What happens when we die?

I’ve always been a cold, hard materialist on this one: the brain shuts down, consciousness fades away, and the lights go out. And beyond that, what else is there to say? I had no experience of life before I was born and I expect to have no experience of life after I die.

As best I can tell, that’s the most reasonable assumption we can make about death. But “most reasonable” does not mean “definitely true.” The life-after-death question is one of the oldest we have and there are all sorts of theories about how consciousness, in some form or another, might survive the death of the body. However unlikely these possibilities might be (and I do think they’re unlikely), they’re not impossible. So how seriously should we take them?

Sebastian Junger is a former war reporter, a documentarian, and the author of several books, including his most recent In My Time of Dying. A few years ago, Junger came as close as you possibly can to death. While his doctors struggled to revive him, he experienced things that rattled his understanding of reality and that left him with profound questions and unexpected revelations.

So I invited Junger on The Gray Area to talk about what it’s like to almost die and what he’s come to believe about life and death. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen to and follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pandora, or wherever you find podcasts. New episodes drop every Monday.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Sean Illing

What happened on the day you almost died?

Sebastian Junger

I was 58 years old. It was four years ago. I’ve been a lifelong athlete. My health is very good, so it never occurred to me that I would have a sudden medical issue that would send me to the ER or kill me. I had no thoughts like that about myself. 

One afternoon, it was during Covid, my family and I were living in a house in the woods in Massachusetts that had no cellphone coverage. It’s at the end of a dead-end dirt road. On the property is a cabin, no electricity or anything like that. 

We went out there to spend a couple of hours and mid-sentence I felt this bolt of pain in my abdomen and I couldn’t make it go away. I sort of twisted and turned. I thought it was indigestion, and I stood up and almost fell over. So I sat back down and I said to my wife, “I’m going to need help. I don’t know what’s wrong. I’ve never felt anything like this.”

What was happening, I later found out, was that I had an undiagnosed aneurysm in my pancreatic artery, one of several arteries that goes to the pancreas, and one of them had a bulge in it from a weak spot. And aneurysms are widow-makers. I mean, they’re really, really deadly, particularly in the abdomen, because it’s hard for the doctors to find them. 

If you’re stabbed in the stomach and an artery is severed, the doctors sort of know where to put their finger, as it were, to plug the leak, but if it’s just internal hemorrhage, your abdomen is basically a big bowl of spaghetti. It’s very, very hard to find it. 

So I was losing probably a pint of blood every 10 or 15 minutes, and there’s like 10 pints in the human body, 10 or 12 pints, so you can do the math. And I was a one-hour drive from the nearest hospital. I was a human hourglass, basically.

Sean Illing

What was the survival rate for your condition that day?

Sebastian Junger

The survival rate is as low as 30 percent, but I assume that that’s for a reasonable transport time to the hospital. It took me 90 minutes to get to a doctor. My survival chances were extremely low.

Sean Illing

So you’re in the hospital and there’s a moment when the surgeons and the nurses are working on you and they’re on your right side, and then on your left side there’s this pit of blackness and your father, who I think has been dead eight years at this point, suddenly appears. What happens next?

Sebastian Junger

The doctor was busy trying to put a large-gauge needle into my jugular vein through my neck. They numb you with lidocaine, so actually I didn’t feel much except the pressure. But at any rate, they were working on that and it seemed to take a long time and suddenly this black pit opened up underneath me and it felt as though I was getting pulled into it. 

You can think of me as extremely drunk. I’m like, “Whoa, what’s that?” It didn’t occur to me that a black pit suddenly appearing makes no sense. I was just like, “Oh, there’s the pit. “Why am I getting pulled into it?” 

I didn’t know I was dying, but I sort of had this animal sense that you don’t want to go into the infinitely black pit that just opened up underneath you, that’s just a bad idea. And if you get sucked in there, you’re probably not coming back. That was the feeling I had about it. 

I started to panic and that’s when my dead father appeared above me in this energy form. It’s hard to describe. I can’t describe what it was like. I just perceived him. It’s not like there was a poster board of him floating above me. It wasn’t quite that tangible. He was communicating this incredible benevolence and love. He’s like, “Listen, you don’t have to fight it. You can come with me. I’ll take care of you. It’s going to be okay.” 

I was horrified. I was like, “Go with you? You’re dead. I’m not going anywhere with you. What are you talking about? Get out of here!” I mean, I was horrified. And I said to the doctor, because I was conversant, “You got to hurry. You’re losing me. I’m going right now.” And I didn’t know where I was going, but it was very clear I was headed out, and I did not want to go.

Sean Illing

When you say communicating, what does that really mean? 

