Tuesday, 10 June 2014

What Happens When Your Brain Realises You're Dying?

Death is scary, fact. But I recently learned something that makes me a little less scared and I want to share it with everyone. But first a quick warning, it may change your opinions on what happens when we die although this doesn't actually conflict with any other notions of what happens after you're dead because you aren't technically dead yet. 

Okay let's start off simple. Hallucinogens are chemicals that can warp our sense of reality, particularly our sense of time. This is why people who experiment with drugs can feel like they have been tripping for hours or even days when it wasn't really anywhere near that long. 

When you normally hear the word hallucinogen you'll probably think of things like ecstasy or LSD, but in fact we actually produce the most potent hallucinogen right inside our brains! A tiny pea sized piece of brain tissue deep in the middle of your brain called the pineal gland to be precise. The pineal gland plays an important role in regulating our body clocks, as it releases the sleep hormone melatonin (check out my other post about body clocks here). This little tiny piece of brain tissue produces the most potent hallucinogen known to man, Di-Methyl-tryptophan or DMT. DMT is so powerful that it can make a 10 minute trip feel like an eternity, it's released at night when your brain is transitioning from being conscious to unconscious and when you go back to being conscious again ie when you dream. This chemical helps to explain why dreams can be so trippy, and also why they feel like they lasted for hours or days when they really only last a few seconds! 

The Pineal gland releases DMT and many other chemicals that act on the brain, it is often referred to as the third eye in many spiritual texts.

So how does this tie in with death? Well as far as your brain is concerned it's the final transition from conscious to unconscious, permanently, or at least that's what's thought to be true for now. Because of this (depending on how you meet your end) your brain is proposed to release a monumental amount of DMT and presumably a whole cocktail of other chemicals (we don't actually know yet), thousands of times more than you would release in a dream. This means that the 6-7 minutes or so that your brain can stay alive without oxygen for could be perceived to last for a lifetime, or even an eternity. 

How do we know this? well coma patients who have angelic or heavenly experiences often feel like they have been there for a lifetime or a near eternity, and studies of volunteers injected with DMT often have profoundly spiritual trips that reflect their beliefs about the afterlife. The scientific literature is far from extensive (imagine getting ethical approval for actually making someone as close to death as possible just to measure the levels of one chemical!) however the conditions to produce DMT, including the required enzymes, is found in the brain and DMT does have an endogenous receptor within the brain (sigma-1). 

There are some who have taken this idea and run with it (there's even a film about it!) and books from scientists who want to make some cash can be found easily on amazon. The inherent buzz around such a topic makes it particularly difficult to find the actual facts, as there is relatively little scientific literature around the subject (and the titles of papers rarely contain the words DMT or near death experience), but it does seem to be pretty clear that DMT is at least behind near death experiences and the "trippiness" of dreams, but it is not clear how many people who do not come back to life have these experiences also (for obvious reasons). 

As a quick google will show up countless websites that show "proof" that DMT is or isn't responsible for near death experiences I've tried to compile some articles that are easy to read but also stick to the facts aswell as some actual scientific articles, particularly because many people from the non-scientific community already have strong notions about what happens when you die. The take home message though is that the brain is phenomenally complex, so it is highly likely that death of the brain is just as complex and DMT is unlikely to be the only chemical at play here (in fact ketamine is also implicated in this phenomenon aswell).

For some this may seem quite scary, but this new idea has given me at least some reassurance that there may at least be a big finale before the lights go out at the end. 

Sources and Further Reading

Easy to read

Scientific Literature


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