By James Wadman
With the release of my novel, Diamondis, only two days away, I wanted to share a light-reading version of a very important story of scientific investigation, speculation, and research I collected over the years. This is the story of death and Diamondis, as told through the lens of science.
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Engrained in the evolutionary biology of humans is a conscious fear of the most exotic experience capable in a lifetime: the onset of death. It seems plausible that the event of death, which has been described by many as “transcendent” or “cathartic,” is such a fascinating experience because it involves the brain breaking down and trying to understand itself in the most psychedelic way possible. We understand that the physiological mechanisms of death are similar to that of dreams and introspection-inducing pharmaceuticals, but the questions that remain are: what exactly does one feel at the moment of death, and why does consciousness transform into this intense stage of introspection at the moment of death?
In my novel, Diamondis, the outline of the death experience follows a mechanism I find very interesting. In the first chapter, Tomas begins to experience the event of death. However, this experience extends beyond the initial creation of an afterlife within his mind to his introspection into the meaning of death and his inevitable assimilation with his fate (I’ll keep that open-ended so you can find out what his fate is, yourself!). Here I will take you through the experience of death, as it relates to the steps followed by Tomas in Diamondis.
The mechanics, the experience, and the destination of death is purely speculation. However, as I wrote in Diamondis, the role of a scientist is not always to search for objective truths; rather, it is important also to “take a chisel to the vast unknown.” As always, that is the purpose of my Conscious Talks series and I hope, if anything, my beliefs on the sheer beauty of death are enough to inspire you to consider that the purpose in the end is not to look relinquish ourselves from the inevitable fear of death, but to enrich our lives so that every moment we live until then is full of wonder and happiness.
Step One: Dissociation from the outside world.
A lack of oxygen results immediately in anesthetic-like behavior. Time dilates, but you lose most sense of reality. Whereas falling into a black hole allows you to perceive the entire fate of the universe –assuming you don’t get shredded to pieces in the process—falling into death allows you to experience a lifetime that is independent of the outside world. Your journey onward is completely internal.
While there still might be sensory input (auditory, visual, etc.), you cannot label things and instead begin a descent into what we call the afterlife. The physiological components involved in this step are the NMDA-receptor (what we can refer to as the “reality receptor”) and its paired neurotransmitter, Glutamate. Essentially at this point, the NMDA-receptor is nonfunctional — which, by the way, is analogous to the behavior of anesthesia, though anesthesia accomplishes this in a slightly different manner— resulting in dissociative effects.
This also suggests that memory formation here is essentially blocked. Anyone who reaches this stage will likely not remember the experience clearly (such as someone who experiences a near-death experience). But again, the paradoxical time extension here results in the possibility for one to have a significant experience that seems to last a lifetime, in a matter of seconds.
Step Two: Rapid, Concrete Memory
Ironically, the cell death that follows oxygen depletion in the brain quickly has the exact opposite effect on the glutamate system. Cell death results in glutamate excitotoxity (too much glutamate in the synapses without a way to regulate levels of the neurotransmitter), which means that after your brain is shutoff from the world, it gets kicked into overdrive. This is fascinating to me because it is the cause of the most incredible event of introspection. Your mind is racing but, again, you can only look inward.
The brain courses through memories that might explain the experience. I believe it is sensible to suggest that it is not necessarily the great memories of life that come first (what many people would know as their life “flashing before their eyes”). Instead, the first memories to surface are interactions with experiences similar to death. The purpose of these memories is for the brain to figure out what in the hell is happening — death, after all, is an experience that is felt only once. My theory on this part is actually not based off of science at all (although I have read small amounts of scientific literature that make the same claim); rather, I recall having a dream of death once where I was on an airplane to the afterlife. On the flight, I was shown strange memories — things like having surgery, writing down my dreams, and extremely abstract shapes and images. It seemed sensible and fascinating to me, so I kept this mechanism in for my Diamondis, knowing it lacks the scientific evidence.
After these memories have come and gone, the brain sweeps through the other existing memories. In other words, your life flashes before your eyes. There, I said it. But don’t forget that this all has a purpose: the brain has no idea what is going on and is searching for a reason for, an expectation of, or a solution to this experience. There is a white tunnel that will soon be your destination. It is made up of the light that remains for your closing eyes, but it will not fade. It will grow as you begin to let go, but there is so much between you and your destination.
Step Three: Embrace and Wonder
The brain is equipped to quickly adjust to the glutamate excitotoxity, so a brief moment of clarity surfaces. For a moment (however long this moment seems to last), a person can sit and observe and potentially even exist in the world created by their memories. I associate this step with serotonin, which is a perceptive neurotransmitter commonly known to regulate many other neurophysiological systems. Serotonin regulates mood, who we are, and who we perceive ourselves to be. Take a moment and look back at your life in this moment of clarity.
Step Four: Persistence of Ancient Memories
I wrote in Diamondis that Tomas believes there is a reason for why people who experience near-death experiences see their angels. It does not have to be a religious meaning, and it is certainly not something that denies an atheist his/her right to skepticism. This is because, in the moment of death, angels are a product of science.
Serotonin has many important derivatives that have proved to be much better at activating lost physiological pathways in the brain. One of these compounds in dimethyl-tryptamine (DMT), and provides a very strong scientific argument for the existence of angels. DMT is a molecule that can potentially activate parts of the brain that store the earliest memories of childhood and perhaps even infancy. Users of the molecule (illegal, by the way) claim to feel in unison with “beings” who speak to them and promise to take care of them. The real-world translation for this is that the activation of ancient memories allows you the opportunity to see the world as you did before you truly understood the labels and names of objects and people. When you see an angel in death, what you are truly seeing is someone you loved who took care of you as a baby. In death, these memories are accessible. It could be due to an increase in concentration of powerful serotonin-like molecules, or due to the breakdown of regulatory systems. One way or another, I find this to be the most beautiful experience capable of a human being.
Step Five: Complete Dissociation
As described as a “narcotic bliss with a touch of insignificance,” this last step is the open-ended coda of death. Can we ever know what comes next? Only when we see for ourselves. Physiologically, however, when all the excitement of the brain sifting through absurd, sensible, and beautiful memories subsides, the dominant sensations are governed by the endorphins that have eased the pain all this time. Death is gentle, as you fade away. You do not fade to black, you fade to the white light you see at the end of the tunnel. Time stretches further onward, perhaps infinitely. Most importantly, you lose what it means to be human. With that you are free from your apprehension, pain, longing, and desire. You are a particle in an infinite time and space.
The final paradox is the simultaneous loss of time and loss of self. If the loss of time comes first, you are infinitely aware. If the loss of self comes first, you are infinitely void. If self and time are lost simultaneously, there is a paradox. I hope you will tell me what happens if you ever return.