• Near-death experiences and what happens after we die have always been fascinating topics of debate — the idea of life “flashing” before our eyes when we die has even become a common trope.
  • However, the brain scan of a patient who unexpectedly died while having his neural activity monitored indicates that memories may flood our consciousness in the 30 seconds before and after we die.
  • This surge of brain activity occurs after the heart stops pumping blood to the brain, meaning that even though the body has “died,” the brain is still conscious for a brief time.
  • Even with this compelling new finding of life flashing before our eyes when we die, death is often an anxiety-inducing subject.
  • Death-related anxiety is completely normal, and working through uncomfortable feelings associated with dying can be done, on our own account or with a therapist’s help.

Urban myths and popular fiction have nourished the idea that our final moments offer us a rapid-fire series of flashbacks, featuring each moment we’ve ever lived through. Whether life actually flashes before our eyes has never been confirmed, but many people who have survived near-death experiences have reported the phenomenon.

The question of whether life actually flashes before our eyes has always been a subject of great interest to neurologists, who have long studied how death and near-death experiences affect our states of consciousness. However, one recent finding surprised scientists, who accidentally discovered that brain activity may actually continue for a period after the heart has stopped beating. 

Being only the most recent in a long list of supporting evidence, does this new finding actually prove that life flashes before our eyes when we die? 

How Can the Brain Continue Functioning After Death? 

During a routine brain scan, an 87-year-old man with epilepsy unexpectedly died of a heart attack. After reviewing the data collected, the doctor’s instruments revealed that during the 30 seconds before and after the man was medically considered “dead,” his brain engaged in an unusually high amount of activity in areas associated with memory recall. Though the patient did have a severe brain condition (epilepsy), experts seem to agree that the idea of life flashing before your eyes when you die isn’t out of the question. 

Exactly how the brain continues to function after the heart has stopped working is a mystery. Yet the same phenomenon has been shown to occur in rats—30 seconds of unusually high brain activity before and after death. What we do know is that when the brain begins to experience loss of blood flow, our field of vision narrows, and our body begins releasing a potent cocktail of chemicals, too. 

Can Science Explain Near-Death Experiences? 

When a person goes through a near-death experience, they may be clinically dead and are brought “back” (resuscitated), or may simply enter into a critical condition such as cardiac arrest, a coma, or reduced brain activity. But during these incredibly intense moments, medical patients who recover often report experiencing surreal flashbacks, seeing heaven and hell, and even having out-of-body experiences, including seeing themselves on the operating table surrounded by medical staff. 

Attempts at explaining near-death experiences have drawn skepticism as well as genuine interest from researchers. One of the most extensive near-death studies involved 2,060 cardiac arrest patients who were observed over a 4-year period. Though 40% of the cardiac patients who suffered a heart attack recalled feeling strange, afraid, or the sensation of being dragged deep underwater, only 2% actually recalled a near-death experience. 

But the weird part? Most of the people who had a legitimate near-death experience claimed that it didn’t feel like a dream, a hallucination, or that it was drug-induced. Instead, they argued that their near-death experience felt more real than life. 

Processing Your Own Thoughts and Feelings About Mortality

If all this reading about death, heart attacks, and what it feels like to die is making you feel a little squeamish, you aren’t alone. Accepting our mortality is often a life-long journey (no pun intended) and can be a bittersweet subject. Death is a mystery to us, and your beliefs about what happens afterward are likely unique to your spiritual or scientific beliefs—maybe both. 

Death-related anxiety can be an occasional issue for many people. You may worry about what it feels like, or whether any of the people you’ve lost suffered. These feelings are normal, and, as uncomfortable as they are, can be worked through. Some ways to start unpacking your fear of death might involve: 

  • Seeing life as a wheel, a natural cycle in which death is a normal and healthy process. Living forever is a tempting fantasy, but that’s not the way of the world. 
  • Reminding yourself how valuable our remaining time truly is. Life has no return policy, and making the best out of the days we have left could make your problems seem a lot smaller. 
  • Taking more opportunities to do the things you’ve been holding back on. Maybe that trip to Europe, your dream of skydiving, or plans to find a romantic partner shouldn’t be delayed quite as long as you think. 
  • Talking to a counselor or therapist about your death-related anxiety — especially if it’s a recurring issue, or you’re living with a chronic or life-threatening condition. Finding strength and refuge in your spiritual beliefs. This will help guide and comfort you as you contend with the inevitability of death. 

Whatever happens to us during near-death experiences, it seems that it might be as subjective as our personal beliefs about death itself. Death is one of those heavy subjects that we prefer to push out of our minds, like a burdensome task we delay coming to terms with until we absolutely have to. 

Yet perhaps it’s easier on our minds and emotions if we see death as a deeply personal adventure, with a destination and purpose that remains unknown.