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Does Your Life Really Flash Before Your Eyes When You Die?

by Brenda Mao

There’s a common saying that right before you die, your life flashes before your eyes. In fact, many people that have had near-death experiences reported that they experienced a flash of memories, known as memory recall. For a long time, scientists had no way of knowing if this was true – obviously, no one can report what death is like. However, according to a study published in February 2022, your life flashing before your eyes may actually be a true experience.

In 2016, an epileptic 87-year-old man was hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG). Previously, the man suffered a brain injury and developed epilepsy. Scientists were performing a test that detects electrical activity in the brain, hoping to learn more about what was happening during the man’s seizures and how to develop an optimal treatment plan. However, the patient suffered an unexpected heart attack and unfortunately died during the procedure.

The EEG machine continued running, so doctors were able to get a glimpse into his brain activity at the end of his life. They recorded 900 seconds of brain activity around the time of death, specifically focusing on the thirty seconds before and after his heart stopped beating. During these thirty seconds, the patient’s brain activity didn’t stop immediately when he was pronounced dead. Scans showed increased activity in parts of the brain associated with memory recall, meditation, and dreaming.

Brain waves are different types of neural oscillations that are involved in different brain functions, classified by frequency and amplitude. After analyzing the scans, scientists found high-frequency gamma oscillations and slower-frequency delta, theta, alpha, and beta oscillations present in the man’s brain. Gamma waves suggest that he may have been replaying memories from throughout his life; they are tied to high-cognitive functions, like conscious perception, information processing, and memory retrieval. After his heart stopped pumping blood into the brain, the oscillations kept going, which raises the question: is dying the stopping of the heart, or the stopping of the brain?

This study was published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience on February 22, 2022. Researchers waited for six years before sharing their results because they were waiting for another case to confirm their results, but to no avail. As such, this study can’t be observed to be factual. The patient had epilepsy and was elderly, which can alter gamma wave activity. However, a study in 2013 that analyzed the brain waves of rats reported similar patterns before and after death, suggesting that memory recall could be a universal experience for all animals. Scientists hope that with the recent release of their study, more people will be aware, and start reaching out if they have found new cases.

While this theory cannot yet be confirmed, it definitely solidifies that “your life flashing before your eyes” is a possibility. This can provide comfort for grieving family members, as Dr. Ajmal Zemmar, a neurosurgeon at the University of Toronto and one of the leaders of this study, says, “As a neurosurgeon, I deal with loss at times. It is indescribably difficult to deliver the news of death to distraught family members. Something we may learn from this research is: although our loved ones have their eyes closed and are ready to leave us to rest, their brains may be replaying some of the nicest moments they experienced in their lives.”

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