What Happens When We Die?

In his biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson wrote:

I remember sitting in his backyard in his garden one day and he started talking about God. He said, ‘Sometimes I believe in God, sometimes I don’t. I think it’s 50-50 maybe. But ever since I’ve had cancer, I’ve been thinking about it more. And I find myself believing a bit more. I kind of – maybe it’s cause I want to believe in an afterlife. That when you die, it doesn’t just all disappear. The wisdom you’ve accumulated. Somehow it lives on. Then he paused for a second and he said, ‘Yeah, but sometimes I think it’s just like an on-off switch. Click and you’re gone.’ He paused again, and he said, ‘And that’s why I don’t like putting on-off switches on Apple devices.’

After saying his final goodbye to his family, the last words Steve Jobs uttered from his deathbed were, “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”

Religious believers might conclude that Mr. Jobs caught a glimpse of heaven as his spirit departed from his mortal body, while science skeptics might assume that any euphoric experience he felt during the process of death was merely a pleasant hallucination caused by chemical reactions in the dying brain.

Does any scientific evidence exist that might support either position? Why yes, indeed there is actually corroborated, veridical evidence that seems to validate the belief that consciousness actually survives death. There are many recorded instances of this phenomena, but three of the best examples are the accounts of Pam Reynolds, Michaela Roser, and Colton Burpo.

Pam Reynolds

After her diagnosis of an aneurysm at the base of her brain, Pam required very dangerous surgery, an operation dubbed standstill because all neurological processes must be completely stopped in order for the surgery to be successfully performed. Her surgeon, Dr. Robert Spetzler, described the complex procedure this way: “What we want to do is bring that brain to a halt. We don’t just want the brain to be asleep, we want the metabolic activity of the brain to stop. Every measurable output of the brain disappears completely so that you have no measurable neurological activity whatsoever. Prior to the operation, a lot of activity is going on. The patient is put to sleep. Their eyes ares taped shut. There are little clicking devices put into each ear in order to monitor the brain. The patient is then completely covered. The only thing that’s really exposed is the head area where we work.”

Even though her eyes were taped shut and ears plugged, Pam was able to recall and accurately describe equipment that she allegedly could have only seen during her surgery, and she repeated conversations almost verbatim that she claimed to overhear between members of her surgical team, even though she was under heavy anesthesia and constant monitoring.

After investigating the details of Pam’s account, Dr. Michael Sabon said, “Pam’s case is unique in the fact that she had her near death experience at a time where she was fully instrumented and under medical observation, and I think if you wanted to construct a laboratory experiment where you had someone and took them as close to death or perhaps even into death as possible, and then bring them back and ask them what they can recall, Pam’s case probably comes closest to that…”

Michaela Roser

Michaela was involved in a very serious car accident which resulted in a diffuse axonal brain injury — her brain literally twisted inside her skull due to the force of impact, an injury so severe there’s only about a five percent survival rate.

Admittedly, much of what Michaela described as her near death experience sounds surreal, exactly like a chemically-induced hallucination should sound. Yet at the exact same time her physical body was in an operating room undergoing emergency surgery, she was able to accurately recount specific details and the exact location for a very atypical conversation involving her father and two grandmothers.

Her family has confirmed that the details Michaela provided were true, but obviously that doesn’t “prove” she literally left her physical body, traveled to the hospital cafeteria, and witnessed the conversation she claimed to overhear. However, it can be claimed to be a second, compelling example of (potentially) corroborated veridical information learned during a period of time when the spiritual mind could have temporarily separated from the physical brain.

Colton Burpo

Colton became famous when he story was turned into a book called Heaven is for Real and a film from Hollywood of the same name.

Somewhat surprisingly, Hollywood did an excellent job of portraying the scene where the young boy revealed to his mother his claim of corroborated veridical information he learned when his consciousness had temporarily left his body to visit heaven, in this scene from the movie.

Naturally, pun intended, none of these stories should be considered “proof”, because proof is only relevant to mention in conversations about alcohol or mathematics.

But these stories are evidence of something — either of delusion and collusion, or evidence of supernatural phenomena, take your pick. But choose wisely. The one assumption we can safely rule out is these three examples cannot be dismissed as honest mistakes. The witnesses would have to be lying…unless they are telling the truth about what happened, as I personally believe.

Of course, scientific evidence already supports each of these three stories, at least to the extent that medical records and witness testimony accurately document them. As a result, we may either assume that these people felt the need to invent fantastic stories because they felt the need to seek attention, or we could decide that these accounts might be legitimate evidence that our consciousness survives death, and always keep looking for more evidence.

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