What Happens After We Die? | Unveiled
VOICE OVER: Noah Baum
WRITTEN BY: George Pacheco
Death isn't always a topic we want to talk about, but it is a fact of life... and lots of scientists dedicate their entire careers to finding out exactly what happens AFTER WE DIE? In this video, Unveiled uncovers the truth about dying: What happens to our physical bodies? What happens to our brains? And what happens to our consciousness? If you have even a passing interest in the human body and human biology, then these are essential bits of information!
What Happens After We Die?
For many it’s not a topic we often want to talk about. And looking deeper into the nuts and bolts of passing on is a difficult task. Yet, it is a fact of life, an inescapable inevitability, and it has been a go-to subject for artists, writers and musicians from all around the world for centuries. Death is arguably the greatest, most mysterious and most unsettling of great unknowns. But is there anything about the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of dying that can make understanding it just a little bit easier?
This is Unveiled, and today we're answering the extraordinary question: what happens after we die?
First, the gruesome part; what literally happens to our bodies after we’ve passed on? Well, most of the key processes begin almost immediately after our hearts stop beating and our brains cease to function. Pallor mortis refers to how our bodies start to become pale within fifteen minutes or so after death. Algor Mortis is a reduction in temperature, which typically starts to set in within the hour. Livor Mortis is when the blood left in our bodies moves down to the lowest possible point thanks to gravity, leaving discoloration wherever it settles - it’s usually noticeable within a couple of hours. And then there’s Rigor Mortis, which is the stiffening of limbs and perhaps the most well-known of all the “mortis terms” and so-called “signs of death” - it usually happens within the first four to 24 hours. And by now the once living, breathing body is definitely a corpse.
Right about now, when the body’s muscles are tense, various enzymes set to work decomposing human tissue… and eventually the muscles that were stiff through rigor mortis relax. And here’s when the physical side of death takes a fairly infamous turn… As all muscles are released - including those throughout the digestive system - so, often, are the remaining contents of the bowels. The body-wide process known as putrefaction also ramps up, breaking down the physical form on every level. Organs are liquefied as bacteria and funguses deteriorate the shell down to the skeleton. Our teeth, nails and hair are usually the last things to go… but most of all of it happens within about a month. For forensic scientists and medical examiners, it’s a vital period of time because if there are any questions on how, when or why a person died, then exactly what happens to their body post-death can provide some answers.
Naturally, today’s question doesn’t only concern physical, observable processes. There’s also the brain to consider and, from a more spiritual perspective, our consciousness. When thinking about specific times of death, many consider the moment of “brain death” to be the key. This is when all signs of the brain working disappear, and when all electrical activity in the brain ends. Given our ever-expanding understanding of how the brain works, there is some debate on the criteria for brain death… but in terms of “what happens after we die”, the brain ultimately succumbs to the same decomposition as the rest of the body.
Ideas on “when we die” branch out further still, though, in part thanks to testimonials from people who have reportedly been brought back from the brink of death; undergoing what's commonly known as a near death experience. Thanks to dramatizations in the media, there are certain stereotypes for what an NDE might look light; a heavenly light, the pearly gates, our loved ones all waiting for us “on the other side”. And, to some extent, these images have been backed up by real-world accounts - particularly the “white light” aspect of them. It’s also relatively common for people to recall an outer body experience - seeing themselves on the hospital operating table, for example - as well as a strong feeling of peace, as though all of their fears and anxieties had been lifted from them.
Scientifically speaking, near death experiences are a tricky concept. There’s no evidence that they’re the result of an actual visit to the afterlife, but there are theories that they’re brought on by sudden changes in the brain - particularly in the temporal lobe and hippocampus - or that they’re hallucinations triggered by a loss of oxygen. There are also psychological theories on NDEs, including that they happen because we’re culturally conditioned to expect them to, and that the archetypal “tunnel and light” vision is in some way linked to the trauma of being born. Even the most convincing explanations struggle to explain instances when patients can recall seeing, hearing or experiencing things that they couldn’t possibly have known about, though…
Here’s where our ideas on consciousness come into play. A 2017 study from the University of Southampton in the U.K. challenged the previously held belief that general “awareness” in the brain ceased approximately thirty seconds after the body stops receiving blood pumped by the heart. Instead, it’s suggested that there exists a window of up to three minutes during the cardiac stage of death, when we can still be somewhat aware of our surroundings, and perhaps all NDEs occur during this time before a patient is brought out of cardiac arrest and “back to life”.
More than that, though, while we mostly know for sure what happens to our bodies after death, there is (and has been for centuries) ongoing debate about whether this really is “the end”. Because, how about if our consciousness continued to exist after death? Building on ideas first put forward by René Descartes, neuropsychiatrist Peter Fenwick offers up the theory that our brains aren't the originators of consciousness, but rather a filter through which the universe is perceived - similar to how we can only hear certain frequencies and see certain wavelengths. For Fenwick, there are spiritual connotations here, where life after death does in some way exist… thanks to a deeper connection between our detached consciousnesses and the universe at large.
Despite Fenwick’s research (and other similar studies) there is no one accepted rule on whether what some call the “human spirit” and others “the soul” can survive biological death. But the idea that it might is a great source of comfort for many. Physically-speaking, we can chart the expected course for our brains and bodies once we’ve passed away. Metaphysically-speaking, we’re not so sure. For some, there’s nothing after life; for others, an essence of ourselves does remain. It’s a point at which scientific theory meets spiritual belief; where that one “right answer” is always up for debate.