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10 new things we’ve learned about death
If you don't want to know anything about your death, consider this your spoiler warning.
- For centuries cultures have personified death to give this terrifying mystery a familiar face.
- Modern science has demystified death by divulging its biological processes, yet many questions remain.
- Studying death is not meant to be a morbid reminder of a cruel fate, but a way to improve the lives of the living.
Black cloak. Scythe. Skeletal grin. The Grim Reaper is the classic visage of death in Western society, but it's far from the only one. Ancient societies personified death in a myriad of ways. Greek mythology has the winged nipper Thanatos. Norse mythology the gloomy and reclusive Hel, while Hindu traditions sport the wildly ornate King Yama.
Modern science has de-personified death, pulling back its cloak to discover a complex pattern of biological and physical processes that separate the living from the dead. But with the advent of these discoveries, in some ways, death has become more alien.
1) You are conscious after death
Many of us imagine death will be like drifting to sleep. Your head gets heavy. Your eyes flutter and gently close. A final breath and then… lights out. It sounds perversely pleasant. Too bad it may not be that quick.
Dr. Sam Parnia, the director of critical care and resuscitation research at NYU Langone Medical Center, researches death and has proposed that our consciousness sticks around while we die. This is due to brainwaves firing in the cerebral cortex — the conscious, thinking part of the brain — for roughly 20 seconds after clinical death.
Studies on lab rats have shown their brains surge with activity in the moments after death, resulting in an aroused and hyper-alert state. If such states occur in humans, it may be evidence that the brain maintains a lucid consciousness during death's early stages. It may also explain how patients brought back from the brink can remember events that took place while they were technically dead.
But why study the experience of death if there's no coming back from it?
"In the same way that a group of researchers might be studying the qualitative nature of the human experience of 'love,' for instance, we're trying to understand the exact features that people experience when they go through death, because we understand that this is going to reflect the universal experience we're all going to have when we die," he told LiveScience.
2) Zombie brains are a thing (kind of)
There is life after death if you're a pig...sorta. Image source: Wikimedia Commons)
Recently at the Yale School of Medicine, researchers received 32 dead pig brains from a nearby slaughterhouse. No, it wasn't some Mafia-style intimidation tactic. They'd placed the order in the hopes of giving the brains a physiological resurrection.
The researchers connected the brains to an artificial perfusion system called BrainEx. It pumped a solution through them that mimicked blood flow, bringing oxygen and nutrients to the inert tissues.
This system revitalized the brains and kept some of their cells "alive" for as long as 36 hours postmortem. The cells consumed and metabolized sugars. The brains' immune systems even kicked back in. And some samples were even able to carry electrical signals.
Because the researchers weren't aiming for Animal Farm with Zombies, they included chemicals in the solution that prevented neural activity representative of consciousness from taking place.
Their actual goal was to design a technology that will help us study the brain and its cellular functions longer and more thoroughly. With it, we may be able to develop new treatments for brain injuries and neurodegenerative conditions.
3) Death is not the end for part of you
Researchers used zebrafish to gain insights into postmortem gene expression. Image source: ICHD / Flickr
There is life after death. No, science hasn't discovered proof of an afterlife or how much the soul weighs. But our genes keep going after our demise.
A study published in the Royal Society's Open Biology looked at gene expression in dead mice and zebrafish. The researchers were unsure if gene expression diminished gradually or stopped altogether. What they found surprised them. Over a thousand genes became more active after death. In some cases, these spiked expressions lasted for up to four days.
"We didn't anticipate that," Peter Noble, study author and microbiology professor at the University of Washington, told Newsweek. "Can you imagine, 24 hours after [time of death] you take a sample and the transcripts of the genes are actually increasing in abundance? That was a surprise."
Gene expression was shown for stress and immunity responses but also developmental genes. Noble and his co-authors suggest this shows that the body undergoes a "step-wise shutdown," meaning vertebrates die gradually and not all at once.
4) Your energy lives on
Even our genes will eventually fade, and all that we are will become clay. Do you find such oblivion disheartening? You're not alone, but you may take solace in the fact that part of you will continue on long after your death. Your energy.
According to the first law of thermodynamics, the energy that powers all life continues on and can never be destroyed. It is transformed. As comedian and physicist Aaron Freeman explains in his "Eulogy from a Physicist":
"You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got."
5) Near-death experiences may be extreme dreams
Near-death experiences come in a variety of styles. Some people float above their bodies. Some go to a supernatural realm and meet passed-on relatives. Others enjoy the classic dark-tunnel-bright-light scenario. One thing they all have in common: We don't know what's going on.
