We are obsessed with death and yet, or perhaps because, we know very little about what happens to a person when they die. Whilst science can understand what physically happens to the human body as it shuts down, there are still so many unanswered questions. Our biggest question being what happens to your soul, or mind, or essence, or whatever you want to call it? Where does it go?
Some people believe that you simply cease to exist. Which is an utterly incomprehensible reality for our minds to wrap around. Despite so much life having happened before we are born and so it will simply continue going on through the eras, as each of our lives flit in and out. Our lives, loves, and losses existing only as tiny blips in the grand scheme of things.
But, indulge me, can you really, truly believe that our all-encompassing emotions and complex thoughts are just chemicals and electrical signals flying through our brains. I wholeheartedly believe in science, but even still, there is something that doesn’t sit right with me to entirely write off the idea of having an inner soul. Surely something must leave our bodies when we die, leaving behind only the flesh and bones.
So, what does happen to our souls? I wish I could tell you. The closest accounts of the ‘after-life’ is that of people who have been ‘medically dead’ and reported having near-death experiences (NDE). In fact, between 10 and 20 percent of people whose hearts stop report having a near-death experience. These near-death experiences oftentimes recount being lifted out of their physical body, walking towards a light, finding themselves at the centre of the universe, and more. If the body is physically dead, where has the mind gone?
The docuseries ‘Surviving Death’, gives first-hand accounts of traumatic injuries that nearly killed people, yet who miraculously recovered without explanation. The first interview is with a woman who was underwater for 30 minutes after falling off the edge of a high waterfall. She experienced what she called a ‘life-changing’ event and she recounted feeling as if her soul was pulled out of her body. Whilst her friends were scrambling in the murky water for her body, she was filled with an overwhelming sense of serenity as she found herself at ‘the centre of the universe’. When her friends finally managed to save her body from the fast-moving water, she reported looking down at them trying to save her life, and she knew she had the choice to return to her body or remain in the calm centre of the universe. It was only after being convinced by sublime ‘beings’ that it ‘wasn’t her time’ that she decided to return to her body, and she began breathing again. Her story is miraculous in many ways as the chances of survival were entirely not in her favour.
However, first-hand accounts such as this may need to be taken with a pinch of salt. It is impossible to prove that these near-death experiences really do happen as they are depicted, or whether the experience is inside the mind alone. I imagine, after falling thousands of feet, on the brink of death, the mind will do anything to escape the terrifying reality of the situation it finds itself in. When the heart stops, blood no longer flows around the body which results in a state of shock. This can have serious effects on the brain. The responses to traumatic stress can change the way a person thinks, resulting in ‘trauma-induced hallucinations or delusions’ and ‘feeling different’, as well as it being reported by the National Library of Medicine that ‘Persons who report near-death experiences (NDEs) acknowledge more intrusive symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than those who came close to death without NDEs, but not more avoidance symptoms, suggesting a nonspecific stress response.’ So, I wonder whether near-death experiences are more likely to be a result of serious trauma as a means to protect the mind from having to fully experience the full force of it. Yet, only those who are on the brink of death can accurately depict what they experience. It is impossible to prove whether a near-death experience is simply a trauma response or if being on the brink of death truly takes you away from the physical world.
Our modern society is desperate to find an explanation for everything. We use every resource available to prove the scientific reasons behind anything that is vaguely supernatural. Heavenly and ghostly experiences are written off as delusion, yet 1 in 3 Brits still believe houses can be haunted and that ghosts exist. Can it be argued that ghosts and the afterlife really do exist? Whilst ghostly experiences may truly be supernatural events, the mind is extremely powerful at tricking itself when confronted with trauma. Many ghostly encounters appear as a means to cope with grief when confronted with loss. The mind processing strong emotions has powerful effects, especially when grieving. Some people may even ‘experience seeing or feeling the presence of a loved one’. Our encounters with death rarely leave us reeling with overwhelming emotions. Our minds are tricky to master and will often do anything to prevent you from having to cope with the full load of feelings all at once.
Whilst I do not think we can or should write off any individual touches with death, often we are the main victims of our own minds. As much as we try, the supernatural cannot be proven, we might use science to explain what we can, but still there are a million questions left unanswered. What I can say is that it is immensely difficult to imagine ceasing to exist, despite millennia passing before us. So, perhaps the belief in an afterlife is just another coping mechanism to escape the impossibility of dying. Does death really end our existence, or do we pass into the next realm?
1. Zingrone NL, Alvarado CS. Pleasurable Western adult near-death experiences: features, circumstances, and incidence. In: Holden JM, Greyson B, James D, editors. The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO; 2009. pp. 17–40. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6172100/#b1-ms111_p0372]
3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/ – Understanding the impact of trauma