Awareness after death?

I was reading The First Immortal by James Halperin a while back. The book is a fictional story dealing with the subject of cryonics.

In the book, the main character dies (big surprise in a book about cryonics, right?). The character has arranged for himself to be placed in cryonic suspension until such time as he can be revived. Sure enough, the character dies in a hospital setting and the cryonics crew arrives immediately to begin work on cooling the body for eventual freezing.

However, the character is still aware of what is going on (even though he can’t respond in any way). He’s aware of his relatives being there and the cooling of his body that is happening and even begins to wonder if he made a mistake. Of course, he’s not aware for very long and won’t be for another few decades.

However, I was wondering what the possibilites are of a person being aware of their surroundings after being declared dead. Assuming a non-trauma situation, is it likely that a person could be “trapped” in their dead body for several minutes, aware that they are dead but not being able to respond in any way?

Zev Steinhardt

Wouldn’t it depend on how you define death? If it is just ‘no longer breathing and heart has stopped’ then I suppose that it could be possible for the freezee to have some awareness. However, if the subject is brain dead, then I don’t see much of a chance. Not to mention, this is the big hurdle with cryonics- how do you restart a dead and frozen brain?

I know that there are problems with thawing out of tissues and whatnot. That really wasn’t the focus of my question.

And yes, my question was assuming that there was no brain death as well. Of course brain death will begin within a few minutes of cessation of heartbeat/breathing, but my question is before that point.

Zev Steinhardt

I’ve read accounts by people who have clinically died and then been brought back, where they tell of looking down from the ceiling of the room, watching the doctors working on their body, etc., but you’ll have to judge for yourself how much stock you put in this kind of thing. YMMV.

In the book, the character was clearly not having an OBE (out of body experience). He was “in his body” but aware of things going on around him.

Zev Steinhardt

Sebastian Junger researched this and provided a pretty good description of what’s going on physically and what potentially a person might experience upon death, at least by a drowning victim, in The Perfect Storm.

Yeah, if your brain is working, then something is going on. Obviously, whatver kills you may make you unconscious, for lack of a better word, but if we suppose that your body is obliterated but your brain is unphased, then you will have some sort of experience.

If all the sensory inputs are shot, then you’re left with Descartes fundamental being: you think therefore you are. But you could, say, have your head chopped off and still be able to see through your eyes. (Provided the trauma doesn’t overwhelm you.)

Presumably, if all your body but your brain is dead, then there will be no sensory inputs; e.g., your eyes have to be working to see. But you will still be able to think. Since your senses of motion and location are also inputs from the peripherial nervous system, it would surely be pretty weird—I imagine your last dying thought would be, “This is really weird.”

FYI, out of body experiences can be generated in the lab by electromagnetically stimulating the, IIRC, angular gyrus, and it’s my understanding that near death experiences are common among pilots/astronauts who pass out in some G-force machine thingie.

I read it a number of years ago so I don’t remember the details but IIRC I think I assumed that it was some sort of dream or hallucination that he experienced between being thawed and being totally awake. I don’t recall if there was anything in the text that made me think that.

zev, is there really any way for us to know? I don’t think we can count on NDE’s as the brain really isn’t dead yet and ist most likely “misfiring” due to lack of oxygen. The subject of how perceptions are altered under hypoxic conditions are well studied in aviation medicine so I don’t think we can take much from firsthand accounts. If someone expects to see St. Pete/Elijah/Cthulu they will probably see just that. I’ve observed just how falling asleep can alter my perception of time as I’ve dozed into some seemingly long and elaborate dreams while watching TV only to wake and find a short time has passed.