It was a bad day for an 87-year-old Canadian man we’ll call Sam. But his death accidentally offers all the rest of us a great sense of comfort about what happens to us at the very point when we die.
Sam had had a bad fall and had been rushed to the emergency department of Vancouver General Hospital following a severe and traumatic injury to the head, causing a blood clot in his skull. The doctors performed an operation to ease the bleeding, and for several days, Sam seemed to be in a stable state. He was able to talk with the doctors and nurses and even seemed to be recovering.
Three days later, however, Sam began having epileptic seizures.
In order to discover what was happening to his brain, the doctors hooked him up to an electroencephalography (EEG) machine for continuous monitoring.
An hour and a half later, Sam took an abrupt turn for the worse, and suffered a heart attack. All the doctors’ resuscitation efforts failed. Sam’s closest relatives agreed to a Do Not Resuscitate order and Sam passed on.
Nevertheless, during all of this his brain kept on working. In the 30 seconds before and 30 seconds after the time Sam’s heart was still, the EEG cap still on him, the doctors inadvertently recorded the activity of his brain during what ultimately proved to be his transition to death.
Later, when reviewing the EEG recording, they were amazed to discover an extraordinary increase in gamma band activity. Gamma band, the highest rate of brain-wave frequencies, is employed by the brain when it is working its hardest: at a state of rapt attention, when sifting through memory, during deep levels of learning, in the midst of great flashes of insight.
As scientists have discovered, when the brain operates at these extremely fast frequencies (between 30-100 Hertz, or cycles per second), the phases of brain waves (their times of peaking and troughing) all over the brain begin to operate in synchrony. This type of synchronization is considered crucial for achieving heightened awareness.
The gamma state is even believed to cause changes in the brain’s synapses – the junctions over which electrical impulses leap to send a message to a neuron, muscle or gland.
Oftentimes, this type of sustained gamma wave activity is only seen in people who spent years practicing meditation, during deep memory recall or while having extraordinary dreams.
Studies of highly experienced yogis have shown that, during deep meditation, the high-frequency gamma waves produced are associated with moments of ecstasy or intense concentration.
During studies of monks recorded by Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Wisconsin’s Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, who reported the highest measures of gamma activity ever recorded, he discovered that the monks had conditioned their brains to tune into happiness most of the time.
Even the late gifted psychic Ingo Swann, widely regarded as one of the best remote viewers in the world, once wired to an EEG machine, during remote viewing of a distant object, showed bursts of fast brain activity in the high beta and gamma range, similar to that of Davidson’s monks.
According to the results of brain-wave monitoring, Swann had entered a super-conscious state, enabling him to receive information impossible to access during normal waking consciousness.
In Sam’s case, Dr Ajmal Zemmar, a neurosurgeon who was finishing his residency at Vancouver Hospital (he’s now at the University of Louisville, in Kentucky), was Sam’s doctor and simply trying his best to keep his patient alive.
But after Sam died, Zemmar and his fellow doctors were stunned to see that their EEG equipment had accidentally recorded the activity of a brain before, during and after death.
They carried out a literature search and were amazed to discover that this was the first time EEG equipment had been able to measure activity of a dying brain.
After reviewing what they had, they came to believe that these changes in the gamma range could be more evidence of the so-called ‘life review’ that people who have experienced near death experiences claim to undergo.
As Zemmar reported in a statement, “Through generating brain 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.”
In the literature search, Zemmar found that this kind of brain wave signature is present in people “when they see pictures of their loved ones, when they remember the birth of their child,” he said.
“The key descriptions are always consistent – out-of-body experiences, flashbacks of memory, dreaming states – that was fairly consistent in the whole.”
When investigating further, Zemmar and his team also discovered an animal study of young rats showing that when they underwent heart attacks, they experienced the same brainwave patterns.
There is one final piece of good news for those who are left behind during the death of a loved one. With Davidson’s monks, this heightened state also produced permanent emotional improvement, by activating the left anterior portion of the brain – the portion most associated with joy.
All of which may just mean that, depending on what we conclude about that life we’ve lived, when we make that transition to another realm we may do so in an ecstatic state of superconsciousness – and even with a big smile on our faces.
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