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Is there life after death? Study finds people experience real events up to three minutes after their heart stops beating

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In the 1990 thrillers Flatliners, a group of precious medical students decide to play with the boundaries of life and death by electronically inducing a near death-like state in one another.

The plot was a little extreme at times, but hey - it set the stage for Kiefer Sutherland and Julia Roberts to get together. 

Fast-forward 24 years and now a fascinating new study has actually found evidence to suggest an element of consciousness and awareness for up to three minutes after a person's heartbeat has stopped.

In the largest ever study on the subject, researchers at the University of Southampton surveyed 2,060 people who went into cardiac arrest (a state they describe as "biologically synonymous with death") at 15 different hospitals in the US, UK, and Austria since 2008. 

Of the 330 people who survived, 39% recalled awareness while they were clinically dead. 

Dr Sam Parnia, director of resuscitation research at the State University of New York and a research fellow on the project, told the Telegraph that this number could be higher if people's memories weren't dulled by drugs and sedatives. 

Flatliners

The film Flatliners

Experts currently believe that the brain shuts down within 20 to 30 seconds of when the heart stopped beating and that no awareness is possible beyond that point.  

Hallucinatory events -  typically referred to as out-of-body experiences (OBEs) or near-death experiences (NDEs) - are thought to occur either before the heart has stopped beating or after it has been restarted.

But this new study, published in the journal Resuscitation, suggests people experience a broad range of memories and mental recollections for up to three minutes after death. 

Of those people who recalled awareness after their heartbeat had stopped, 46% reported memories along the lines of:

* "I was told I was going to die and the quickest way was to say the last short word I could remember"

* "All plants, no flowers"

* "Saw lions and tigers"

* "Being dragged through deep water"

A further 9% had experiences "compatible" with NDEs and 2% had experiences compatible with OBEs, where they explicitly "saw" or "heard" moments tied to their resuscitation.

Resuscitation

One man, a 57-year-old social worker from Southampton, gave an astonishingly accurate account of what was happening in the room during the three minutes that he was clinically dead. He could describe the movements of nurses and doctors in the room and said he felt like he was observing them as they worked to resuscitate him.

“The man described everything that had happened in the room, but importantly, he heard two bleeps from a machine that makes a noise at three minute intervals. So we could time how long the experienced lasted for," said Dr Parnia. “He seemed very credible and everything that he said had happened to him had actually happened.”

 "We know the brain can’t function when the heart has stopped beating," he continued. "But in this case, conscious awareness appears to have continued for up to three minutes.

"This is significant, since it has often been assumed that experiences in relation to death are likely hallucinations or illusions, occurring either before the heart stops or after the heart has been successfully restarted, but not an experience corresponding with 'real' events when the heart isn't beating."

Dr David Wilde, a research psychologist at Nottingham Trent University who is currently studying out-of-body experiences, said the results were exciting.

“There is some very good evidence here that these experiences are actually happening after people have medically died," he told the Telegraph

“We just don’t know what is going on. We are still very much in the dark about what happens when you die and hopefully this study will help shine a scientific lens onto that.”

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