Can Your Life Actually Flash Before Your Eyes? What We Know

No one really knows for sure what we might see or hear right before we die, but there are various theories surrounding this topic. Some say we feel peace right before we leave this world and others tell us we see loved ones who've gone before us. 

And then there's the theory that our entire life will flash before our eyes when the end is near — a life review of sorts. According to a 2022 study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, an 87-year-old man with epilepsy who was going through cardiac arrest while strapped to an electroencephalography (EEG) machine, showed oscillatory brain wave activity akin to memory recall for 30 seconds after his heart stopped beating. The incident was from 2016 and the patient died at Vancouver General Hospital in British Columbia, Canada (via CBC News). Dr. Ajmal Zemmar, lead author of the study and a neurosurgeon at the University of Louisville, told Insider that this finding was "rare" because "you can't plan this. No healthy human is gonna go and have an EEG before they die, and in no sick patient are we going to know when they're gonna die to record these signals." 

This is not the only study that looked into what people see and hear before they die. A 2023 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), done on four coma patients who were taken off life support, found that two of them — a 24-year-old woman and a 77-year-old woman — showed similar surges in brain activity. What do these dying patients see exactly? 

Is the flash a life review or is it something more?

The 2023 study found that it was the posterior cortical hot zone of the brain that showed a surge in brain-wave activity when someone's life was supposedly flashing before their eyes. Senior author of the research, Jimo Borjigin told AFP that a particular part of the patients' brains was "on fire." 

"If this part of the brain lights up, that means the patient is seeing something, can hear something, and they might feel sensations out of the body," added the researcher. 

While we might be inclined to think that what flashes before our eyes before we die is a short reel of sorts, containing a panoramic view of our lives in chronological order, Dr. Sam Parnia, a pulmonary medicine and critical care specialist and associate professor at the Department of Medicine at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, thinks that they're a lot deeper and meaningful than that (via New York Post). Parnia, who authored a 2022 consensus statement on the same subject involving 567 people who died of cardiac arrest and received CPR, shared with the New York Post, "People on the brink of death undergo a deep, purposeful, meaningful re-evaluation of all of their life that is focused on their thoughts, their intentions and their actions toward other people. What's fascinating is that they re-live everything that they've done, but actually not like a movie and not based on chronology." Is there a scientific explanation for what happens when life flashes before our eyes? 

It might be how the brain responds to being close to death

While some scientists are leaving the entire phenomenon in the realm of the unexplainable, there are others who are venturing out with some theories. 

According to Dr. Hayley Nelson, a neuroscientist and founder of The Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience (via Insider), there might be two theories, both having to do with things you never knew about your brain. "One theory suggests that oxygen deprivation during a life-threatening event can trigger the release of neurotransmitters like glutamate, causing neurons to fire rapidly. This heightened activity in the visual cortex might lead to the perception of vivid memories and images, potentially contributing to the phenomenon of life review," explained the neuroscientist. 

A second theory involves the amygdala — the part of your brain that's linked to your fight-or-flight response (which might be activated when we're near death) and is where emotional memories are stored. Per Dr. Nelson, "When faced with a life-threatening situation, the amygdala is automatically activated, and its involvement could prioritize memories linked to emotions such as fear, love, or regret. These memories, once retrieved, might be integrated with the ongoing experience, creating a subjective sense of reliving one's life." 

Perhaps, we'll never really know what happens in the final moments before death, but what we do know is that studies of this nature will keep us guessing until we arrive at an answer that feels most true to us.