What Happens After Death? What Netflix ‘Afterlife Sci-Fi Dramas’ Got Right

Fans of the Netflix sci-fi thrillers The OA and The Discovery, both of which weave tales of scientists researching the afterlife, may be shocked to know it’s not just the stuff of fiction. While the haunting plotlines are (thankfully) fantasy, their themes echo real clinical research into what happens to consciousness at the moment of death.

From Ancient China to modern-day America, one question has plagued humans from the beginning of time: What happens after death? Endless quests have searched to get to the bottom of our mortality with no luck. But has science finally caught up with our questing hearts?

 What Happens When We Die

Dr. Sam Parnia, author of What Happens When We Die: A Groundbreaking Study into the Nature of Life and Death is chief among a new fleet of doctors and researchers interested in taking the mystery out of the afterlife. Parnia works in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit, making him oft present for cardiac arrest–and sometimes the return from it. He’s spearheaded research into studies on near death experiences, or, ‘NDEs’ as The OA casually refers to them. Parnia, though, prefers to call them “actual death experiences” since his studies focus on what happens while the patient’s heart has stopped. His studies can give us a window to what happens after death.

“Contrary to perception, death is not a specific moment but a potentially reversible process that occurs after any severe illness or accident causes the heart, lungs, and brain to cease functioning. If attempts are made to reverse this process, it is referred to as ‘cardiac arrest’; however, if these attempts do not succeed it is called ‘death.’”

Artist illustration of what happens after death

Parnia says about 10% of patients have actual death experiences—2% of which involve floating above their body and looking down. What some patients saw is verifiable by others in the room. “This is significant since it has often been assumed that experiences in relation to death are likely hallucinations or illusions occurring either before the heart stops or after the heart has been successfully restarted, but not an experience corresponding with ‘real’ events when the heart isn’t beating.”

In one case the patient’s heart stopped for three minutes, during which they reportedly stayed completely conscious and in the room including “verifiable events” such as witnessing a doctor accidentally kick over a stand.

There are other tales of patients communicating with deceased loved ones and learning things they couldn’t have known— like the fact that uncle jimmy is dead when nobody told them. Dr. Parnia is very encouraged by these findings and continues to deepen his research.

He’s far from alone in this thinking. Dr. Bruce Greyson, author of The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation presented his neuro-science-based theory and studies of consciousness post-mortem to the United Nations in 2008, to many stunned audience members.

Greyson, like Parnia, believes that consciousness is not generated by the brain, but rather, the brain is a medium for housing and displaying consciousness. Think TV antennae, not the broadcast itself. Or, as Greyson puts it,

“the mind is the software and the brain is the hardware.”

What happens after death mystery

Undoubtedly, researchers will continue to solve the mystery of what happens after death—here’s hoping it’s not the stuff of Netflix horror. 


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