Illustration by Jim Cooke.
Death comes for us all here on Earth at a rate of nearly 7,000 people every hour. Yet, despite its inevitability, most of us know very little about the experience. This is what happens to your body and mind as you slip away—and it’s not as frightening as you might think.
What Happens to Your Body
Dying can vary quite a lot, so, for the sake of this piece, let’s assume you’re dying of natural causes and that you’re on your way out. First, it’s important to know there isn’t a precise “death moment.” Dying is a process, and one where there are a lot of gray areas because there’s still a lot we don’t know. That said, we can legally define death in two stages. Right now, your body is gradually approaching what’s known as “clinical death,” which occurs when your heartbeat, breathing, and circulation stop. But your body’s cells are still alive after that for the next four to six minutes until “biological death” occurs. At that point, your brains cells have begun to die and resuscitation is impossible.
Okay, we know what death means legally now, but let’s not get too ahead of ourselves here. How does that process feel? Well, according to James Hallenbeck, a palliative-care specialist at Stanford University, your last few days on Earth are what’s known as the “active dying” phase. You rapidly start to lose your natural urges and most of your senses. Hallenbeck says things start to go in this order:
1 You stop being hungry.
2 You stop being thirsty.
3 You stop being able to speak.
4 You stop being able to see.
5 You stop being able to hear.
6 You stop being able to feel touch.
Other side effects include shortness of breath, depression, anxiety, extreme fatigue, mental confusion (likely due to lack of oxygen), constipation or incontinence, and nausea. Your brain is basically slowly sacrificing less critical functions in order to perpetuate your survival. Even your skin will begin to show signs of your demise. It will get cold, turn a light bluish gray, and might even show signs of mottling.
Soon you’ll be too weak to cough or swallow, and your breathing will make a disturbing, guttural sound in the back of your throat called the “death rattle.” As far as doctors can tell, though, the death rattle doesn’t hurt—even if it sounds bad to everyone else. But doctors aren’t sure how much pain people actually feel as they die. Obviously, being burned alive or being shot are probably painful ways to go, but when you’re dying of natural causes in a hospital bed it’s hard to say. Your pain is usually being managed by healthcare professionals and you’ll likely lose consciousness in your final hours, so it’s likely very minimal.
When your body finally lets go, what little brain function you had left rapidly fades away. This means your brain can no longer keep your body in check, so you might urinate, defecate, and possibly even ejaculate (but that’s rare). Now, that all might sound terribly uncomfortable and frightening, but your brain has a few tricks up its sleeve.
What Happens In Your Mind
Right when your body starts to flat line, your brain does its best to prepare your consciousness for the jump to the great beyond. In their final moments, many people have out of body experiences, a rendezvous with relatives in a peaceful place, a feeling of greater connection with the universe, and of course, see the classic bright light at the end of the tunnel. But what’s really happening in there?
For one, you probably won’t be afraid of what’s happening to you in that mental state. One study, from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, compared the mental states of terminally ill patients and inmates on death row with those of people told to imagine they were dying. Their findings suggest the closer you get to death, the more positive of an outlook you have on it. Perhaps it’s because you become more accepting of death when it’s less abstract and you have to face the reality of it. Or maybe it’s because you’re having peaceful dreams and visions.
In a study conducted at a hospice center in Buffalo, New York, researchers found that dying people have a lot more dream activity than normal. 88% of the study’s participants claimed to have dreams or visions that felt more real than normal dreams, and they often carried on into the waking state. Most people dreamed about reuniting with people they knew who had already died, others said they dreamed about preparing to travel somewhere, and some re-witnessed meaningful experiences from their past. For many of these people, their dreams and visions comforted them and decreased their fear of death.
Once you begin to clinically die, your brain kicks into overdrive—with a surge of electricity and spike of activity in various regions throughout the brain—and it begins to release neurochemicals that excite it far beyond normal. This is when all of those “bright white light” experiences occur. One study, published in the Journal of Near-Death Studies (seriously), suggests those who have had a near-death experience all tend to witness the same things—though they varied depending on each person’s cultural and religious beliefs. However, another recent study, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, suggests when these experiences occur, and in what order, varies from person to person. So, you’re likely to experience these things, in no particular order:
• A hyper aware mental state, or very clear consciousness. This may be in a waking or dream state.
• An out of body experience, usually in the form of you hovering above your own deathbed. Possibly caused by your brain’s temporoparietal junction (TPJ) being damaged from a lack of oxygen.
• Your life flashing before you eyes. Many people see significant moments in their life play back for them.
• A reunion with lost loved ones—sometimes even with ancestors you never met in life. Or maybe visiting a strange world and meeting beings made of light. Lack of oxygen to the brain can cause hallucinations.
• An overwhelming sense of peace and rest, possibly triggered by a rush of endorphins.
• A bright white light at the end of a tunnel. Your visual system gets overly excited and flooded with carbon dioxide, causing you to be much more sensitive to light. You also have other heightened senses for a brief amount of time.
You may experience all of these things, or only a few of them. And there’s no telling when or in what order they’ll occur. According to near-death survivors, these experiences make death feel okay, and almost welcoming. By the time your mind has finished its farewell ceremony, you’ll be ready to go. We may never know for certain what’s beyond death, if anything at all, but you can at least rest easy knowing your brain will try to make it as comfortable as possible.