When Are You Dead?

We all think we can tell the difference between someone who is alive and someone who is dead. We’re all pretty sure for example, that we ourselves are not dead. We can think, move, feel and breathe and that all seems to suggest we are among the living. Indeed that’s fairly given, but it’s identifying those who are not dead that is the problem and it might surprise you to learn that this is actually something that is a point of contention among philosophers, medical professionals, lawyers and psychologists.

What Is Death?

If you see someone and determine them to be dead this will often mean that you have done the normal checks – you have checked their pulse which indicates that their heart has stopped, and you will check their breathing. If these have stopped then you will consider the person to be dead.

However this might be to forget the fact that a person can be brought back from the brink with techniques such as CPR to restart the breathing etc. This can be possible after a variably long period of time, and means that just because someone’s heart has stopped, doesn’t mean that they are dead beyond return. In fact, in some rare cases individuals have been known to come ‘back to life’ in their coffins and in some cases there are often scratch marks found inside them when they are dug up. Likewise you couldn’t base life or death purely on the existence of a heartbeat, or otherwise you could install a mechanical pump into an individual who had otherwise died and classify them as alive.

In fact interestingly the cells in our body do not completely die for several weeks which seems to suggest that an individual could theoretically be returned to life should their heat rate be restored and should oxygen be returned to those cells (though it is worth mentioning that after just four minutes there is neurological damage to the brain). In fact then some people will therefore attempt to extend their lifespan by freezing their bodies cryogenically – freezing their cells so that they do not die, and thereby hoping that someone will one day be able to revive their bodies using future technology.

Much of the problem in defining death comes from the problems with defining life. A plant for example is alive yet seems to have none of the qualities of consciousness that we consider to be necessary for life. Currently in a permanent vegetative state, which seems to be the body operating without conscious awareness, a patient is considered alive, and their ‘right to die’ is a highly controversial topic. As such there are many debates and conferences still that try to find a universal state to call ‘death’.

Brain Death

In most countries however, death is considered to be indistinguishable from ‘brain death’ – brain death being a state in which a patient has no sign of brain activity on an EEG (electroencephalograph) or a CAT scan. In most areas of the world this is considered to be legal death, apart from a few such as New York and New Jersey in the US where it is require for the individual’s heart and lungs to have ceased function also. This then means that a person may be legally dead in one state of America but not in another. This demonstrates the confusion and controversy surrounding what death really entails.

Legal and Ethical Issues

Of course there are many legal and ethical issues surrounding the definition of death. Legal death means that legally that person no longer exists, and that it is no longer suitable to continue to attempt to provide medical support. The point of legal death is the point at which a life support system will be turned off, and is also the point at which an individual will be considered fit for organ donation.



2 Comments

  1. Very helpful!

  2. That was an amazing article, thank you!

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Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki is a full time writer who spends most of his time in the coffee shops of London. Adam has a BSc in psychology and is an amateur bodybuilder with a couple of competition wins to his name. His other interests are self improvement, general health, transhumanism and brain training. As well as writing for websites and magazines, he also runs his own sites and has published several books and apps on these topics.

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