It’s one of the biggest mysteries of human existence: what happens when we die? Does consciousness cease to exist? How can we possibly know?

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Many people are aware of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s ground-breaking 1969 book, On Death and Dying, that brought today’s widely accepted “five stages of death” faced by terminally ill patients: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Fewer people are aware that Kübler-Ross later published On Life After Death based on her research of near-death experiences of over 20,000 people. She offers this beautiful metaphor for the moment of death:

“The death of the human body is identical to what happens when the butterfly emerges from its cocoon…Dying is only moving from one house into a more beautiful one…as soon as the cocoon is in an irreparable condition…it will release the butterfly, your soul so to speak.

On leaving the cocoon you reach the second stage, that is supplied by psychic energy…you will immediately realize you can perceive everything happening at the place of dying, be it in a hospital room, at the site of an accident, or wherever you left your body. You do not register these events with your earthly consciousness, but rather with a new awareness.”

Kübler-Ross’s description of the moment of death has been controversial. With today’s scientific tools, a new generation of researchers is working with patients who have survived near-death experiences and their findings are supporting Kübler-Ross’s observations.

“Scientists say people are aware they’re dead because their consciousness continues to work after the body has stopped showing signs of life.”

Sam Parnia, MD, PhD, Associate Professor at New York University Langone Medical Center, specializes in critical care and resuscitation research. He and his team have studied over 2,000 cardiac arrest patients—people whose hearts have stopped beating and have been brought back to life by doctors. The goal of the study? To examine whether consciousness continues after brain function stops.

The four-year study is called AWARE5 (AWAreness during REsuscitation). Here is how a U.S. News & World Report article described the results:

“Parnia’s research focuses on resuscitated people’s mental and cognitive experience at that specific moment when they have gone through death. He calls it an actual-death experience.

The brain shuts down within two to 20 seconds after the heart stops, Parnia says, so even when doctors try to revive patients, they don’t usually get enough blood into brain to get it functioning again. And that’s what made the AWARE study turn heads: 39 percent of patients who lived after cardiac arrest could describe a perception of awareness even if they couldn’t recall specific memories.

In one substantiated case from the AWARE study, ‘consciousness and awareness appeared to occur during a three-minute period when there was no heartbeat.’”

A person is pronounced dead when the heart stops beating. In an interview with The Independent, Dr. Parnia observed, “Once that happens, blood no longer circulates to the brain, which means brain function halts almost instantaneously. You lose all your brain stem reflexes – your gag reflex, your pupil reflex, all that is gone.”4 In popular culture, this is called “flatlining” because equipment monitoring electrical impulses in the heart (EKG) and brain (EEG) both show flat lines when measurable impulses stop.

In an interview with Live Science, Dr. Parnia said, “If you manage to restart the heart, which is what CPR attempts to do, you’ll gradually start to get the brain functioning again. The longer you’re doing CPR, those brain cell death pathways are still happening — they’re just happening at a slightly slower rate.”

Parnia’s team has documented many people whose hearts were restarted who could describe in detail what took place while they were technically experiencing death, “They’ll describe watching doctors and nurses working; they’ll describe having awareness of full conversations, of visual things that were going on, that would otherwise not be known to them.” These cases have been verified by the medical personnel who brought them back to life.

Death: A Time of Hyper-Awareness in the Brain?

Researchers at the University of Michigan performed continuous EEG (brain) monitoring in rats during cardiac arrest and found there was a surge of high-frequency electrical impulses in the near-death state that were higher than the electrical impulses measured during the normal, conscious waking state. The researchers concluded that this demonstrates the brain can generate heightened conscious processing at near-death.

Survivors of cardiac arrest report “highly lucid and vivid” experiences that are said to be “realer than real.” Remarkably, these experiences are reported, “worldwide across cultures.”

Other researchers have examined the brain waves of patients whose hearts cannot be restarted and are being taken off life support for organ donation. A research team from Duke University and Virginia Mason Medical Center found surges of EEG (brain) activity in humans as care was withdrawn in preparation for organ donation after cardiac death.

Researchers from George Washington University Medical Center found the same phenomenon in “patients who were neurologically intact before the decision to withdraw care due to extensive systemic critical illness.”

Could it be that the spike in brain activity at that moment of death marks the emergence of the soul as it is released from the body’s cocoon?

From reincarnation to heaven and hell, depending upon your belief system, there are a number of spiritually-based ideas about what happens after death. What do you think happens?