs around exactly when life ends.

Neuroscientists were initially studying the brain waves of an 87-year-old epilepsy patient for seizures using an electroencephalography (EEG) device, but during the monitoring, she had a heart attack and died.

The ECG captured about 900 seconds –  15 minutes – of the pensioner’s brain activity as they died. Scientists, including Raul Vicente of the University of Tartu, Estonia, then attempted to investigate what specifically happened in the 30 seconds before and after the heart stopped.

According to the findings, as the patient was dying, there was an increase in brain waves known as gamma oscillations that typically occur during dreaming and memory retrieval, as well as others such as delta, theta, alpha, and beta oscillations.

Gamma oscillations, researchers explained by way of example, are linked to high-cognitive functions like concentrating, dreaming, meditation, memory retrieval, and conscious perception – like those linked to flashbacks.

Studies have also shown that alpha waves, which oscillate in the frequency of 8-12 hertz, could play a role in filtering out distracting sensory information.

The scientists speculated, based on what is already known, that the patient may have been making a “last recall of life.”

“Given that cross-coupling between alpha and gamma activity is involved in cognitive processes and memory recall in healthy subjects, it is intriguing to speculate that such activity could support a last ‘recall of life’ that may take place in the near-death state,” researchers noted.

“Through generating oscillations involved in memory retrieval, the brain may be playing a last recall of important life events just before we die, similar to the ones reported in near-death experiences,” study co-author Ajmal Zemmar, a neurosurgeon at the University of Louisville in the US, said in a statement.

The study noted that because the research was based on a single case and involved a patient who had also suffered injury, seizures, and swelling, interpreting the data was difficult and further investigations were needed.

“Something we may learn from this research is: although our loved ones have their eyes closed and are ready to leave us to rest, their brains may be replaying some of the nicest moments they experienced in their lives,” Dr Zemmar added.

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