How Long Does the Brain Function After Death? | Natural Health Blog

Date: 05/28/2009    Written by: Jon Barron

Brain Functions Even After Death

How Long Does the Brain Function After Death?

According to the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association, death is legally defined as the "irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem." So how, then, do we explain the fact that up to 20 percent of those who die and then are brought back to life report that they retained consciousness even during the near-death experience? How do we explain the common phenomenon of seeing the black tunnel with the light at the end and the gathered dead relatives? Is consciousness a function of the seemingly inert brain, or does it reside somewhere outside of the "vital functions of the organism"?

For many years, scientists have been trying to resolve these questions through research into the physiology of near-death experiences (NDEs). While some attribute the reports of NDEs to the overly active imaginations of the subjects or to mystical origins, most in the medical establishment believe the experiences can be explained by simple physiology. These theories typically center on the idea that physiological changes occur in the brain as it begins to shut down -- only to reverse before actual death. For instance, a 2006 study published in the journal Neurology concluded that the near-death experience is most likely the result of an "REM intrusion" into waking consciousness. In other words, the experience is akin to moving to the zone we occupy between the sleeping and waking states, where aspects of the REM-sleep state spill over into awareness.

Other researchers have asserted that the system emits certain psychoactive chemicals upon death, and that these bring about the NDE "symptoms." Dr. Richard Strassman of the University of New Mexico, School of Medicine, for instance, contends that the pineal gland releases the chemical Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which brings on hallucinations, though he wasn't able to reproduce the effect in most of his test subjects when he administered DMT to them. But then again, lack of evidence should never get in the way of a good theory. Another expert, Dr. Birk Engmann, argues that the near-death experience is simply the manifestation of psychopathological symptoms triggered by brain malfunction, which comes about because of the lack of blood supply to the brain. And Dr. Gerald Woerlee, an Australian researcher, says that experiences of waking consciousness during the NDE actually are the result of the patient being jolted back into consciousness for a few seconds. He does agree that the experience changes the brains of NDE survivors, but his perspective differs dramatically from that of those who believe there's a spiritual explanation.

"The brain function of many of these people who have undergone a near-death experience is altered," Woerlee says. "That's correct. It is altered. Extreme oxygen starvation does change brain function -- because it causes brain damage to the larger cells in the brain."

All of these theories presuppose that though the brain is shutting down -- although it's undergoing physiological changes -- it still has some viability, that it still functions at some level. But new research flushes this idea down the toilet, because at least one subject retained total recall of what happened to her on the operating table when she had absolutely zero measurable brain activity.

According to a report on National Public Radio, the subject, music producer Pam Reynold, "died" of a brain aneurysm, and the only way to save her was to perform an outrageously risky surgery. The physicians chilled her body and then "drained the blood out of her head like oil from a car engine." According to her physician, Dr. Robert Spetzler, she was "as deeply comatose as you can be and still be alive."

In spite of the fact that her brain was completely drained and non-functional (she was effectively brain dead for the entire operation), Ms. Reynold says she "floated to the ceiling" and witnessed 20 people working on her in surgery. Later, she was able to describe, in detail, the surgical instruments used during her operation and comments made by the medical team. Oh by the way, she was able to observe this even though her ears and eyes were covered with impenetrable barriers -- in addition to being brain dead. And, of course, she also had the typical near-death experience of seeing a tunnel with bright light and long-dead relatives.

When Ms. Reynold reported her after-death experience to Dr. Spetzler, he was startled. "From a scientific perspective," he says, "I have absolutely no explanation about how it could have happened."

