Death is a universal truth, yet not everyone believes the same truth about what happens when we die. Some are faithful to a long-standing religious belief, while others prefer to rely on scientific developments and research to explain the afterlife (or lack thereof).
So, what actually happens when we die? Religious leaders have dedicated their lives to explore some of the highly debated theories on what comes next, meanwhile, real survivors of near-death experiences have given scientists new ideas about what the “afterlife” really entails (page 13).
There’s a light at the end of the ‘tunnel’
About 4% of the world’s population has reported having a near-death experience. Many of the phenomena that people report when approaching death have scientific explanations, according to neuroscientist Dean Mobbs, at the University of Cambridge’s Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit.
One of the most famous aspects of these near-death experiences is the illusion of moving through a tunnel toward a bright light, which has been depicted and described as the transition to heaven. While the specific causes of this remain unclear, tunnel vision can reportedly occur when blood and oxygen flow is depleted to the eyes.
Next: The scientific research that supports this controversial religious belief.
Reincarnation and rebirth
A tenant of certain spiritual religions is the belief that when we die, our souls are reborn into a different physical form. For example, Hinduism teaches that a person’s spirit, called the atman, is permanent and cannot change, while the physical body is impermanent. The continuous rebirth of the atman is called reincarnation, or samsara.
Jim Tucker, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia, explored the scientific legitimacy behind these beliefs. His book, Return to Life, features compilations of stories of children who reported memories from a history they weren’t alive for. One eerie example involved a 2-year-old boy named James Leininger who had vivid nightmares and knew the extraordinary details of a plane crash that matched the life and death of a World War II pilot, James Huston.
Next: Here’s what could happen to your soul when you die.
The scientific explanation of what happens to the ‘soul’ after death
Dr. Stuart Hameroff, M.D., has dedicated the past few decades to studying quantum mechanics and consciousness. According to Hameroff, in a near-death experience, while microtubules lose their quantum state, the information in them isn’t destroyed. Rather, it’s distributed to the universe and can return to the microtubules if the patient is revived.
In layman’s terms, this discovery may explain near-death experiences. In the event the patient is declared dead, “it’s possible that the quantum information can exist outside the body, perhaps indefinitely, as a soul,” he said. While the theory remains controversial among other scientists, Hameroff believes it’s still “very viable.”
Next: This is one of the most widely held beliefs about the afterlife.
The Christian teaching
Christianity believes in an afterlife, and that while the body dies, each individual soul lives on and is raised to a new life by God. While not all Christian teachings are exactly the same, most believe they will be judged by God after death, and that God will treat people in the afterlife according to how they lived their life on Earth. God does so by sending them to either heaven or hell.
“There are Christian traditions that say when someone dies, they’re sleeping, and they’ll wake up when Jesus comes again. In mainline traditions, it’s more that death is a transition to another kind of life,” Reverend Laurie Garrett-Cobina, an assistant professor at the San Francisco Theological Seminary, said.
Next: Tom Cruise adopted this belief about what happens after death.
Former Scientologist Bruce Hines says that in Scientology doctrine, “the body that you have ceases to work.” Allegedly, they say “you,” or the spirit, would, for example, go to a hospital and find a baby being born and decide to inhabit that body. Early Show national correspondent Hattie Kauffman called it reincarnation with a twist.
The spirit is called a thetan. Stephen Kent, a professor of sociology and alternative religions at the University of Alberta, told CBS News that Scientologists believe that thetans have been attached to bodies in past lives and that this pattern of attachment will continue well into the future.
Next: This belief subverts what most scientists find true.
Dr. Robert Lanza and his “theory of everything,” or biocentrism, asserts that our consciousness creates the material universe rather than the other way around. This claim finds that an infinite number of alternate realities could exist outside of the one that our consciousnesses have developed.
“Just like at death, you change reference points. It’s still you, but you experience different lives, different friends, and even different worlds,” Lanza asserts. In this belief, death doesn’t actually exist but is rather a finite idea developed by our current consciousness.
Next: The Hebraic belief about death is indecisive.
Judaism’s ambiguous theories on death
In Jewish tradition, many believe that the soul lives forever, but the body “is on borrowed time” and is returned to God after death. This is why the Jewish bury their dead; in order to give the bodies back to God, they must return them to the Earth. As the Jewish faith does not believe that Jesus was the true Messiah, or savior, some believe that the resurrection of the dead will occur during or after the messianic era.
