It’s been an age-old trope in works of literature, poetry, and art for ages, but now science confirms it’s true: Life does indeed flash before your eyes when you die.
When an 87-year-old epilepsy patient unexpectedly passed away during a brain scan, the scan found that his brain seemed to replay memories in the 30 seconds before and after his heart stopped beating, according to a recent study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.
The patient, whose name was kept private, suffered a heart attack, and due to his do-not-resuscitate status, the scientists were able to track his brain waves throughout the final moments of his life. The scan was conducted by an international team of 13 neuroscientists led by Raul Vicente of the University of Tartu in Estonia.
The scientists were originally conducting electroencephalography (EEG) scans on the patient to detect and treat seizures. When he unexpectedly died, the EEG machine kept running, providing the scientists a first-of-its-kind glimpse into the brain activity of a dying human.
“This is why it’s so rare, because you can’t plan this,” Ajmal Zemmar, one of the co-authors of the study, told Insider. “No healthy human is gonna go and have an EEG before they die, and in no sick patient are we going to know when they’re gonna die to record these signals.”
The EEG brain scan found an oscillatory brain wave pattern in which activity in the brain’s alpha, beta, and theta bands relatively decreased and activity in the gamma band relatively increased. It’s thought that these oscillatory patterns, and an increase in gamma waves, suggest memory recall (the gamma band decreases external interference, allowing for deep inward concentration like recalling memories). Similar brain oscillations occur during meditation and dreaming.
This is the first time this has been proven in a human, although the concept looms large in our collective imagination. It comes back to us from people who have experienced near-death experiences, defined as when the brain has transitioned into preparing for death. Research into these experiences has reported intense memory recall and a panoramic review of one’s life. They have also reported a hallucinatory and meditative state and a sense of transcendence and bliss. These accounts cross cultures and religions.
The trope is so solidified it’s joked about in cartoons, like Family Guy, and used in movies like Babe: Pig in the City (Babe flees from a dog about to kill him).
In the 2001 film Vanilla Sky, the character played by Tom Cruise leaps from a building and as he’s falling, he sees his childhood, his parents, a dog, and the women he’s loved throughout the years his life. In the 1998 action film Armageddon, Bruce Willis’s character sees memories of his daughter and wife a moment before dying in outer space.
People have been describing this phenomenon for millennia. In The Republic, Plato tells the story of a warrior who returns from death and recounts leaving his body. Hieronymus Bosch’s painting “Ascent of the Blessed” (1500–1504) depicts bright, white light at the end of a tunnel, another experience reported in near-death experiences.
Previous research into this phenomenon was largely based on anecdotal evidence. In a 2019 study, researchers compared stories of near-death experiences with stories of drug experiences, finding that ketamine, LSD, and the hallucinogenic DMT yielded strong similarities. Countless studies have examined the religious significance of near-death experiences, drawing on survivors’ accounts of transcendental and blissful states at the moment before they die.
Research has not concluded why the brain does this. For now, it seems that a flood of memories, a feeling of transcendence, and eventual bliss are one last gift the world gives us before we leave it for good.