Neuroscientist Mario Beauregard of the University of Montreal, on the other hand, does have a theory based on his recent study of 15 people who had near-death experiences that might offer an explanation. Dr. Beauregard contends that the mind lives outside the physiology of the brain, so that even when the brain dies, the mind (as opposed to the brain) has the ability to remain aware. In his study, he asked subjects to recall what happened to them when they died as he measured their brain-wave activity via 32 electrodes. According to his findings, the NDE changes brain wave patterns permanently, conferring the individual with an ability to move into a delta state similar to that experienced by monks, yogis, and long-time meditators. And Dr. Beauregard says, "...the near-death experience triggers something at a neural level in the brain. And perhaps this change, in terms of brain activity, is sort of permanent." Taking his ideas to the next step, this would mean that the mind alters the brain.

Does Ms. Reynold's experience mean that there's life after death, that the "mind" survives the body? Not necessarily. All it means is that all of the "scientific" explanations for the NDE phenomenon proffered so far don't hold up, that we have no rational explanation at all for reports of consciousness after death. We do know from existing research that most people who come back from dying have a greater capacity to deal with stress, that many report feeling spiritually awakened by the experience, and that a significant number report nearly identical experiences of seeing light, meeting deceased dear ones, and of observing and hearing things they shouldn't have been able to perceive given that they were dead. But everything science thought true about death being defined by the absence of brain activity is thrown into question -- as is the advisability, I must say, of harvesting organs when brain activity ceases. Based on this new evidence, the implications of what brain dead-people might be experiencing when their organs are removed, as Hamlet said, "Must give us pause."

P.S. A new large-scale scientific study of the near-death experience was launched this past year. The study, headed by Dr. Sam Parnia and colleagues at the Cornell Medical Center, is a three-year project involving 25 major medical centers and 1500 patients who survived cardiac arrest. Stay tuned!


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    Submitted by Darby on
    June 17, 2009 - 2:52am

    I have a question. Do you know of anyone that after they died and returned to life was different in not such a nice way? I am having issues in finding research on this specific issue.

    Submitted by Doug Hulstedt on
    May 28, 2009 - 4:21am

    Hello Jon,
    Fun article. Philosophers would tell us that there is a difference between mind and brain. A E Wilder Smith in his book ""The causes and cure for the drug epidemic"" related that the mind is using the brain as an instrument.
    Science may be too blunt an instrument for mind and brain. The Bible says ""the word of God is alive and powerful dividing in pieces even the soul and the spirit""
    The Christian treatise on body and spirit is found in 1 Corinthians 15 where it says ""to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord""
    I don't think I will be hanging around here when I die but I suppose I might be hanging if I have a near death experience.
    Thanks again on your excellent commentary
    Doug Hulstedt MD

    Submitted by Mary Saunders on
    June 22, 2009 - 1:21pm

    Hello Darby. I have thought about your question, and what occurs to me is that when people have experiences that please them, they are more OK with talking about it. If people feel worse from an experience, maybe they would not want to talk about it, or they would talk about it only if they feel very safe. I once worked with a war survivor who had resisted going back to the scene even when her children offered to go with her. We began to keep a journal about the weather, in her current home, and about our walks in the neighborhood. As we walked, she would notice something, say, a mushroom, and she was able to say it was like what she knew as a child, and to go back a bit. Eventually things like place names came back to her without too much agitation, and she was willing to describe them when she had been unwilling to write about them earlier. Belleruth Naperstak has done some interesting work on trauma recovery. Maybe an NDE that was bad belongs in the trauma category. There is also now some interesting research on verbal first aid for extreme circumstances. The Worst Is Over, Help Is On The Way is the title of one, I think.

    Submitted by Stewie on
    June 27, 2009 - 8:56am

    I have often wondered, as a person dies, if you wisper in their ear, does the brain still understand since it takes the brain approx. 4 to 6 minutes to die without breathing?

    Submitted by Ruby on
    November 14, 2013 - 3:17pm

    When my dad stopped breathing and his heart also, I lost it and started screaming he opened his eyes and looked at me and my stepmom. So, i do believe there is a few moments between the heart stopping and the brain gadding....

