CHICAGO — It was accidental science.
A study documented an 87-year-old’s brain activity at the exact moment of his passing. The serendipitous finding opened one doctor’s mind to what’s possible when we die.
“We did not plan the study. It was very accidental,” University of Louisville neurosurgeon Dr. Ajmal Zemmar said.
Zemmar was monitoring a patient for seizures — using electrodes placed across the skull — when the unexpected happened.
“While we were doing this, the patient, unfortunately, suffered a cardiac arrest and died,” he said.
The heart stopped, but the sensors, still in place, picked up the patient’s final brain waves.
“That left us alone with a recording from alive to death,” Zemmar said.
As the University of Louisville neurosurgeon studied the rare recording, a rather beautiful story unfolded.
“There’s very specific brain waves happening in the brain while we replay memories,” Zemmar said. “This is known in healthy humans.”
In studies of healthy humans, brain activity recordings have shown active gamma waves as a person looks at pictures of memorable life events — a wedding, the birth of a child. The same waves appeared in abundance in the dying patient and for 30 seconds after death.
“What exactly happens? When is the time we really die, and the brain stops really being active?” Zemmar asked.
The dying patient’s brain wave patterns appear to correlate with those who have had a near-death experience.
“If you look at near-death experiences, the people who describe them fairly consistently. They describe memory flashbacks, memory recalls,” Zemmar said.
The finding has sparked both scientific and spiritual debate.
“Am I merely seeing nerve cells firing and brain waves being active, or do they have a functional meaning, and they let us perceive these memories and recalls? That is the biggest question,” Zemmar said.
The neurosurgeon plans to continue the fascinating investigation.
“How would we like to imagine our death?” Zemmar asked. “I leave it to everybody else to decide for themselves.
“I would like it for me personally to be in the span of seconds I replay memories before I die. I would like to die with that feeling. That wouldn’t be a bad thought.”
Researchers have documented the same findings in animal studies. Experimenters who induced cardiac arrest in rats noted gamma wave activity persisted after the heart stopped.