The Science of What Happens to Your Mind After Death

Joel Eisenberg

Ongoing studies have concluded human consciousness survives for up to six minutes following physical death. Those studies have also differentiated between the organic human brain, and the mind.

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Author’s Note

This article is based on scientific postings and accredited media reports. All linked information within this article is fully-attributed to the following outlets: Evolution News, MIT Press, The Guardian, Time.com, Britannica.com, Snopes.com, Wikipedia.org, MindBodyGreen.com, ScienceAlert.com, and The Irish Times.

Introduction

Man has attempted to explain the inexplicable since our earliest recorded history. Controversies over ancient religious texts, spirituality, and what some have deemed “pseudo-science” have all touched upon perceptions of death. Cultural belief systems run the gamut from heaven and hell, to reincarnation and the existence of a multiverse.

See here for a June, 2019 Evolution News piece, “Physicist: ‘Multiverse Is Religion, Not Science,’” by David Klinghoffer, which quotes theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder: “This is not a polemical argument and it’s not meant as an insult. But believing in the multiverse is logically equivalent to believing in god, therefore it’s religion, not science…”

The multiverse concept is also, it should be noted, a foundation of quantum physics. See here for MIT Press piece, “The Many-Worlds Theory, Explained.”

Among the most provocative quotes on the matter of death as an unalterable ending is attributed to the late theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who famously stated: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail,” he told the Guardian. “There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

In its article on Hawking, which includes the above excerpt, Time.com’s piece entitled “Stephen Hawking Was an Atheist. Here’s What He Said About God, Heaven and His Own Death,” contains several more provocative quotes on the matter.

The intersection of religious belief — or lack thereof — and science frequently leads to conversations about the existence of a “soul.” In March, 2022, Britannica.com published “Soul: Religion and Philosophy,” a comprehensive piece detailing various perspectives through the centuries as to its existence. More skeptical readers may want to also click here for a Snopes.com “fact check” as to whether the existence of a soul has been proven, and if the soul itself has a measurable weight.

All of which brings us back to the concept of death, which differs from culture to culture, and the continuing studies of the near-death experience (NDE) and mind-brain connection.

Let us explore further.

The Science of Death

It is not unusual in conversation to discuss the mind and brain as if they are one, and when those conversations turn towards death, about the concept of the soul.

In a MindBodyGreen.com article written by Communication Pathologist and Neuroscientist Caroline Leaf, Ph.D., BSc, entitled “How Are The Mind & The Brain Different? A Neuroscientist Explains,” the author states: The mind uses the brain, and the brain responds to the mind. The mind also changes the brain. People choose their actions—their brains do not force them to do anything. Yes, there would be no conscious experience without the brain, but experience cannot be reduced to the brain's actions. The mind is energy, and it generates energy through thinking, feeling, and choosing. It is our aliveness, without which, the physical brain and body would be useless. That means we are our mind, and mind-in-action is how we generate energy in the brain.

Scientists largely agree the human brain can survive for up to six minutes after perceived physical death, which they believe accounts for, in part, the phenomenon of NDEs. According to ScienceAlert.com, however, in an October, 2018 article titled “Brain Activity Has Been Recorded as Much as 10 Minutes After Death,” the piece discussed what appeared to be a new record for post-death brain function.

As excerpted from the article (which contains a Wikipedia.org hyperlink): Doctors in a Canadian intensive care unit stumbled on a very strange case last year - when life support was turned off for four terminal patients, one of them showed persistent brain activity even after they were declared clinically dead. For more than 10 minutes after doctors confirmed death through a range of observations, including the absence of a pulse and unreactive pupils, the patient appeared to experience the same kind of brain waves (delta wave bursts) we get during deep sleep.

What, though, of the mind? Does the mind also stay alive after so-called “physical death?” That is, after all, the question posed in the title of this piece.

The fact is, we do not yet have a conclusive answer to that age-old question. However, Wikipedia.org maintains a comprehensive page on the matter, titled “Consciousness After Death,” which focuses on neuroscience and NDAs.

Click here for Wikipedia.org page, which states: Consciousness after death is a common theme in society and culture in the context of life after death. Scientific research has established that the physiological functioning of the brain, the cessation of which defines brain death, is closely connected to mental states. However, many believe in some form of life after death, which is a feature of many religions.

Note: I have included all relative Wikipedia.org hyperlinks in the above excerpt.

To conclude this section, an archived December, 2008 piece from The Irish Times offers some insight into psychological perspectives I have rarely seen elsewhere. In its article titled “Does the Life of the Mind Survive the Body's Demise?” the piece references psychologist Jesse Bering: Even babies learn that people don't cease to exist simply because we cannot see them. We all assume that everyone we know is somewhere doing something and we can easily picture this in our mind's eye. Bering argues, "Human cognition is not equipped to update the list of players in our complex social rosters by accommodating a particular person's sudden inexistence. We can't simply switch off person-permanence thinking just because someone has died."

The concept is called “person-permanence,” which also implies an incapability, as humans, of truly getting to the heart of the matter, though the piece also states: Although we are a long way from understanding how electrical communication between nerve cells produces the conscious mind, science assumes we will surely understand this matter in due course.

Conclusion

The field of whether a defined human mind in any way withstands or surpasses death may indeed be something that is impossible to determine. Science, though, will assuredly and doggedly continue those explorations.

Thank you for reading.

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I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

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