24 April 2013

Know the enemy -- the mechanism of death

A couple of weeks ago I linked to this article about British doctor Sam Parnia, who specializes in resuscitation of patients thought to be hours beyond the point of death.  Yesterday a reader sent me this one, which explores the phenomenon further.

What we're really seeing here is that our whole long-established concept of what death is, is mistaken.

We think of death as a sudden shift from one state to a qualitatively different state, which happens at a precise instant, the exact time of which is specifiable in principle, even if it's sometimes hard to pin down in practice.  Furthermore, death is irreversible -- that is, once death occurs, a person cannot be restored to the living state, short of a miracle (literally so, since one of the miracles attributed to Jesus in the Bible is returning a dead person to life).  If a person is said to be dead and later returns to life, it means we were mistaken and the person was not "really" dead in the first place.

All of this is wrong.  It doesn't accurately describe what really happens.

In most cases, death seems to be more analogous to what happens to a machine as it stops running after the failure of some critical part.  The heart or lungs or some other critical organ stop working, due to injury, or loss of energy (due, for example, to massive blood loss from an injury elsewhere), or exhaustion from the gradual decay of aging, or for some other reason.  Other processes which depend on the failed organ begin to slow down and stop; cells and systems which depend on those processes stop functioning.  Decay sets in, in the form of bacteria which start to consume cell components once the immune system stops keeping them in check, and chemical reactions which are no longer constrained to proceed in the ways normal cellular operations require.  At some point fairly early in the process, brain function is sufficiently disrupted that it can no longer sustain consciousness -- and in any case, traumatic injury often shocks the brain into unconsciousness anyway.  Eventually, so much damage has accumulated in the cells that there is no possibility of normal function being restored.

The point is, this is a fairly protracted process.  There is no sudden moment one can point to which constitutes the border between "being alive" and "being dead".  As so often is the case in nature, what seems to us to be an absolute distinction is in fact marked by a gradual transition.  We tend to think that "the moment of death" is the point where the process becomes irreversible -- but as the linked articles show, this point varies depending on the type of technology available.  As our knowledge and machines become more sophisticated, we can restore life in cases which, a few decades ago, would have been judged past the point of no return.  There is also the question of how much "life" can be restored.  Bodies can often be kept mechanically functioning even after brain damage is so severe that consciousness cannot be restored.  Such a person is "alive" in some senses, "not alive" in others.

(People used to define death as the moment the "soul" leaves the body, but this was simply another primitive misunderstanding.  Your consciousness, or "self," or whatever term you prefer to use for it, is not a "thing" distinct from the body, it's a set of processes which your brain is constantly running.  Like programs running on a computer which is suddenly unplugged or damaged so it stops working, these processes don't "go" anywhere when your brain stops working -- they just stop.  Whether they can be set going again, and how well, depends on whether brain function can be restored and how much deterioration has happened in the meantime.)

This raises the hope that the more advanced our medical technology becomes, the later after apparent "death" it will still be possible to restore life.  If we can develop the capabilities in nanorobotics that some futurists expect, it may even be possible to reverse a fairly advanced state of decay by re-arranging the atoms of decay by-products back into the organic compounds from which they came, molecule by molecule, cell by cell -- of course, such technology could prevent most forms of death from happening in the first place.

In any event, the more we know about what death is and how it happens, the better.  Death is the ultimate enemy of humans (hence the post title), and the better we know the enemy, the more victories we can win against him, and the closer we come to achieving his total defeat.


Blogger uzza said...

Probably worth keeping in mind that just as there is no moment of death, there is also no "moment of conception". For the theocrats.

25 April, 2013 19:09  
Blogger Christian said...

This is a great article.. what I keep noticing more often these days is that it always comes down to a definition of what something is.

Would like to know if these revived people experience god, in comparison to their belief system. Guess atheists and theists would have differing opinions

26 April, 2013 00:43  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Uzza: Good point. The beginning of life, like the end, is a gradual transition -- from nothingness to personhood in the former case-- there is no single moment when the latter quality is suddenly present.

Christian: Thanks. From the articles it seems people are not reporting phenomena associated with any specific mythology, at least not yet. It may come, though. There's already the whole NDE/OBE hallucination thing (some good links here, here, here), and obviously the nature of hallucinations and how people interpret them is likely to be influenced by their religious beliefs or even former beliefs.

26 April, 2013 06:25  
Anonymous Blurber said...

At my age (81) I'm getting more and more interested in this subject. It would be nice to think they get it right.

26 April, 2013 10:50  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

The better we understand it, the sooner we'll be able to abolish it.

27 April, 2013 05:49  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I was a kid, a scifi story called Greyspun's Gift really struck me.

An alien landed and kept trying to figure out "what do you creatures DO?"

He was shown all kinds of things, space exploration, industrial production, etc... but he said he didn't find the answer. Then one day he found it. To his horror, he said something like: "OMG! You... you STOP EXISTING! That's unspeakable, intolerable! Why don't you do something about it? Why isn't that your top priority? Wyy do you do all this other bullshit when you STOP EXISTING??"

I always felt like when anyone stops existing, that it should be front page news worldwide -- a huge tragedy for civilization. But when something happens so frequently, you think of it as normal no matter HOW unspeakably intolerable it is.

The Auschwitz guard probably told his wife "It was another boring day at work".

-- faye kane ♀ homeless brain
sexiest astrophysicist you
'll ever see naked

29 April, 2013 18:06  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Death, thou shalt die!"

When that finally happens, it will change things a LOT more than anyone thinks. First of all, the population will explode immediately. Look at this:
http://fayekane.blogspot.com/2013/04/when-i-programmed-1108-for-census.html and imagine how it would change without one death every 12 seconds.

The other thing is that religion would die in one generation. Without being able to sell fake death cures, religion would only have appeal as cosmology, a subject no hungover redneck will go to a building every Sunday to hear about. Nor would there be any incentive for any of them to believe something so obviously ridiculous that even 'necks wouldn't believe it if they weren't, uhh... scared to death.

--faye kane ♀ homeless brain

29 April, 2013 18:16  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Faye: Your thinking about this is pretty much like mine. The day will come when we look back in astonishment that we were ever able to endure being mortal.

As for the population growth, I expect the conquest of death will be gradual, not sudden -- a steady pushing back of "what the monolith does to you" and eventually more robust methods like mind uploading. Meanwhile technology will continue to increase the carrying capacity of the planet, and eventually make us independent of it. We'll manage.

And I'm very much looking forward to seeing religion die out once the only appealing idea it still has left is rendered obsolete.

29 April, 2013 19:48  

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