A study published in Neurology suggests near-death experiences stem from a type of sleep-wake state. It compared survivors who had near-death experiences with those who did not. The researchers found that people with near-death experiences were more likely to also undergo REM intrusions, states in which sleep intrudes upon wakeful consciousness.
"People who have near-death experiences may have an arousal system that predisposes them to REM intrusion," Kevin Nelson, professor at the University of Kentucky and the study's lead author, told the BBC.
It's worth noting that the study does have its limitations. Only 55 participants were interviewed in each group, and the results relied on anecdotal evidence. These highlight key difficulties in studying near-death experiences. Such experiences are rare and cannot be induced in a controlled setting. (Such a proposal would be a huge red flag for any ethics board.)
The result is sparse data opened to a lot of interpretation, but it is unlikely that the soul enjoys a postmortem romp. One experiment installed pictures on high shelves in 1,000 hospital rooms. These images would only be visible to people whose souls departed the body and returned.
No cardiac arrest survivor reported seeing the images. Then again, if they did manage to sever their fleshy fetters, they may have had more pressing matters to attend to.
6) Animals may mourn the dead too
Elephants form strong familial bonds, and some eye witness accounts suggest they may mourn the dead, too. Image source: Cocoparisienne / Pixabay
We're still not sure, but eye witness accounts suggest the answer may be yes.
Field researchers have witnessed elephants staying with the dead — even if the deceased is not from the same family herd. This observation led the researchers to conclude the elephants had a "generalized response" to death. Dolphins too have been seen guarding deceased members of their species. And chimpanzees maintain social routines with the dead, such as grooming.
No other species has been observed performing human-like memorial rituals, which requires abstract thought, but these events suggest animals possess a unique understanding of and response to death.
As Jason Goldman writes for BBC, "[F]or every facet of life that is unique to our species, there are hundreds that are shared with other animals. As important as it is to avoid projecting our own feelings onto animals, we also need to remember that we are, in an inescapable way, animals ourselves."
7) Who first buried the dead?
Anthropologist Donald Brown has studied human cultures and discovered hundreds of features shared by each and every one. Among them, every culture has its own way to honor and mourn the dead.
But who was the first? Humans or another hominin in our ancestral lineage? That answer is difficult because it is shrouded in the fog of our prehistorical past. However, we do have a candidate: Homo naledi.
Several fossils of this extinct hominin were discovered in a cave chamber at the Rising Star Cave system, Cradle of Humankind, South Africa. To access the chamber required a vertical climb, a few tight fits, and much crawling.
This led researchers to believe it unlikely so many individuals ended up there by accident. They also ruled out geological traps like cave-ins. Given the seemingly deliberate placement, some have concluded the chamber served as a Homo naledi graveyard. Others aren't so sure, and more evidence is needed before we can definitively answer this question.
8) Walking corpse syndrome
The medieval Danse Macabre fresco at the Holy Trinity Church in Hrastovlje, Solvenia. (Photo: Marco Almbauer/Wikimedia Commons)
For most of us, the line between life and death is stark. We are alive; therefore, we are not dead. It's a notion many take for granted, and we should be thankful we can manage it so effortlessly.
People afflicted with Cotard's syndrome don't see the divide so cleanly. This rare condition was first described by Dr. Jules Cotard in 1882 and describes people who believe they are dead, missing body parts, or have lost their soul. This nihilistic delusion manifests in a prevailing sense of hopelessness, neglect of health, and difficulty dealing with external reality.
In one case, a 53-year-old Filipino woman with Cotard's syndrome believed herself to smell like rotting fish and wished to be brought to the morgue so she could be with her kind. Thankfully, a regimen of antipsychotics and antidepressants improved her condition. Others with this debilitating mental disorder have also been known to improve with proper treatment.
9) Do hair and fingernails grow after death?
Nope. This is a myth, but one that does have a biological origin.
The reason hair and fingernails don't grow after death is because new cells can't be produced. Glucose fuels cell division, and cells require oxygen to break down glucose into cellular energy. Death puts an end to the body's ability to intake either one.
It also ends the intaking of water, leading to dehydration. As a corpse's skin desiccates, it pulls away from the fingernails (making them look longer) and retracts around the face (giving a dead man's chin a five-o'clock shadow). Anyone unlucky enough to exhume a corpse could easily mistake these changes as signs of growth.
Interestingly, postmortem hair and fingernail growth provoked lore about vampires and other creatures of the night. When our ancestors dug up fresh corpses and found hair growth and blood spots around mouths (the result of natural blood pooling), their minds naturally wandered to undeath.
