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Science Is Starting to Explore the Gray Zone Between Life and Death
French researchers recently roused a patient out of a vegetative state.
We used to think of death as a moment. We reel when a beloved person meets a tragic end, be it in real life or our favorite show. The reality is, death is often a long, drawn out process that has to do with treatment, hospitals, and in the end, hospice care. Of course, it can strike suddenly too and without warning. But medical science has progressed to the point where we aren’t thinking of death so much as a moment anymore, but a process.
So does that mean we can slow it down or even pause it? According to Dr. Sam Parnia, in his book Erasing Death, new techniques are being used which can reinvigorate the body and the brain. He also believes that death could someday be reversible.
Dr. Parnia has done studies on sustained resuscitation. He says some patients can be brought back merely with CPR, hours after their heart stopped beating, without any permanent damage to the brain. He’s also studied near-death and out-of-body experiences to see if these hold any medical secrets, which could be used to tell us something about the condition. Could a near death experience signify resuscitation of the brain, Dr. Parnia wonders?
“We've never had an objective method to go beyond the threshold of death and study what happens both biologically and from a mental and cognitive perspective,” he told NPR’s Terry Gross on Fresh Air. “Therefore everything that we deal with is basically hearsay and people's own beliefs."
In his experiments, he found that cooling the body a few degrees Celsius can actually slow the rate of cell death, particularly of neurons in the brain. He isn’t alone. In fact, a number of different medical professionals are leaning toward longevity medicine.
Dr. Parnia believes that a near death experience might signify resuscitation of the brain. Getty Images.
Biologist Mark Roth, at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, is working with animal subjects, putting them into suspended animation. The idea is that a patient who is in medical crisis could be put into a suspended state like hibernation, until he or she could be stabilized and in this way, get past it.
Though we tend to expire when the oxygen level is low, many animals go into a suspended state in extremely low oxygen environments. In the lab, one must enter into such an environment quickly. Roth is currently working with nematodes—a kind of roundworm—and expects to eventually work up to humans.
A vegetative state is another aspect of what we consider the gray zone between life and death. Medically, this is when sufficient damage to the brain has occurred, where the person isn’t aware of and can’t respond to their surroundings. They may breathe, have a heartbeat, move their eyes, even show reflexes, but they can’t respond to stimuli or interact with the world. Their brain stem is operating normally, but other parts of the brain may be damaged or inoperable. Most patients who enter such a state never leave it.
Now a curious case is shaking up how we consider this condition. A 35-year-old man “woke up” after being in a vegetative state for 15 years. In this study, recently published in the journal Current Biology, French researchers found a way to restore some consciousness to a patient, a feat considered impossible previously. It was thought that patients in this state for a year or longer couldn’t be revived.
Brain scans of a patient roused from a vegetative state through vargal nerve stimulation. Current Biology.
Angela Sirigu was the lead researcher. She and colleagues, at the of the Institut des Sciences Cognitives Marc Jeannerod, in Lyon, accomplished this by stimulating the vagus nerve, one of the longest running in the body. It goes from the brain stem all the way to the gut and connects to most of the major organs along the way.
Unlike in the movies, where a patient miraculously shoots out of bed after years of being bedridden and unresponsive, Sirigu and colleagues say this was a gradual process. Researchers ran different tests to gauge his awareness.
The man’s eyes widened when someone approached him suddenly, seeing the person as a threat. He was able to stay awake for longer periods when someone read him a book. He could also follow objects with his eyes or turn his head when asked to. This and brain imaging evidence suggests their technique is reaping results.
Vagal nerve stimulation is already being used to treat depression, epilepsy, and other disorders. It activates the noradrenergic pathway, which initiates alertness and can even trigger the fight-or-flight response. Researchers admit little is known about how or why this has helped rouse the patient out of a vegetative state.
Yet, this study may change how medical professionals care for those who have entered such states. Sirigu said, “The sooner we can stimulate it (the vagus nerve), the sooner we can interfere with the body functions and restore some kind of physiological equilibrium.”
This is more of a proof-of-concept study. A larger sample is sorely needed. Sirigu says she and colleagues are putting together a larger, follow-up presently. This is just the beginning.
What’s more, press sensationalism aside, the patient was brought from a vegetative to a minimally conscious state, which isn’t exactly a full recovery. Even if these results can be repeated with other such cases, more studies will be needed to uncover exactly how the technique reaps results.
We’re still a long way away from the day when medical science is able to take the next step and fully restore a patient. But that day is likely to come.
To learn more about the gray areas between life and death, click here:
Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.
A new episode of "Your Brain on Money" illuminates the strange world of consumer behavior and explores how brands can wreak havoc on our ability to make rational decisions.
- Effective branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- Our new series "Your Brain on Money," created in partnership with Million Stories, recently explored the surprising ways brands can affect our behavior.
- Brands aren't going away. But you can make smarter decisions by slowing down and asking yourself why you're making a particular purchase.
How Apple and Nike have branded your brain | Your Brain on Money | Big Think youtu.be
Brands can manipulate our brains in surprisingly profound ways. They can change how we conceptualize ourselves and how we broadcast our identities out to the social world. They can make us feel emotions that have nothing to do with the functions of their products. And they can even sort us into tribes.
To grasp the power of brands, look to Apple. In the 1990s, the company was struggling to compete with Microsoft over the personal computer market. Despite flirting with bankruptcy in the mid-1990s, Apple turned itself around to eventually become the most valuable company in the world.
That early-stage success wasn't due to superior products.
