The Human Consciousness Project is an international consortium of multidisciplinary scientists and physicians who have joined forces to research the nature of consciousness and its relationship with the brain, as well as the neuronal processes that mediate and correspond to different facets of consciousness. The Human Consciousness Project will conduct the world’s first large-scale scientific study of what happens when we die and the relationship between mind and brain during clinical death. The diverse expertise of the team ranges from cardiac arrest, near-death experiences, and neuroscience to neuroimaging, critical care, emergency medicine, immunology, molecular biology, mental health, and psychiatry.
The mystery of what happens when we die and the nature of the human mind has fascinated humankind from antiquity to the present day. Although traditionally considered a matter for philosophical debate, advancements in modern science and in particular the science of resuscitation have now enabled an objective, scientific approach to seek answers to these compelling questions, which bear widespread implications not only for science, but also for all of humanity.
Since the 1950s and 60s, marked improvements in resuscitation techniques have led to higher survival rates for patients experiencing cardiac arrest. Although many studies have focused on prevention and acute medical treatment of cardiac arrest, relatively few have sought to examine cognitive functioning and the state of the human mind both during and subsequent to cardiac arrest. The in-depth study of such patients, however, could serve as the most intriguing facet of cardiopulmonary resuscitation and may lead to significant progress in improving medical care while effectively addressing the mind-brain problem.
Today, most scientists have adopted a traditionally monist view of the mind-brain problem, arguing that the human mind, consciousness, and self are no more than by-products of electrochemical activity within the brain, notwithstanding the lack of any scientific evidence or even a plausible biological explanation as to how the brain would lead to the development of mind and consciousness. This has led some prominent researchers, such as the late Nobel-winning neuroscientist Sir John Eccles, to propose a dualist view of the problem, arguing that the human mind and consciousness may in fact constitute a separate, undiscovered entity apart from the brain.
Contrary to popular perception, death is not a specific moment, but a well-defined process. From a biological viewpoint, cardiac arrest is synonymous with clinical death. During a cardiac arrest, all three criteria of clinical death are present: the heart stops beating, the lungs stop working, and the brain ceases functioning. Subsequently, there is a period of time—which may last from a few seconds up to an hour or longer—in which emergency medical efforts may succeed in resuscitating the heart and reversing the dying process. The experiences that individuals undergo during this period of cardiac arrest provide a unique window of understanding into what we are all likely to experience during the dying process.
In recent years, a number of scientific studies conducted by independent researchers have found that as many as 10-20 percent of individuals who undergo cardiac arrest report lucid, well-structured thought processes, reasoning, memories, and sometimes detailed recall of their cardiac arrest. What makes these experiences remarkable is that while studies of the brain during cardiac arrest have consistently that there is no brain activity during this period, these individuals have reported detailed perceptions that appear to indicate the presence of a high-level of consciousness in the absence of measurable brain activity.
These studies appear to suggest that the human mind and consciousness may in fact function at a time when the clinical criteria of death are fully present and the brain has ceased functioning. If these smaller studies can be replicated and verified through the definitive, large-scale studies of the Human Consciousness Project, they may not only revolutionize the medical care of critically ill patients and the scientific study of the mind and brain, but may also bear profound universal implications for our social understanding of death and the dying process.
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