    Submitted by Guest on
    July 28, 2011 - 1:07am

    i want to know more thing from this topic"what about the brain activity after the death".and what about soul after the can we communicate with died there any chance to do it. tell me .what about data storage after the can we backup the data after the death.

    Submitted by Guest on
    September 5, 2011 - 10:33am

    I've heard that the body losses a very small amout of weight after death, taking into account dead weight, etc., and that the brain activity ceases at the exact same time, and just before there is a huge spike. I may be wrong, but if so, maybe the brain activity changes to an extremely different form of electricity, allowing it to leave the body, yet still "sense" as if still alive, explaining how many people can recall things happening even though they were brain dead. This might be the soul/spirit leaving the body, and if the body is revived, the soul/spirit would return to the body. If so, the soul/spirit might be altered, explaining the permanent change in brain activity.

    Submitted by Michelle on
    July 30, 2012 - 12:53am

    This experiment you are talking about was proven to be extremely flawed. This experiment was done in the early 1900's, had a very small sample size, and the results were widely varied, so there was no proof whatsoever of the "weight of the soul."

    Submitted by Guest on
    February 22, 2012 - 4:22pm

    i believe u 100%

    Submitted by vuha on
    May 3, 2012 - 5:31am

    1st of all,i want to know if what we speak or whisper into a dead person's ears,reaches his/her brain!? my second question is "do everyone have NDEs??

    Submitted by Diann on
    February 28, 2018 - 9:05am
    Pueblo , Colorado

    We learned in medical school that when a person dies the last system to shut down is the hearing. That means they can hear you after all other functions have stopped. Its not known for how long one can hear thou. Also that the closer to death a person gets, their hearing gets better. I experienced this. My world as I was dying got very noisy and it was loud so loud and noisy that it drove me insane. I couldn't stand it. I couldn't wait for it to be over with.

    Submitted by Guest on
    May 17, 2012 - 8:49pm

    "Dr. Richard Strassman of the University of New Mexico, School of Medicine, for instance, contends that the pineal gland releases the chemical Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which brings on hallucinations, though he wasn't able to reproduce the effect in most of his test subjects when he administered DMT to them."

    This is false. The effects of the administered DMT were collectively claimed by all participants to be extraordinary in nature and similar in many ways to some reported NDE's. Do your research and report the facts, don't change them to better suit the point you're trying to make.

    Submitted by BaselineFoundation on
    May 21, 2012 - 12:53pm

    Actually, it was well researched. According to Dr. Strassman himself (, although everybody experienced something, only two out of 48 test subjects experienced near-death or death themes as the primary ones of their high dose sessions. Two out of 48 would qualify as non-reproducible in “most” of the test subjects, don’t you think? And this blog was about near death experiences, not alien abductions.

    Submitted by Steveo on
    June 15, 2012 - 3:11pm

    Ah, but could death and alien entities somehow be connected? The South American Indians call them spirits of their dead ancestors. Yes. I can testify to other realities through DMT use.

    Submitted by matthew on
    September 29, 2012 - 2:53pm

    i'd have to agree, having personal experience with dmt, you basically start mixing dream and reality. and the concensus is usually the same. most experiences or overwhelmingly similar. i saw a tunnel i also could tell you i stopped breathing for a while. and it is very intricate u see many things beit people, and designs , you basically have this epiphany. this polarity of the awake and asleep. and the memory fades just as a dream does. and i wouldnt be shocked if the brain stays alive 4 - 6 minutes after death if it wasnt in awe this experience of the semi awareness

    Submitted by joe t brown on
    January 22, 2013 - 6:14pm

    advise me when the brain should be haevested after body death. ucsd has no time table to harvest the brain for their brain observtory. the have no way to measure the brain death compared to body death. eeg is not understood nor interped to understand with our five senses.what research is being done???

    Submitted by jyoti sharma on
    February 10, 2013 - 7:12am

    i have a question ,at what time limit brain can function after death.

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