Not that becoming undead is anything we need to worry about today. (Unless, of course, you donate your brain to the Yale School of Medicine.)
10) Why we die?
People who live to be 110 years old, called super-centenarians, are a rare breed. Those who live to be 120 rarer still. The longest-living human on record was Jeanne Calment, a Frenchwoman who lived an astounding 122 years.
But why do we die in the first place? Setting spiritual and existential responses aside, the simple answer is that nature is done with us after a certain point.
Success in life, evolutionarily speaking, is passing on one's genes to offspring. As such, most species die soon after their fecund days end. Salmon die soon after making their upriver trek to fertilize their eggs. For them, reproduction is a one-way trip.
Humans are a bit different. We invest heavily in our young, so we require a longer lifespan to continue parental care. But human lives outpace their fecundity by many years. This extended lifespan allows us to invest time, care, and resources in grandchildren (who share our genes). This is known as the grandmother effect.
But if grandparents are so useful, why is cap set at 100-some-odd years? Because our evolution did not invest in longevity beyond that. Nerve cells do not replicate, brains shrink, hearts weaken, and we die. If evolution needed us to hang around longer, maybe these kill switches would have been weeded out, but evolution as we know it requires death to promote adaptive life.
At this age, however, it is likely that our children may be entering their grandparent years themselves, and our genes will continue to be cared for in subsequent generations.
- Science Is Starting to Explore the Gray Zone Between Life and Death ›
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Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.
Health officials in China reported that a man was infected with bubonic plague, the infectious disease that caused the Black Death.
- The case was reported in the city of Bayannur, which has issued a level-three plague prevention warning.
- Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
- Chinese health officials are also monitoring a newly discovered type of swine flu that has the potential to develop into a pandemic virus.
Bacteria under microscope
needpix.com<p>Today, bubonic plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted," Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">Healthline</a>. "We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick."</p>
This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p>Still, hundreds of people develop bubonic plague every year. In the U.S., a handful of cases occur annually, particularly in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html" target="_blank">where habitats allow the bacteria to spread more easily among wild rodent populations</a>. But these cases are very rare, mainly because you need to be in close contact with rodents in order to get infected. And though plague can spread from human to human, this <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">only occurs with pneumonic plague</a>, and transmission is also rare.</p>
A new swine flu in China<p>Last week, researchers in China also reported another public health concern: a new virus that has "all the essential hallmarks" of a pandemic virus.<br></p><p>In a paper published in the <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/06/23/1921186117" target="_blank">Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</a>, researchers say the virus was discovered in pigs in China, and it descended from the H1N1 virus, commonly called "swine flu." That virus was able to transmit from human to human, and it killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide from 2009 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.</p>There's no evidence showing that the new virus can spread from person to person. But the researchers did find that 10 percent of swine workers had been infected by the virus, called G4 reassortant EA H1N1. This level of infectivity raises concerns, because it "greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses," the researchers wrote.
A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.
- A study at Harvard's McLean Hospital claims that using the language of chemical imbalances worsens patient outcomes.
- Though psychiatry has largely abandoned DSM categories, professor Joseph E Davis writes that the field continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system."
- Chemical explanations of mental health appear to benefit pharmaceutical companies far more than patients.
Challenging the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Mental Disorders: Robert Whitaker, Journalist<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="41699c8c2cb2aee9271a36646e0bee7d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/-8BDC7i8Yyw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>This is a far cry from Howard Rusk's 1947 NY Times editorial calling for mental healt</p><p>h disorders to be treated similarly to physical disease (such as diabetes and cancer). This mindset—not attributable to Rusk alone; he was merely relaying the psychiatric currency of the time—has dominated the field for decades: mental anguish is a genetic and/or chemical-deficiency disorder that must be treated pharmacologically.</p><p>Even as psychiatry untethered from DSM categories, the field still used chemistry to validate its existence. Psychotherapy, arguably the most efficient means for managing much of our anxiety and depression, is time- and labor-intensive. Counseling requires an empathetic and wizened ear to guide the patient to do the work. Ingesting a pill to do that work for you is more seductive, and easier. As Davis writes, even though the industry abandoned the DSM, it continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system." </p><p>That language has infiltrated public consciousness. The team at McLean surveyed 279 patients seeking acute treatment for depression. As they note, the causes of psychological distress have constantly shifted over the millennia: humoral imbalance in the ancient world; spiritual possession in medieval times; early childhood experiences around the time of Freud; maladaptive thought patterns dominant in the latter half of last century. While the team found that psychosocial explanations remain popular, biogenetic explanations (such as the chemical imbalance theory) are becoming more prominent. </p><p>Interestingly, the 80 people Davis interviewed for his book predominantly relied on biogenetic explanations. Instead of doctors diagnosing patients, as you might expect, they increasingly serve to confirm what patients come in suspecting. Patients arrive at medical offices confident in their self-diagnoses. They believe a pill is the best course of treatment, largely because they saw an advertisement or listened to a friend. Doctors too often oblige without further curiosity as to the reasons for their distress. </p>
