Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, February 29, 2024

The dying of the light

In July of 2004, my father died.  I was at his bedside in Our Lady of Lourdes General Hospital in Lafayette, Louisiana when it happened.  He'd  been declining for a while -- his once razor-sharp mental faculties slipping into a vague cloudiness, his gait slowing and becoming halting and cautious, his former rapier wit completely gone.  The most heartbreaking thing was his own awareness of what he had lost and would continue to lose.  It looked like a slow slide into debility.

Then, in June, he had what the doctors described as a mini-stroke.  Afterward, he was still fairly lucid, but was having trouble walking.  It had long been his deepest fear (one I share) that he'd become completely dependent on others for his care, and it was obvious to us (and probably to him as well) that this was the direction things were going.

What happened next was described in three words by my mother: "He gave up."

Despite the fact that the doctors could find no obvious direct cause of it, his systems one by one started to shut down.  Three weeks after the mini-stroke and fall that precipitated his admission into the hospital, he died at age 83.

I had never been with someone as they died before (and haven't since).  I was out of state when my beloved grandma died in 1986; and when my mother died, eight months after my father, it was so sudden I didn't have time to get there.  But I was by my father's side as his breathing slowed and finally stopped.  The event itself wasn't at all dramatic; the transition between life and death was subtle, gentle, and peaceful.  However wrenching it was on my mother and me, for him there seemed to be hardly a boundary between "here" and "not here."

Of course, I'm judging that from the outside.  No one knows -- no one can know -- what the experience was like for him.  It's funny, really; death is one of the experiences that unites us as human, and one which we all will ultimately share, but none of us knows what it actually is.

Noël LeMire, La Mort et le Mourant (ca. 1770) [Image is in the Public Domain]

A study in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, though, may be the first clue as to what the experience is like.  An 87-year-old Canadian epilepsy patient was set up for an electroencephalogram to try and get a picture of what was causing his seizures, when he unexpectedly had a severe heart attack.  The man was under a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order, so when his heart stopped beating, they let him die...

... but he was still hooked up to the EEG.

This gave his doctors our first glimpse into what is happening in the brain of someone as they die.  And they found a sudden increase in activity in the parts of the brain involved in memory, recall, and dreaming -- which lasted for thirty seconds after his heart stopped, then gradually faded.

"Through generating oscillations involved in memory retrieval, the brain may be playing a last recall of important life events just before we die, similar to the ones reported in near-death experiences," said Ajmal Zemmar, a neurosurgeon who was the study's lead author.  "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 that 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."

Which is a pleasant thought.  Many of us -- even, for some reason, the devoutly religious, who you'd think would be positively eager for the experience -- are afraid of death.  Me, I'm not looking forward to it; I rather like being alive, and as a de facto atheist I have no particular expectation that there'll be anything afterwards.  Being with my father as he died did, however, have the effect of making me less afraid of death.  The usual lead-up, with its frequent pain and debility and illness, is still deeply terrifying to me, but crossing the boundary itself seemed fairly peaceful.

And the idea that our brains give us one last go-through of our pleasant memories is kind of nice.  I know that this single patient's EEG is hardly conclusive -- and it's unlikely there'll be many other people hooked up to a brain scanner as they die -- but it does give some comfort that perhaps, this experience we will all share someday isn't as awful as we might fear.


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