In special effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull’s last directed film Brainstorm (1983), scientist Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) suffers a fatal heart attack while working on an experimental interface that allows first person experiences be recorded. Before she is completely incapacitated, she manages to turn on the computers and sensors and pull on the recording harness. She then dies, with the optical tape spooling a complete recording of the experience. Fellow scientist Michael Brace (Christopher Walken) manages to play back the recording after blocking out the physical feedback of the heart attach following a near fatal attempt to experience Reynold’s final top in raw form. The move ends with Brace realizing that the brain continues to experience thoughts, visuals, and sensations long after the body is clinically dead. Seems like something fantastic or manifest religious conviction? Perhaps–until now.
Doctors at NYU’s Langone School of Medicine conducted a study of laboratory animals and human patients who were clinically dead and resuscitated to see whether brain activity truly ceased with the cessation of cardiovascular function. Their results were surprising–rats with induced heart attacks showed high functioning brain activity for a brief time after the fact. And resuscitated patients were able to recount observations made after full cardiac arrest, where the subsequent cessation of lower brain stem activity was thought to result in instant death. These observations were corroborated by attending medical staff.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the study suggests that people in full cardiac arrest are aware that they are dead. The prospect of impending doom experienced by a helpless victim is unsettling to say the least.
Brainstorm projected a potentially rosier outcome than just fading to black after an final awful realization of impending dissolution. It wasn’t the horror predicted in the original Flatliners (1990), fortunately, but it was a minimalist take along the lines of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (1320), albeit with a significantly more positive spin. Let us all pray that it is so.