Brain Flash: Implications of the Peak Neural Activity Preceding the Moment of Death
James Clement van Pelt
The mystery of death seems beyond our ken. Einstein called it “a black box, and you can’t get in.” But stunning and unexpected findings of recent neurological research con- ducted at the University of Michigan, combined with modest inferences drawn from log- ic and our own incorrigible personal experience, suggest new perspectives on the process of death — in particular, whether experience persists beyond the time at which neural activity ceases irrevocably. NDE (near-death experience) research is primarily anecdotal and first-person, relying on the testimony of those who have narrowly escaped death, but this is third-person research involving multiple species and objective measurement using EEG (and EKG) measurements. The findings document the extent of neural activity dur- ing the instant just prior to brain death, when the brain undergoes what can be called the “brain ash” — a highly coherent, highly comprehensive, highly transitory state at the theta wavelength, peaking into the gamma, the function of which is presently unknown.
This presentation offers a hypothesis about what may be happening when each of us undergoes the “brain ash”, and explores whether this phenomenon, common to mice, humans, and presumably everyone in between, may be the tip of an iceberg pointing toward experience beyond the death of the physical brain. How, for example, is this penultimate function passed on in the process of biological evolution, given that by definition there is no opportunity to reproduce before brain death? Is there a dimension of evolution that parallels Darwinian dynamics involving the non-physical components of consciousness? How can such questions be answered without resorting to sheer speculation?
James Clement van Pelt is the co-founder of Yale University’s Initiative in Religion, Science & Technology, whose programming he coordinated until 2012. He has co-led science- religion and international relations seminars at Yale and has produced five international conferences there in related fields, featuring leading scholars in the Euro-American sphere. He has authored, co-authored, and contributed to academic journals and books, including EdgeScience; Different Cultures, One World (Rozenberg Publishers, University of Amsterdam); and Venceremos (Simon & Schuster). His academic interests center on the anthropology of consciousness, theologies of technology, and social revolution theory, with special interest in the metaphysics of experience and the teleology of technology.
He holds the Master of Arts in Religion (M.A.R.), magna cum laude, from the Yale Divinity School, where served as a Research Fellow from 2003 to 2005 and as a co-instructor/lecturer from 2005 to 2008. He also holds the B.A. in Religion from Duke University and has studied philosophy at Florida State University and Christianity and Culture at both St. Andrews Presbyterian College and the Yokefellows Institute at Earlham College. Since 2004 he has been a member of the American Academy of Religion, the American Anthropological Association, the American Philosophical Association, the Polanyi Society, the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, the Society for the Consciousness Studies, and the Center for Independent Study, and has made peer-reviewed academic presentations at their national and regional conferences.