April 6, 2012

What Happens When You Die?

Alongside the age old question regarding the meaning of life, what happens when you die is another one of those, seemingly unanswerable, questions most of us will ask ourselves at various points throughout our lives. The reason for such a morbid question couldn’t be simpler; it’s going to happen to each and every single one of us. Death is something we share with everyone and every living thing. We are born, we live, and we die.

To understand what happens when you die, we must first understand what death is. The dictionary definition of death is as concise at it is stark: The end of life; the total and permanent cessation of all the vital functions of an organism.

In times gone by, the end of life was determined to be when a person stopped breathing or when they no longer had a pulse. This resulted in many instances of people being declared dead when they were not, with some “miraculously” coming back from the dead – and others being buried alive. More recently, end of life has been determined to be when brain function has ceased. When your brain is gone, you are gone so to speak.

So, your brain has ceased functioning, you’ve stopped breathing and you have no pulse. To put it bluntly, you are dead. What happens now?

Many different cultures and religions have their own opinions on what happens when you die, but the majority of them all have one thing in common; the belief in an afterlife. What that afterlife is differs according to which religion you follow. The afterlife, or “Heaven” is prevalent in all of the major religions, but the details vary from one religion to the next. Christianity tells of a heaven of eternal life, living together with God and one another in peace and harmony. Many other religions, including Islam and Hinduism, tell us of a heaven of many levels. The better you did in life, the higher you will rise in heaven. The Buddhist religion takes that one step further, explaining that residence in heaven is temporary, with a rebirth as humans or animals signalling the start of a new life.

The belief in rebirth, or reincarnation as it is more widely known, is not limited to the Buddhist faith, or even religion in general. Films such as What Dreams May Come and Made In Heaven(a personal favourite!) have helped fuel speculation about reincarnation and the afterlife among the more general population.

In addition to the combination of religious belief and popular culture creating a widely-held belief in life after death, the “Near Death Experience”, or NDE, has cemented that belief even further. A Near Death Experience is a varying set of experiences reported by some people who have nearly died and been brought back, usually by resuscitation.

Many people who have experienced a NDE have reported seeing an intensely bright, white light at the end of a tunnel. Others have reported seeing long dead family members and friends, while some people have reported seeing their body below them while they float above it.

The plurality of experiences might suggest there is something to the notion of life after death, but an almost complete lack of physical evidence would tend to suggest otherwise…

Religious belief in an afterlife requires no evidence for the believer. Religion is built on faith and no amount of evidence to the contrary will sway those who firmly believe they are going to a better place after death. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Such a belief gives comfort to millions and lets them concentrate on living their life while not having to worry about what comes afterward.

What about the Near Death Experiences? The term “near death” gives a huge clue as to what might be happening here. The (vast) majority of people who have experienced them were not actually dead, but simply “nearly” dead. The visions of seeing loved ones are more than likely no different to the dreams we experience when sleeping. By the same token, seeing your body while floating above it could also be a result of dreaming coupled together with the captured senses of the environment around you. Your unconscious self may not be aware of what’s going on around you, but your brain will still be collecting the sounds, smells and sometimes the sights of that environment.

The staple of the NDE, the white light at the end of a tunnel, may also now have a less exciting explanation than confirmation of life after death. Scientists believe this sensation is triggered as a result of the brain shutting down and being starved of oxygen. Tests in high gravity environments have shown that our eyes naturally create a tunnel effect when they start to lose oxygen, so seeing a white light at the end of a tunnel when close to death suddenly becomes much less enigmatic.

For all that is written about life after death, there is not a single shred of verifiable evidence to confirm that we, or more specifically our souls, live on after our bodies have died. In those instances where people claim to have found proof of it, a cursory look at their data reveals shoddy research, vague assumptions and a distinct lack of objectivity.

We’ll be looking at some of those claims in a future article, but assuming what happens after you die is nothing, why should this be a reason for so much concern in the first place?

Multi-award-winning writer/comedian Ricky Gervais said it best; You remember what it felt like for the 14 billion years before you were born? It’s exactly like that.


What do you think happens when we die? Let us know in the comments below.

Filed under: Reality — Tags: , , , , — Stephen Broadbent @ 5:12 pm

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