It sounds rather clichéd. Like something from a movie or a hackneyed novel.
That just before death, life flashes before one’s eyes.
The thing is, it might just be true.
That conclusion is one that has been reached following research in Jerusalem that suggests that, as our functions start to fail, the parts of the brain that store our memories are the last to be affected.
This can lead, scientists believe, to those fabled flashbacks, with life experiences re-lived and intensely-emotional moments replayed in our minds as the end approaches.
The research in question, those responsible say, shines a light on ‘a most intriguing mental phenomenon that [has] fascinated humans since time immemorial’.
Here at CPUK, we couldn’t be more intrigued.
It’s recognised, disappointingly, that those working in the caring professions can sometimes reduce another’s experience of mental illness to a checklist of symptoms, considering it little more than an intellectual exercise. This research underlines that it is so important not to fall into such a trap; that our emotions, experiences, and memories shape our lives and determine who we are; that these are the things that make us human.
Those taking part in the study, at Hadassah University, described losing all sense of time, their memories flying back at them from different periods in their lives and their own experiences re-lived through the eyes of others who had been involved.
People spoke about gaining a fresh perspective on events and the significant people in their lives. Researchers believe that the parts of the brain that store autobiographical memories (the prefrontal, medial temporal, and parietal cortices) are responsible for the phenomenon.
‘Re-experiencing one’s own life events, so called LRE, is a phenomenon with well-defined characteristics and its sub-components may also be evident in healthy people,’ concluded the study, published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. ‘This suggests that a representation of life-events as a continuum exists in the cognitive system, and may be further expressed in extreme conditions of psychological and physiological stress.’
It is this last part that has our interest piqued.
You see, psychiatry (in general and what we attempt to do at CPUK) is so often about solving problems, but we are all living in relationships and through emotions, influenced by our memories and experiences, and it is this that makes us the people we are.
The near-death experiences that the Jerusalem research is centred around have forced (or enabled) those involved to refocus and look at their lives in different ways, with a collective experience of memory/empathy prominent. Is this just the brain malfunctioning or is it that, at the point of death, a fundamental process or truth is revealed? No-one knows for sure, but perhaps we’ll all find out for ourselves one day.
In the meantime, it’s important for us all to see past mental illness and issues, to put the symptoms to one side for a moment and to see the individual, focusing on what it means to be that person, with all those experiences and emotions and memories.
There’s nothing clichéd or hackneyed about this. Far from it, in fact, we couldn’t be more fascinated.