What happens after we die? Are we snuffed out like lights, or do we continue to exist in some way?
Those are age-old questions, for sure. But a provocative new study on near-death experiences suggests that a brief version of "life after death" may be a reality.
For the study, researchers at the University of Southampton in England examined more than 2,000 cases of cardiac arrest from 15 hospitals across the U.K., the U.S., and Austria. They found that of 360 people who had been revived after experiencing cardiac arrest, about 40 percent of them had some sort of "awareness" during the period when they were "clinically dead."
And that's not all. One man's memory of what he saw "after death" was spot-on in describing what actually happened during his resuscitation. The 57-year-old reported hearing two beeps come from a machine that went off every three minutes -- indicating that his conscious experience during the time he had no heartbeat lasted for around three minutes. According to the researchers, that suggests the man's brain may not have shut down completely, even after his heart stopped.
"This is paradoxical, since the brain typically ceases functioning within 20-30 seconds of the heart stopping and doesn’t resume again until the heart has been restarted," study co-author Dr. Sam Parnia, a professor of medicine at Stony Brook University and former research fellow at Southampton University, said in a written statement.
Parnia added that it's possible even more patients in the study had mental activity following cardiac arrest but were unable to remember events during the episode as a result of brain injury or the use of sedative drugs.
What do others say about the study? Some experts say it coincides with emerging ideas in resuscitation medicine about how the body dies, and the potential to reverse the dying process.
"We used to think dying was black-and white, 'bang-bang, you're dead,'" Dr. Stephan Mayer, director of the Institute for Critical Care and Medicine at Mount Sinai's Icahn School of Medicine in New York City, who was not involved in the study, told The Huffington Post. "Dying is a huge gray area. It is actually a shockingly gradual process that plays out over hours."
The study was published Sept. 7 in the journal Resuscitation.