Soul Search, A Scientist Explores the Afterlife
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Sign in. Not registered? Sign up. Publications Pages Publications Pages. She had suffered a stroke, but amazingly her fetus was doing fine, the heartbeat strong and steady as if nothing were wrong. The Martins gather on their property in Mifflinburg, Pennsylvania. The father, Doyle, holds Gardell, now three, and mother Rose holds Galen. She was pregnant with Galen when Gardell fell into a frigid stream and had no heartbeat for more than an hour and a half.
How can death, the very essence of forever, be reversible? What is the nature of consciousness during that transition through the gray zone? A growing number of scientists are wrestling with such vexing questions.
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Linda Chamberlain, co-founder of the Arizona-based cryonics company Alcor, hugs the container where the body of her husband, Fred, is frozen in the hope that someday he can be thawed and revived. She plans to join him in cryo limbo when her time comes. In Seattle biologist Mark Roth experiments with putting animals into a chemically induced suspended animation, mixing up solutions to lower heartbeat and metabolism to near-hibernation levels. In Baltimore and Pittsburgh trauma teams led by surgeon Sam Tisherman are conducting clinical trials in which gunshot and stabbing victims have their body temperature lowered in order to slow bleeding long enough for surgeons to close up their wounds.
The medical teams are using supercooling to do what Roth wants to do with chemicals—kill their patients, temporarily, in order to save their lives. Their hope is that sometime in the distant future, maybe centuries from now, these clients will be thawed and revived, technology having advanced to the point where they can be cured of whatever killed them. And in New York, Parnia spreads the gospel of sustained resuscitation.
He says CPR works better than people realize and that under proper conditions—when the body temperature is lowered, chest compression is regulated for depth and tempo, and oxygen is reintroduced slowly to avoid injuring tissue—some patients can be brought back from the dead after hours without a heartbeat, often with no long-term consequences. Winkfield insists that her daughter is not dead. He has shown that this works in soil nematodes, which are alive in air with as little as 0.
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But if you then proceed quickly to a much lower level of oxygen—0. These oxygen-starved, suspended organisms appear to be dead but not permanently so, like a gas cooktop with only the pilot light on. The goal is to minimize the damage that can occur from treatments after heart attacks. If iodide slows oxygen metabolism, the thinking is, it might help avoid the blowout injury that sometimes comes with treatments like balloon angioplasty. At this lower setting the damaged heart can just sip the oxygen coming in through the repaired vessel, rather than get flooded by it.
Life and death are all about motion, according to Roth: In biology the less something moves, the longer it tends to live. There was a language barrier.
It was the concept of brain death itself. The term dates to the late s, when two medical developments coincided: high-tech, life-sustaining machinery, which blurred the border between life and death, and organ transplantation, which made clarifying that border especially urgent. No longer could death be defined in the traditional way, as cessation of breath and heartbeat, since ventilators could provide both indefinitely. Is a patient on a ventilator dead or alive?
If you remove the ventilator, when can you ethically retrieve the organs to transplant into someone else?
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If a transplanted heart starts beating again in a new chest, was the heart donor really dead in the first place? To address such thorny questions, a Harvard panel met in to define death in two ways: the traditional way, by cardiopulmonary criteria, and a new way, by neurological ones. A judge eventually ruled against the hospital.
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At the age of 89, Phyllis B. Andrews died at home, surrounded by her loved ones. National Geographic photographer Lynn Johnson shares the intimate moments between the dying woman and her family in the final days of Andrews's life. There to meet with them were 26 hospital staff members, including neurologists, palliative-care specialists, nurses, chaplains, ethicists, and social workers.
In the crowded conference room the Jimenezes nodded gravely, telling the medical team that they understood their daughter was brain-dead and would never wake up. The brain has higher energy needs than other organs, so it is the first to lose function—and suffer irreversible injury—when a person goes into cardiac arrest and blood stops circulating.
Different regions of the brain have varying levels of susceptibility, beginning with one of the most fragile, the hippocampus. The memory-consolidating hippocampus is the first to fail. A person who regains consciousness will find it hard to remember what just happened. Next, when the cerebral cortex, which controls executive and cognitive functions, is damaged, language and decision-making skills are lost.
When an oxygen-depleted thalamus can no longer send information to the cerebral cortex, the senses of sight, hearing, and touch start to fail. As the brain stem, which regulates our respiratory and cardiovascular systems, dies, breathing and swallowing stop. If a miracle is defined as bringing someone back from the dead, sometimes that does happen in medicine.
In this environment, death has become ever more terrifying as rationalists dismiss as naive the idea of a blissful heaven: When the brain dies, that's it. Starting anthropologically, he leads us from the dawn of self-consciousness through the evolution of the self and the concept of that self somehow surviving the death of the body.
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Our brains make each of us unique, he contends, but they severely restrict the way we experience reality. It is to this larger consciousness that we shall return when the body dies and self and time are stripped away. A joyful preview of this transcendent oneness has been granted, according to Darling, to those who have mastered Eastern meditation techniques and those who have had near-death experiences. When we learn to set aside our limiting selves, death will lose its terror. Darling's ideas are comforting, but hardly definitive, and certainly not original. He coats standard, trickle-down mysticism with pseudo-scientific terms, hoping to make it easier for Western skeptics to swallow.
Soul Search: A Scientist Explores the Afterlife by David Darling
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