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The Science Behind Near-Death Experiences

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ThinkStock

By Keith Wagstaff

The internet is full of stories by people who claim they floated above their bodies or moved towards a bright light after nearly dying.

Some people claim it's a glimpse of the afterlife. Scientists have been unable, for the most part, to explain the phenomenon. Whatever it is, it's not uncommon — around 20 percent of cardiac arrest survivors report having some kind of near-death experience, according to The Washington Post.

A new study by researchers at the University of Michigan could shine some light on the topic. No, researchers didn't take a cue from Flatliners and purposefully give themselves near-death experiences.

Instead, they picked some very unlucky rats. Those rodents were outfitted with electroencephalography (EEG) sensors to monitor their brain activity and then given lethal injections to induce cardiac arrest.

The result? A burst of brain activity after the animal's heart stopped.

"Measurable conscious activity is much, much higher after the heart stops — within the first 30 seconds," Jimo Borjigin, who led the research, told NPR. "That really just, just really blew our mind... That really is consistent with what patients report."

To make sure it wasn't just the lethal injection causing the surge in electrical activity, researchers also subjected the rats to other forms of death, including drowning. The result was the same.

That could mean that the brain is wired for one "last hurrah," as the University of Birmingham's Jason Braithwaite described it to the BBC, no matter what the cause of death.

The researchers also noticed an EEG pattern associated with visual stimulation during the rats' dying moments. "My hypothesis would be that during the near-death process, the visual process is highly activated,” Borjigin told The Washington Post, which could explain why so many people see bright lights.

Ultimately, Borjigin told NPR, "The near-death experience is perhaps really the byproduct of the brain's attempt to save itself."

Not that this definitively explains near-death experiences. Scientists still understand very little about the human brain, which is why the White House has committed millions to mapping it.

Still, Borjigin's research is a step towards understanding what happens to our brains as we die.

"This finding firmly reinforces basic tenets of the scientific method," wrote Smithsonian.com's Joseph Stromberg. "Although discussion of the afterlife and the supernatural have a place in philosophical and theological realms, it need not be used to explain near-death experiences — physical processes can do that just fine."

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What Do Morticians Do With the Blood They Take Out of Dead Bodies?
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iStock

Zoe-Anne Barcellos:

The blood goes down the sink drain, into the sewer system.

I am not a mortician, but I work for a medical examiner/coroner. During an autopsy, most blood is drained from the decedent. This is not on purpose, but a result of gravity. Later a mortician may or may not embalm, depending on the wishes of the family.

Autopsies are done on a table that has a drain at one end; this drain is placed over a sink—a regular sink, with a garbage disposal in it. The blood and bodily fluids just drain down the table, into the sink, and down the drain. This goes into the sewer, like every other sink and toilet, and (usually) goes to a water treatment plant.

You may be thinking that this is biohazardous waste and needs to be treated differently. [If] we can’t put oil, or chemicals (like formalin) down the drains due to regulations, why is blood not treated similarly? I would assume because it is effectively handled by the water treatment plants. If it wasn’t, I am sure the regulations would be changed.

Now any items that are soiled with blood—those cannot be thrown away in the regular trash. Most clothing worn by the decedent is either retained for evidence or released with the decedent to the funeral home—even if they were bloody.

But any gauze, medical tubing, papers, etc. that have blood or bodily fluids on them must be thrown away into a biohazardous trash. These are lined with bright red trash liners, and these are placed in a specially marked box and taped closed. These boxes are stacked up in the garage until they are picked up by a specialty garbage company. I am not sure, but I am pretty sure they are incinerated.

Additionally anything sharp or pointy—like needles, scalpels, etc.—must go into a rigid “sharps” container. When they are 2/3 full we just toss these into one of the biotrash containers.

The biotrash is treated differently, as, if it went to a landfill, then the blood (and therefore the bloodborne pathogens like Hepatitis and HIV) could be exposed to people or animals. Rain could wash it into untreated water systems.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Stephen Hawking’s Memorial Will Beam His Words Toward the Nearest Black Hole
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

An upcoming memorial for Stephen Hawking is going to be out of this world. The late physicist’s words, set to music, will be broadcast by satellite toward the nearest black hole during a June 15 service in the UK, the BBC reports.

During his lifetime, Hawking signed up to travel to space on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceship, but he died before he ever got the chance. (He passed away in March.) Hawking’s daughter Lucy told the BBC that the memorial's musical tribute is a “beautiful and symbolic gesture that creates a link between our father's presence on this planet, his wish to go into space, and his explorations of the universe in his mind.” She described it as "a message of peace and hope, about unity and the need for us to live together in harmony on this planet."

Titled “The Stephen Hawking Tribute,” the music was written by Greek composer Vangelis, who created the scores for Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire. It will play while Hawking’s ashes are interred at Westminster Abbey, near where Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin are buried, according to Cambridge News. After the service, the piece will be beamed into space from the European Space Agency’s Cebreros Station in Spain. The target is a black hole called 1A 0620-00, “which lives in a binary system with a fairly ordinary orange dwarf star,” according to Lucy Hawking.

Hawking wasn't the first person to predict the existence of black holes (Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity accounted for them back in the early 1900s), but he spoke at length about them throughout his career and devised mathematical theorems that gave credence to their existence in the universe.

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch, a friend of the Hawking family who portrayed the late scientist in the BBC film Hawking, will speak at the service. In addition to Hawking's close friends and family, British astronaut Tim Peake and several local students with disabilities have also been invited to attend.

[h/t BBC]

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