"People talk about technology, but Apple was a marketing company," John Sculley, a former Apple marketing executive, told The Guardian in 1997. "It was the marketing company of the decade."
So, how exactly does branding make people willing to wait hours in line to buy a $1,000 smartphone, or pay exorbitant prices for a pair of sneakers?
Branding and the brain
For more than a century, brands have capitalized on the fact that effective marketing is much more than simply touting the merits of a product. Some ads have nothing to do with the product at all. In 1871, for example, Pearl Tobacco started advertising their cigarettes through branded posters and trading cards that featured exposed women, a trend that continues to this day.
It's crude, sure. But research shows that it's also remarkably effective, even on monkeys. Why? The answer seems to center on how our brains pay special attention to information from the social world.
"In theory, ads that associate sex or status with specific brands or products activate the brain mechanisms that prioritize social information, and turning on this switch may bias us toward the product," wrote neuroscience professor Michael Platt for Scientific American.
Brands can burrow themselves deep into our subconscious. Through ad campaigns, brands can form a web of associations and memories in our brains. When these connections are robust and positive, it can change our behavior, nudging us to make "no-brainer" purchases when we encounter the brand at the store.
It's a marketing principle that's related to the work of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and economist who won the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. In his book "Thinking Fast and Slow", Kahneman separates thinking into two broad categories, or systems:
- System 1 is fast and automatic, requiring little effort or voluntary control.
- System 2 is slow and requires subjective deliberation and logic.
Brands that tap into "system 1" are likely to dominate the competition. After all, it's far easier for us as consumers to automatically reach for a familiar brand than it is to analyze all of the available information and make an informed choice. Still, the most successful brands can have an even deeper impact on our psychology, one that causes us to conceptualize them as something like a family member.
A peculiar relationship with brands
Apple has one of the most loyal customer bases in the world, with its brand loyalty hitting an all-time high earlier this year, according to a SellCell survey of more than 5,000 U.S.-based smartphone users.
Qualitatively, how does that loyalty compare to Samsung users? To find out, Platt and his team conducted a study in which functional magnetic resonance imaging scanned the brains of Samsung and Apple users as they viewed positive, negative, and neutral news about each company. The results revealed stark differences between the two groups, as Platt wrote in "The Leader's Brain":
"Apple users showed empathy for their own brand: The reward-related areas of the brain were activated by good news about Apple, and the pain and negative feeling parts of the brain were activated by bad news. They were neutral about any kind of Samsung news. This is exactly what we see when people empathize with other people—particularly their family and friends—but don't feel the joy and pain of people they don't know."
Meanwhile, Samsung users didn't show any significant pain- or pleasure-related brain activity when they saw good or bad news about the company.
"Interestingly, though, the pain areas were activated by good news about Apple, and the reward areas were activated by bad news about the rival company—some serious schadenfreude, or "reverse empathy," Platt wrote.
The results suggest a fundamental difference between the brands: Apple has formed strong emotional and social connections with consumers, Samsung has not.
Brands and the self
Does having a strong connection with a brand justify paying higher prices for their products? Maybe. You could have a strong connection with Apple or Nike and simultaneously think the quality of their products justifies the price.
But beyond product quality lies identity. People have long used objects and clothing to express themselves and signal their affiliation with groups. From prehistoric seashell jewelry to Air Jordans, the things people wear and associate with signal a lot of information about how they conceptualize themselves.
Since the 1950s, researchers have examined the relationship between self-image and brand preferences. This body of research has generally found that consumers tend to prefer brands whose products fit well with their self-image, a concept known as self-image congruity.
By choosing brands that don't disrupt their self-image, consumers are able not only to express themselves personally, but also broadcast a specific version of themselves into the social world. That might sound self-involved. But on the other hand, humans are social creatures who use information from the social world to make decisions, so it's virtually impossible for us not to make inferences about people based on how they present themselves.
Americus Reed II, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told Big Think:
"When I make choices about different brands, I'm choosing to create an identity. When I put that shirt on, when I put that shirt on — those jeans, that hat — someone is going to form an impression about what I'm about. So, if I'm choosing Nike over Under Armour, I'm choosing a kind of different way to express affiliation with sport. The Nike thing is about performance. The Under Armour thing is about the underdog. I have to choose which of these different conceptual pathways is most consistent with where I am in my life."
Making smarter decisions
Brands may have some power over us when we're facing a purchasing decision. So, considering brands aren't going away, what can we do to make better choices? The best strategy might be to slow down and try to avoid making "automatic" purchasing decisions that are characteristic of Kahneman's fast "system 1" mode of thinking.
"I think it's important to always pause and think a little bit about, "Okay, why am I buying this product?" Platt said.
As for getting out of the brand game altogether? Good luck.
"I've heard lots of people push back and say, "I'm not into brands,"" Reed II said. "I take a very different view. In some senses, they're not doing anything different than what someone who affiliates with a brand is doing. They have a brand. It's just an anti-brand brand."
Powerful branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- Powerful branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- "We love to think of ourselves as rational. That's not how it works," says UPenn professor Americus Reed II about our habits (both conscious and subconscious) of paying more for items based primarily on the brand name. Effective marketing causes the consumer to link brands like Apple and Nike with their own identity, and that strong attachment goes deeper than receipts.
- Using MRI, professor and neuroscientist Michael Platt and his team were able to see this at play. When reacting to good or bad news about the brand, Samsung users didn't have positive or negative brain responses, yet they did have "reverse empathy" for bad news about Apple. Meanwhile, Apple users showed a "brain empathy response for Apple that was exactly what you'd see in the way you would respond to somebody in your family."