Sebastian Junger

I didn’t hear words, but I guess you would have to classify the communication as telepathic, and it was very specific. It was, “You don’t have to fight this. I’m here. I’ll take care of you. You can come with me.” Again, I’m a rationalist, but I’m a rationalist with questions. I wanted to know what that was. Was it just neurochemistry? 

When I woke up the next morning in the ICU, I was in a lot of distress and the nurse came in and said, “Wow, congratulations, Mr. Junger, you made it. We almost lost you last night. You almost died.” And when she said that, that’s when I remembered my father. I was like, “Oh my God, I saw my father, and I saw the pit,” and it all came rushing back to me

Sean Illing

The experience you had is not all that uncommon. This kind of thing gets lumped under the umbrella of “near-death experiences.” At this point, does science have a firm grasp on what’s going on here?

Sebastian Junger

Yes and no. I mean, there was a case where a man was dying. I think he’d had a stroke and they had electrodes attached to his skull to signal different brain activity to know how to treat him. And he passed some point of no return and the doctor said, “It’s okay, you can turn the machines off,” basically, but the sensors were still in place on his skull. So they had the chance to watch what was happening to the brain waves in real time as a person died. 

What they found was that in the 30 seconds before and after the moment of death — and of course death isn’t just confined to a single moment, it’s a spectrum — there was a surge in brain activity related to dreaming and memories and all kinds of other things.

So one of the things that might happen when people die is that they experience this flood of sensations from their life. Why would they? Who knows? It’s hard to come up with this Darwinian reason for why this might be adaptive when a person’s dying. It’s not a question of survival and procreation, and Darwinism is not concerned with emotional comfort. It just doesn’t matter in the Darwinian arithmetic, so it’s hard to know what to make of it.

Sean Illing

One of the medical paradoxes here is that people who are dying experience near-total brain function collapse, and yet their awareness seems to crystallize, which seems impossible on its face. Do scientists have an explanation for this? Is it even a paradox at all, or does it just seem that way?

Sebastian Junger

I don’t think anyone knows. Ultimately, no one even knows if what we perceive during life is true. I mean, it’s known at the quantum level that observing a particle, a subatomic particle, changes its behavior. And of course, when you observe something, it’s a totally passive act. You’re not bombarding it with something. You’re just watching. 

If a photon is sent through two slits and an impassable barrier, and it’s unobserved by a conscious mind, it will go through both slits simultaneously. And once you observe, it’s forced to pick one slit. So as the early physicists said, observation creates the reality that’s being observed, and then the snake starts to swallow its tail. 

Sean Illing

Science is great and we can map the neurochemical changes and I’m sure we can give a purely materialist explanation for them, but do you think it’s wise to leave it there or do you think there’s something just inherently mysterious about this that we’ll never quite understand?

Sebastian Junger

At one point, someone said to me, “You couldn’t explain what happened to you in rational terms. Why didn’t you turn to mystical terms?” And I said, “Because rational terms is what an explanation is.” The alternative is a story, and humans use stories to comfort themselves about things they can’t explain. I don’t choose to use the God story or the afterlife story to comfort myself about the unexplainable, which is what’s going to happen when I die. 

But there is one thing that really stood out to me. I bought all the neurochemical explanations. I bought the hard-boiled rationalist explanation that we’re purely biological beings when we die and that’s it and that the flurry of experiences that dying people have is just the dying brain frantically bombarding us with signals like, “What’s going on? Stop. Stop, stop, stop!” Except there’s one thing I don’t understand. 

If you give a roomful of people LSD, we know that 100 percent of those people will have hallucinations. We know why. We know how that works. There’s no mystery there. You don’t need God to explain that, but they’ll all hallucinate different things. And what’s strange about dying is that only the dying seem to see the dead. They do that in societies all around the world and have for ages. And the people who aren’t dying do not see the dead. And often, the dead are unwelcome and they’re a shock. It’s not some reassuring vision of Aunt Betty. 

It’s more like, “Dad, what are you doing here?” Or my mother, as she died, she saw her dead brother, who she was not on speaking terms with. When she saw him, she was horrified. She was like, “What’s he doing here?” And I said, “Mom, it’s your brother, George. You have to be nice to him. He’s come a long way to see you.” She just frowned and said, “We’ll see about that.” She died a day later.

So it’s not like these are comforting visions, and the fact that only the dying see the dead is the one thing that science can’t quite explain. It’s the one thing that really does make me wonder if maybe we don’t understand everything in scientific terms. Maybe there is something missing here that is very significant about how reality works, how life and death work, what consciousness is, and ultimately what the universe is.

Listen to the rest of the conversation and be sure to follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pandora, or wherever you listen to podcasts. 

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Author: Sean Illing