No, your brain is not alive when you’re dead.
I feel stupider for having to write that.

Have you noticed this recent rash of truly stupid headlines?

I could show you many more, but that’s enough. None of that makes any sense! Some of the stories make it sound like your mind is trapped and screaming inside of your corpse after you’re dead, and none of it is true — it’s all an incredibly egregious distortion of what the paper actually says. I don’t know whether the ‘journalists’ were too stupid to comprehend the work, or they simply hadn’t read it so they were just making stuff up.

I read it, though. Here’s the summary:

Purpose of Review

Of the approximately 350,000 out-of-hospital, and 750,000 after in-hospital cardiac arrest (CA) events in the US annually approximately 5-9% and 20% respectively may achieve return of spontaneous circulation (ROSC) after attempted cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Up to 2/3 of these initial survivors may go on die in the subsequent 24-72 hours after ROSC due to a combination of (1) on-going cerebral injury, (2) myocardial dysfunction and (3) massive systemic inflammatory response. In order to successfully manage patients more effectively, monitoring methods are needed to aid clinicians in the detection and quantification of intra-cardiac arrest and post-resuscitation pathophysiological cerebral injury processes in the intensive care unit.

Recent Findings

Over the last few years many modalities have been used for cerebral monitoring during and after CA, these include quantitative pupillometry, transcranial doppler sonography, optic nerve sheath diameter measurements, microdialysis, tissue oxygenation monitoring, intra-cranial pressure monitoring, and electroencephalography. Current studies indicate that these modalities may be used for the purpose of neurological monitoring during cardiac arrest resuscitation as well as in the post-resuscitation period.


Multiple overlapping processes, including alterations in cerebral blood flow (CBF), raised intracerebralpressure, disorders of metabolism, imbalanced oxygen delivery and reperfusion injury contribute to cell death during the post-resuscitation period has led to the birth of post-resuscitation management strategies in the 21st century. This review provides a succinct overview of currently available bedside invasive and non-invasive neuro-monitoring methods after CA.

The rest of the paper consists of fairly detailed descriptions of various techniques of assessing the neurological state of dying patients. What it’s saying is that death isn’t like flipping off a light switch — there’s a progression of physiological changes over a short period of time, some of them irreversible, and many of them contributing to problems in prognosis if the patient is successfully resuscitated. None of this is surprising.

Unfortunately, the lead investigator, Sam Parnia, babbles somewhat outside of the content of the paper about near-death experiences and unconscious patients being able to witness what’s going on around them and the usual bullshit wrapped around confabulation. None of that is in the paper, though! It is kind of sleazy: say defensible, sober things inside a peer-reviewed paper, and then make up crap and pretend it’s supported by scientific research by association.

Niraj S, Parnia S (2017) Monitoring the Brain After Cardiac Arrest: a New Era. Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports 17:62.


  1. anbheal says

    When the vet called me into the room, and I stroked Xenia’s head, and said “you’re on the Cape…,…chasing BUNNIES!”, she bloody well heard me. And that’s that!

  2. Cuttlefish says

    @#1 anbheal–

    I tried a similar thing with my brother. Just in case.

    I think that might be what bothers me most–there is so little cost to speaking to one’s loved ones as they die (if you are fortunate enough to be there when it happens–fortunate being a relative term), and so much love (again, if fortunate), that those who peddle palliative pablum find an audience not merely willing, but eager, to hear that they can comfort their loved one for one last time.

    This is worse than “no atheists in foxholes”, because while foxholes are unavoidable for some, death of loved ones (eventually) is unavoidable for nearly everyone. It is, alas, a lucrative market, whether one measures in actual money or in publications in popular press.

  3. malachiconstant says

    PZ, would you expect any reaction from whatever institution he’s at? Would you expect them to ignore this kind of thing or just address it if it got enough publicity?

  4. Ed Seedhouse says

    One reason I take comfort in atheism is because it means that, from my own viewpoint, I will never be dead.

    Yes, my organism will cease to live and thus to manifest “me”. But I will be alive up to the moment that happens and after it happens I won’t be “dead” from my viewpoint since there will no longer be a “my viewpoint”.

    If I am lucky I will just fade out one night in my sleep but of course I can’t count on that – my life may end in agony. When that happens it won’t be a relief from pain because I will then no longer be there to feel relief. Either way, after it happens, no problem.

    In the xtian book of spells Jesus is supposed to remark that some people living then will “not know death” and that’s interpreted as meaning they will not die. But literally no one will “know death” because you ain’t there any more to know it.

    I find it odd that it is not at all problematical to us that we are bounded in space, but terribly problematical to some that we are also bounded in time.

    We have boundaries so we don’t fill up the universe and crowd everyone else out!

  5. rietpluim says

    I’ve read some of those articles. One was linking to the other, but no was linking to the actual paper.

    Bloody sensationalism.

  6. vole says

    I read years ago about a court case here in the UK in which the test used by the judge was whether the mistake in question could have been made by “a moron in a hurry”. My explanation for what journalists so often write is not that they are stupid, but that they regard their job as to write up what they think a moron in a hurry might have thought. Usually a malevolent one.

  7. says

    “No, your brain is not alive when you’re dead.”

    For some folks I suspect that this is true even when they are alive*!
    * At least metaphorically.

  8. tantalusprime says

    “PZ, would you expect any reaction from whatever institution he’s at?”

    He’s at SUNY Stony Brook, the same place that hasn’t spoken up about Michael Egnor, sooo …… probably not.

    The general piblic seems to have this mistaken notion that when the heart stops, so do brain cells. Like, neurons just stop firing. I have seen this mistaken belief often at many of the religious/conservative boards that I keep an eye on, and they cite Parnia quite a bit.

    If that were the case then a large portion of neuroscience research, recording from dissected brain tissue, could not be done. Brain cells will stay alive for hours after removing them from cardiac input if you treat them right. Coordinated brain activity may cease soon after the heart stops, but individual brain cells keep chugging along.

  9. Crimbly says

    @#7 Vole:

    It could be an apt description of our current modern political discourse that we no longer discuss the “Man on the Claphamn Omnibus” as an arbiter for reasonableness, but a “moron in a hurry” instead.

  10. says

    I would not expect any reaction from SUNY, other than an affirmation of his right to speak his mind. Note that the wacky stuff isn’t coming out of the published paper (which looks pretty good to my non-medical eye) but from personal statements to the press.

  11. Reginald Selkirk says

    Parnia was involved in the AWARE study of “near-death” and “out-of-body” experiences a few years ago. LINK DOI:

    Parnia is a believer in such things and has been looking for evidence. Apparently he finally figured out that heart death and brain death are not the same thing. This ought to temper his beliefs in spooky stuff, but I don’t know whether it has or not.

  12. Raucous Indignation says

    What is the correct term for scientific ignorance? Scient-illiteracy? Stuff like this does not make my job any easier. It’s hard enough talking to the frightened anxious family of a dying patient without them believing in all new incorrect beliefs.