David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
from the world's big
Start Learning

When should we stop trying to save the patient and focus on saving the organs?

A definition of death is surprisingly malleable, leading to complications when it comes to organ donation.

A doctor performing a kidney transplant. (Photo by: BSIP/UIG via Getty Images)
  • The latest Hastings Center Report is dedicated to the question of defining death.
  • Definitions of death are not only biological, but cultural, leading to important questions about organ donation.
  • The brain can continue to be electrically active for five minutes after cardiac death—valuable time for patients in need of transplants.

One of the most disturbing movies I've ever watched is The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Based on French fashion editor Jean-Dominuqe Bauby's book of the same name, it chronicles his life after waking up with locked-in syndrome having suffering from a massive stroke. While Bauby's mental faculties were entirely intact, he was paralyzed save the blinking of his left eyelid, which is the method he used to "write" his book.

Empathy is the vehicle of upset, why I shuddered during the entire film. Imagine yourself unable to move anything but an eyelid and remain completely aware of your condition. Bauby suffered from pseudocoma; there is also total locked-in syndrome, meaning you no longer have use of your eye muscles either. Still, you remain conscious.

Such a condition begs the question: Is this even living? It also brings to mind another question, one that is surprisingly more malleable than you might imagine: What does death mean? Turns out there are a variety of responses.

The latest issue of the Hastings Center Report (which you can access for free here), Defining Death: Organ Transplantation and the Fifty-Year Legacy of the Harvard Report on Brain Death, looks at the ways in which various cultures view death. There is no one singular answer.

Jason Silva - The Death Problem

In 'Death: An Evolving, Normative Concept', NYU Bioethics professor Arthur Caplan relates the story of Constantin Reliu, a Romanian who traveled to Turkey to make a living as a cook. At some point he lost contact with his family; his former wife reported him deceased to Romanian officials. After a 26 work trip, Reliu returned to his homeland. Only his government wouldn't accept the fact that he was alive.

His former wife had, unbeknownst to him, at some point during his stay in Turkey registered him as deceased in Romania. He has since been living a legal nightmare trying to prove to Romanian authorities that he is, in fact, alive.

Death, beyond a biological fact, is also cultural. As Caplan points out, definitions change not only nation by nation, but in America, state by state. In New Jersey, for example, the family of a vegetative patient has the right to decide whether or not brain death is actual death.

This might seem like a game reserved for philosophers and doctors, but there are real-world consequences when it comes to organ donors. If someone suffers brain death with no chance of recovery yet still has viable organs for donation, should it be considered immoral to keep that person alive until their organs are rendered useless? If someone else could have been saved thanks to the beating heart of a brain-dead patient, why would anyone deny the life of another?

organ donation rally India

KOLKATA, WEST BENGAL, INDIA: Students hold posters during a rally to create awareness about organ donation on the occasion of World Organ Donation day.

Photo by Saikat Paul/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

It makes sense that we'd favor the loved one in front of us over someone we don't even know. Death, of course, is no easy prospect; its denial has led some to claim it causes the bulk of our neuroses while living. A body does not all die at once, however. Caplan cites a study in Berlin and Cincinnati where patients had their electrical signals in their brain monitored as they were dying:

Even after a person's heart had stopped for five minutes, cellular activity could still be detected. How often this is true in those declared dead due to cardiac failure, no one knows.

With technological advancements in health care, corpses can even be maintained "in some state of biological vitalism." It is possible that cellular functions and tissue growth can occur thanks to machinery. But to what end? No one wants to look at a dying person as a compilation of parts ready for dispersal. But if that person's vitalism is truly depleted, their biological legacy can live on in other bodies.

As health care is tied more into our smartphones and other devices and AI potentially extends our lifespans in innovative ways, this question is certain to become harder to answer. The line between machinery and biology has been explored for decades. As we implement new applications of technology, we might also have to once again change our definition of death. Just how much that adds to life remains to be seen.


Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Keep reading Show less

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

Keep reading Show less

Unhappy at work? How to find meaning and maintain your mental health

Finding a balance between job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle is not easy.

Unhappy at work? How to find meaning and maintain your mental health
  • When most of your life is spent doing one thing, it matters if that thing is unfulfilling or if it makes you unhappy. According to research, most people are not thrilled with their jobs. However, there are ways to find purpose in your work and to reduce the negative impact that the daily grind has on your mental health.
  • "The evidence is that about 70 percent of people are not engaged in what they do all day long, and about 18 percent of people are repulsed," London Business School professor Dan Cable says, calling the current state of work unhappiness an epidemic. In this video, he and other big thinkers consider what it means to find meaning in your work, discuss the parts of the brain that fuel creativity, and share strategies for reassessing your relationship to your job.
  • Author James Citrin offers a career triangle model that sees work as a balance of three forces: job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle. While it is possible to have all three, Citrin says that they are not always possible at the same time, especially not early on in your career.

The Anthropause is here: COVID-19 reduced Earth's vibrations by 50 percent

The planet is making a lot less noise during lockdown.

A house is collapsed after a 6.4 earthquake hit just south of the island on January 7, 2020 in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico.

Photo by Eric Rojas/Getty Images
  • A team of researchers found that Earth's vibrations were down 50 percent between March and May.
  • This is the quietest period of human-generated seismic noise in recorded history.
  • The researchers believe this helps distinguish between natural vibrations and human-created vibrations.
Keep reading Show less
Surprising Science

Dinosaurs suffered from cancer, study confirms

A recent analysis of a 76-million-year-old Centrosaurus apertus fibula confirmed that dinosaurs suffered from cancer, too.

Scroll down to load more…