Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Near-death study

I was sent a link to a Times article today:

A fellow at New York City's Weill Cornell Medical Center, Dr. Sam Parnia is one of the world's leading experts on the scientific study of death. Last week Parnia and his colleagues at the Human Consciousness Project announced their first major undertaking: a 3-year exploration of the biology behind "out-of-body" experiences. The study, known as AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation), involves the collaboration of 25 major medical centers through Europe, Canada and the U.S. and will examine some 1,500 survivors of cardiac arrest…

When your heart stops beating, there is no blood getting to your brain. And so what happens is that within about 10 sec., brain activity ceases - as you would imagine. Yet paradoxically, 10% or 20% of people who are then brought back to life from that period, which may be a few minutes or over an hour, will report having consciousness. So the key thing here is, Are these real, or is it some sort of illusion?

A point brought up in his interview was interesting because it actually went along with a discussion we were having in the office earlier today in discussing a recent death in our county. That point is that while we have the “social definition” of death being a moment, based on the “clinical definition” death is a process that occurs over time. While that process time is often very brief, there are times when it is prolonged. Not until the heart has stopped, breathing has stopped, and the brain has stopped functioning has death truly occurred. This is the crux of the discussion we were having, but to go a step beyond our discussion…

With these “near-death” experiences, do we also need to consider when the mind ceases to function as really defining death? As the interviewee states, most of the time the brain and mind are not separably observable phenomena, but on rare occasions we get a peek. The information that comes from this study will be interesting. Do we, as the article says, need new science to understand and study this? Will this “new science” give rise to the study of other phenomenology? This may be a first step.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like your distinction between the social and clinical definitions of death. It's true that death often takes a while. Families often do not understand the subtleties, and it is uncomfortable for them as well as the nurse to have to wait until the respirations and heart beat finally stop. (sometimes it seems like forever!) I actually think the "social" death is probably more important in most cases. What's a few more minutes of "life" when the end result is the same and an untrained person can't tell the difference? -Laura, RN