While there is hope within the Jewish faith that there is somewhere for the soul to go, in a more traditional view, the soul lives on and goes up to heaven. “A lot of it has to do with memory: You live on in the form of the memories of the people who survive you,” Rabbi Corey M. Helfand from the Peninsula Sinai Congregation told Refinery29.
Next: The new hit movie Coco showcases this theory.
Día de Los Muertos
Día de Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is a week-long celebration and an integral component of how Mexican culture embraces death. “The period is specifically a joyous, ritualistically elaborate celebration of life, rather than a sober mourning of its passing,” according to The Guardian.
During this period, which begins Oct. 28 and lasts until Nov. 2, Mexicans believe that their deceased have divine permission to visit family and friends on earth and enjoy the “pleasures of life” again. Many depict and imagine their dead with a skeletal or ghostly appearance.
Next: This rejected theory probably still scared you as a kid.
The theory of the paranormal
While the Paranormal Activity movies may have you cowering under your covers at night, little scientific evidence has emerged that supports the existence of ghosts in their dramatized form on Earth. Ghosts are among the most widely believed of the paranormal phenomena, however.
Next: This religion believes in a future judgment day.
Islam’s Day of Judgment
According to Amir Hussain, a professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University, in the pre-Islamic world, there was a notion of fate. In this notion, time determined when a person would die. Pre-Islamic Arabs say in the Qur’an, “There is nothing but our life in this world. We live and we die and nothing destroys us but Time,” (45:24).
According to Hussain, it is believed that Muhammad changed this perception when he was commanded by God to say, “It is God who gives you life, causes you to die, then gathers you together for the Day of Resurrection, of which there is no doubt.” Since then, Islam believes that on the Day of Judgment, “the body is judged, and those who have earned their reward are allowed into paradise, while those who have earned a punishment are consigned to hell.”
Next: This theory on death inspired its own controversial curse.
The Egyptian’s theory
Ancient Egyptians believed that death was only temporary. This is why they mummified their dead in the belief that their souls would eventually return to their bodies.
This ancient belief spawned a new theory, better called a curse: the “mummy’s curse.” The 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt opened up a new realm of Egyptian findings. The expedition’s sponsor, Lord Cavanon, unexpectedly died soon after. This birthed the mummy’s curse, which is a myth that opening a mummy’s tomb will lead to certain death.
Next: These scientists believe you could live forever, but it’ll come with a hefty price tag.
Cryonics basically allows anyone, for a high price, to modernly mummify their body. Companies, specifically Alcor, will preserve your body at extremely low temperatures (-3100° F) for $200,000.
The process stops your cells from evolving until medicine finds a cure for your death and brings you back to life. “If you think back half a century or so if somebody stopped breathing and their heart stopped beating we would’ve checked them and said they’re dead,” said Max More, CEO of Alcor. “Our view is that when we call someone dead it’s a bit of an arbitrary line. In fact, they are in need of a rescue.”
Next: The largest study on death had surprising results.
In studying ‘life after death,’ scientists have made great breakthroughs
The largest medical study on out-of-body experiences was conducted at the University of Southampton. Scientists spent four years examining over 2,000 people who suffered cardiac arrests in the U.K., U.S., and Austria.
The researchers found that almost 40% of the survivors described an out-of-body experience, or type of awareness, while they were declared clinically dead and before doctors successfully restarted their hearts.
Next: These are the scientists’ revolutionary takeaways.
This is what we’ve learned so far from near-death experiences
A man whose experiences were used as part of the study recalled watching his own resuscitation from the corner of the room. “The man described everything that had happened in the room,” said Dr. Sam Parnia, who led the study. The man, who was unconscious and clinically dead for three minutes, described in accurate detail the hospital staffs’ actions and the machines’ sounds.
“We know the brain can’t function when the heart has stopped beating,” said Parnia, “But in this case, conscious awareness appears to have continued for up to three minutes into the period when the heart wasn’t beating, even though the brain typically shuts down within 20 to 30 seconds after the heart has stopped.”
Next: These are the overarching themes of the study.
These are the themes scientists noticed
One in five of the survivors said they had “an unusual sense of peacefulness,” while nearly one in three found time had either slowed down or sped up while they were “dead.”
Other themes included participants who saw a bright light described as either a golden flash or the sun shining, feelings of fear and drowning, and for 13%, a noticeable separation from their bodies and heightened senses. “Estimates have suggested that millions of people have had vivid experiences in relation to death but the scientific evidence has been ambiguous at best,” Parnia said.
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