Image: Illustration Forest / Shutterstock<p>While medicalizing mental health softens the stigma of depression—if a disorder is inheritable, it was never really your fault—it also disempowers the patient. The team at McLean writes,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"More recent studies indicate that participants who are told that their depression is caused by a chemical imbalance or genetic abnormality expect to have depression for a longer period, report more depressive symptoms, and feel they have less control over their negative emotions."</p><p>Davis points out the language used by direct-to-consumer advertising prevalent in America. Doctors, media, and advertising agencies converge around common messages, such as everyday blues is a "real medical condition," everyone is susceptible to clinical depression, and drugs correct underlying somatic conditions that you never consciously control. He continues,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Your inner life and evaluative stance are of marginal, if any, relevance; counseling or psychotherapy aimed at self-insight would serve little purpose." </p><p>The McLean team discovered a similar phenomenon: patients expect little from psychotherapy and a lot from pills. When depression is treated as the result of an internal and immutable essence instead of environmental conditions, behavioral changes are not expected to make much difference. Chemistry rules the popular imagination.</p>
Why Depression Isn't Just a Chemical Imbalance<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="fbc027c9358dad4a6d9e2704fc9ddb04"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GAC9ODvSxh0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Many years ago, my best friend tried to quit smoking. He asked for help. While I'm no addiction expert, I offered what I knew from my fitness toolkit: breathing exercises and cardiovascular training, methods for strengthening his body and mind that could, I hoped, inspire him to take better care of himself in general. He replied, "No, I meant something like a pill."</p><p>A few years later, he quit for good. After failing the cold turkey method a number of times, it finally stuck. Maybe it was watching his children grow up—the reason my parents quit when I was young. This method is not easy, however. It challenges you; it forces you to confront your demons; it drastically affects your brain chemistry. Yet, in the long run, it sometimes works. </p><p>Sometimes pills work, too. But often they do not. The journalist Robert Whitaker, author of "Anatomy of an Epidemic," discussed the clinical trial process <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/antidepressants-dangers" target="_self">during our recent conversation</a>. While the FDA process appears thorough from the outside, pharmaceutical companies only need to prove that a drug works better than placebo, not that it works for the most amount of people. He continues, </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Let's say you have a drug that provides a relief of symptoms in 20 percent of people. In placebo, it's 10 percent. How many people in that study do not benefit from the drug? Nine out of 10. How many people are exposed to the adverse effects of the drug? 100 percent."</p><p>Even though some pharmacological interventions show little efficacy, and even though Xanax, an addictive and destructive benzodiazepine that only showed <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5846112/" target="_blank">short-term (four weeks) efficacy</a> in clinical trials, is being prescribed for many months and years, doctors continue to use the language of clinical neuroscience to describe mental health issues. If chemistry is the problem, people will turn to chemistry for the solution. </p><p>Perhaps we should, as psychiatrist Dean Schuyler <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/antidepressant-effects" target="_self">writes</a> in a 1974 book, recognize that most depressive episodes "will run their course and terminate with virtually complete recovery without specific intervention." The problem is that idea isn't profitable. As long as the gatekeepers continue to use the language of chemical imbalances to describe what for many is just an episodic case of the "blahs," we'll continue creating more problems than we solve.</p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
SEAL training is the ultimate test of both mental and physical strength.
- The fact that U.S. Navy SEALs endure very rigorous training before entering the field is common knowledge, but just what happens at those facilities is less often discussed. In this video, former SEALs Brent Gleeson, David Goggins, and Eric Greitens (as well as authors Jesse Itzler and Jamie Wheal) talk about how the 18-month program is designed to build elite, disciplined operatives with immense mental toughness and resilience.
- Wheal dives into the cutting-edge technology and science that the navy uses to prepare these individuals. Itzler shares his experience meeting and briefly living with Goggins (who was also an Army Ranger) and the things he learned about pushing past perceived limits.
- Goggins dives into why you should leave your comfort zone, introduces the 40 percent rule, and explains why the biggest battle we all face is the one in our own minds. "Usually whatever's in front of you isn't as big as you make it out to be," says the SEAL turned motivational speaker. "We start to make these very small things enormous because we allow our minds to take control and go away from us. We have to regain control of our mind."