One of the great questions of all time is: what happens at the moment of death? Scientists, philosophers, religious theorists, and others have expounded at length on this question. In recent years, a considerable amount of scientific research has focused on what occurs within the human body at the moment of death. The evidence collected through this research is discussed here for your consideration.

The Brain Keeps Working at the Moment of Death

Before diving into what happens at the moment of death, a brief discussion and subtle revision of terms is necessary. Recent scientific research has revealed that even after so-called “brain death,” a person’s brain is actually still functioning, albeit in a very different way. At the moment of death, the human brain is no longer “concerned about” the functionality of the rest of a person’s body. (Hence, the reason a doctor can declare death based on this type of – really, lack of – brain activity.)

Multiple scientific studies reveal that at the moment of death, the human brain enters into what researchers call a “hyper-state of perceptual neural activity.” Thus, even though other parts of a body have shut down, even though the brain itself has stopped sending command signals to the rest of the body, the brain is projecting powerful imagery, images which an individual at the moment of his or her death is “seeing.” 

The Final Shutdown of the Brain

The shutdown of the brain, a process which technically is occurring at and through what commonly is called the moment of death, is a three-phase progression. The final shutdown of the brain occurring at the moment of death is not an expansive, time-consuming event. Rather, researchers estimate that the final shutdown of the brain takes all of 30 seconds. During this half-minute of time, the brain shuts down from the top downwards But, that blip in time can be quite astounding, as is discussed in a moment.

The roughly 30-second period in which the brain makes its final shutdown can further be divided into a trio of approximately 10-second stages:

  • Stage One: During Stage One, those characteristics which make us human vanish from the brain. This includes our sense of self, our ability to think, our sense of humor. 
  • Stage Two: At Stage Two, during the second 10-second phase of brain shutdown, our language centers and memories extinguish.
  • Stage Three: In the final stage, all that is left is core. Perhaps that core can somewhat fairly be called a computer hard drive that has been wiped clean. 

Moment of Death and Near-Death Experiences

Over the course of the past four decades, a considerable amount of discussion has centered on what routinely is called “near-death experiences.” In other words, people are declared legally dead, but are “brought back to life” through medical intervention. People who are said to have experienced “near-death” nearly always provide the same report. Included in these seemingly ubiquitous experiences are flashbacks, visions of loved ones, and a light at the end of a tunnel. In recent years, researchers have been able to link these common experiences shared by people who “come back from the dead” with the processes described a moment ago as a human brain shuts down.

As the brain shuts down, it creates a visual world that seems real but is not. As memories head towards being extinguished, people and events from life can flash in a nonlinear fashion and seemingly instantaneously. As the shutdown continues, the brain pathways associated with the eyes stop functioning, a process that creates a sense of tunnel vision which is realized as a long tunnel with a bright light at the end. 

And then there is complete darkness. And then there is nothing. The residual brain activity described during the brain shutdown stages ends.

The Profound, Stunning Moment of Death

In a compelling article in the Independent in the United Kingdom, the moment of death is described as “profound” and “stunning” for the person who’s departed and for those that remain. BJ Miller, MD, is a renowned hospice and palliative care doctor at the University of California in San Francisco. He describes a “lingering sense” that persists for a short time following discernable death and during the period the brain itself is in its final shutdown mode. 

Despite what is going inside the brain, as was described in some detail a moment ago, Dr. Miller describes that outward final passage as the brain shuts down as beautifully mundane. Those attending a person at the moment of death witness something on the outside that is rather matter of fact, mundane in a simplistically beautiful way. 

As the linger dissipates, as the brain finishes its final shut down at and following the moment of death, something the doctor describes as profound and stunning occurs. At that time, the life cycle is complete and a body finally becomes a shell, devoid of the person that once occupied it.