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Your brain may really replay your entire life before you die

It will haunt you.

By Elizabeth Rayne
Liz near-death experience GETTY

You know how it’s always been whispered that right before you die, scenes from your entire life flash through your head like a movie being fast-forwarded at warp speed?

The edge of death has been seen in pop culture again and again. Movie scenes often show people whose souls float out of their bodies or who appear to watch themselves reliving their lives when they are really lying unconscious. If you’re a fan of the manga and anime Black Butler, then you know how a filmstrip of someone’s life will appear right before a grim reaper slashes it forever (Grell’s chainsaw is especially sick). But is any of this based in reality?

Hamlet famously says, “But in this sleep of death, what dreams may come.” Sleep and death actually do mirror each other in a way. Neuroscientists who treated a dying patient have found that what happens in the human brain during the last moments of life is eerily similar to dreaming, meditation, and recalling memories. It wasn’t even intended to be a study of death. The 87-year-old patient suffered from epilepsy and was being monitored by electroencephalography, or EEG, to detect seizures — but passed away in the process.

Because this patient’s death happened so unexpectedly, but was being recorded through brain waves, the scientists were able to see what played out in a human brain right before death for the first time ever. They used these records to understand the brain activity that was going on in those last moments, especially 30 seconds before and after the heart stopped. Something unexpected showed up in the data from that last minute. Brain waves (oscillations) also known as gamma oscillations, which are associated with memory retrieval, were being generated.

Could this mean that the whole thing about seeing a replay of your entire life before you breathe your last is more than just some paranormal dramatization?

“The neurophysiological signature of this phenomenon is unclear,” the scientists said in a study recently published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. “It is hypothesized that the brain may generate a memory replay within this ‘unconscious’ phase with an increase in oscillatory activity.”

This phenomenon has been observed before in rats — but never humans. It has also been reported by those who have survived near-death experiences, but as chilling as some of these accounts can be, there is no evidence other than what was remembered. Many watched the most significant events in their lives scene by scene. Some have sworn they found themselves staring at a blaze of white light or fleeing from demons. All these are signs that the brain was still firing signals in a near-death state, despite the person living to tell about it.

What was revealed by the brain of the dying patient goes against previous thinking that the brain enters a hypoactive state right before death, slowing down before finally powering off. It is possible that the patient was experiencing the onslaught of memories that has been rumored to happen at the end of life. However, this patient had just suffered severe brain trauma, already experienced epileptic seizures, and was heavily medicated with drugs known to induce psychosis, so any of these factors could have messed with brain activity towards the end.

Whether the surge in brain waves right before and after death really happened on its own is unknown. There is nothing to compare this with, and questions still haunt the scientists. You can’t just wait around for someone to die. Terminal patients are one thing, but what about people who just pass in their sleep?

Maybe there will someday be an answer from the beyond.

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